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Beethoven and Bach may be the OGs when it comes to using violins in their music, but don’t chalk up the four-stringed instrument to a relic of the past. These days, everyone from U.K. dance act Clean Bandit, to rapper Kanye West employ the use of violins in their songs, whether to guide the melody or to help drop the beat.
For John Sinclair, the violinist and lead singer of the dreamy pop act Saint Claire, a violin may not be the first instrument people pick up, but once they do, it’s hard to put down.
“Violin is tough, but that’s also what makes it special,” he says. “There’s a reason you don’t see many violinists outside of the classical sphere, because it’s a hard instrument to master and apply to other genres at will. And that’s why it’s beautiful – when you pick up the violin, especially for the first time, it fights back. You form a deep, unique connection with an instrument like that.”
While some violins have been passed down for generations, and others run into the thousands of dollars, you can also find decent alternatives these days online. While most people start out with acoustic axes (like the ones on our list), there are other types of violins too. “Do you need an electric violin so you can plug into an amp and rock out? Or do you need a beautiful acoustic, so you can serenade without a speaker?” Sinclair asks. “Make sure you’re getting what you need.”
Once you’ve determined the type of violin you want, it’s helpful to consider the material the instrument is made with and also how well it’s put together. “I always look at the bridge (the delicate piece of wood that holds the strings over the fingerboard) and look to see how well the notches for the strings have been placed,” says Sinclair, who is also a professional violinist in the studio and on the road with Macklemore. “I’ll always look at the tuning pegs as well and put some new peg grease on them. But of course, always listen for the tone first – if you don’t like the sound, there’s no point.”
One more piece of advice: “Rosin your bow,” he says. “New players always forget this, but you should rosin it vigorously.” Most bows are made from real horsehair, which looks great when it’s smooth and silky. But for the bows to really “grip” the strings on your violin, you actually want the horsehair to have some texture and “stickiness” on it. That’s where the rosin comes in.
As with any instrument though, the most important thing to consider is how the violin makes you feel. After all, music is only partly technical; you also hear sounds and songs differently depending on how you connect to them.
“Every individual violin has a unique tone, but there’s an axe for everyone,” says Sinclair. “My teacher told me stories of her parents forcing her to pick violins they thought sounded ‘appropriate,’ and that broke my heart. After playing and experiencing and even shattering quite a few violins, I can honestly say the one that speaks most to you will always sound the best in your hands.”
1. Cecilio Ebony Fitted Violin
This 4/4 full-size violin is made with a solid spruce wood top, ebony fingerboard, and maple back, neck and sides. It’s then finished in an antique varnish for a polished, professional look.
Strung with D’Addario Prelude Strings, the violin is easy to play and set up. Sound is clear, consistent and resonant, with bright and warm tones. Most importantly, the violin stays in tune.
This set includes the violin, storage case, chromatic tuner (that doubles as a metronome), two bows with unbleached genuine Mongolian horsehair, a rosin cake, adjustable shoulder rest, and an extra bridge.
PROS: Rich, warm, professional sound.
CONS: Does not include extra set of strings.
2. Kennedy Violins Bunnel Student Violin
This full-size violin is hand-finished in Washington state and made from naturally-dried solid maple wood and tight-grained spruce from the Himalayas.
Rather than applying a glossy lacquer over the instrument, this violin is treated with a hand-rubbed oil finish, which gives it a more traditional look and feel.
This set comes with a genuine Mongolian horse hair bow (with black leather grip), shoulder rest, extra strings, rosin, clip-on tuner, intro to violin book, and a durable case that includes a hygrometer for measuring humidity.
The violin also comes pre-tuned, so it’s ready to start playing right away.
PROS: Case includes a hygrometer.
CONS: Sound won’t be as rich or detailed as a Cecilio.
3. Mendini Solid Wood Satin Antique Violin
A great pick if you’re just starting out with the instrument, this full-size violin is made with a spruce top and maple back and sides, then finished in a “satin antique” varnish.
This is a super durable violin that holds up over time. The strings are easy to finger and sound is warm and mellow. Some say it took them a little bit of time to tune the violin at first, but once set-up, the instrument stayed in tune and delivered consistent sound quality.
This set includes a Brazilwood bow with unbleached genuine Mongolian horsehair, rosin, adjustable shoulder rest, two bridges, extra set of strings and a lightweight case.
PROS: A sturdy, durable violin that’s easy to play.
CONS: Sound won’t be as rich or resonant as other models on this list. Some say the finishings on the violin seemed cheap.