What Makes a Fine Stringed Instrument “Fine?”

What Makes Fine Violins, Violas and Cellos 'Fine'?

Violins, violas, cellos and basses range in quality and price. Distinguishing between masterful luthiers’ instruments and those that are factory-built is easy.

There are different gradations of quality in musical instruments. And for every gradation, there is a player for whom it is the right instrument to purchase and play.

Of course, what gets all the press is the multimillion-dollar sales, usually at auction, of the very rare and very valuable violins from the long-dead luthiers. Fine Italian violins for sale always attract interest. Stradivarius violins are practically household names, and they can sell for as much as $16 million – which is what the 1721 Lady Blunt Stradivarius sold for in 2011. In 2022, the 1714 “da Vinci” Stradivarius sold for $15 million, while the 1731 Guarneri del Gesu “Baltic” violin sold for just a little less, $9.44 million just last year.

Note there are much lower-priced, lower-quality student violins for sale that are appropriate for beginning students and casual players. They are built by mass-production methods and provide an option for millions of players. The famous Sears catalogues of 100+ years ago sold mass-produced violins for as little as $3, which brought fiddle music to even the most remote outposts in America – important in a time before recorded music was available.

But importantly, stringed instruments (including violas, cellos, and basses) don’t have to be 300 years old to be defined as “fine.” And some are made today by skilled artisans who spend many years in training and apprenticeships, learning the skills and artistry of generations of luthiers who precede them – going back to the time of Stradivarius, Guarneri, Amati, and others.

There are gradations of what is made and what is affordable to the player, fortunately. Students who show promise and ambition to be very good as violinists, cellists, bassists, or violists should expect to buy a contemporary or antique instrument priced in the $2,000 to $10,000 range. A professional might spend anywhere from $40,000 up to $100,000 – more if in the echelons of Itzhak Perlman, Hilary Hahn, Midori Goto, Ray Chen, or Bomsori Kim – for a notable instrument.

And what exactly are the characteristics that define these higher-value instruments, in addition to the fact they are handmade by skilled, renowned craftsmen?

Sound quality: A fine instrument will have clearly superior rich, complex sound, and are adjustable by professional luthiers to help individual players find their signature sound.

Material quality: Better violins are made with hand-selected woods (spruce, maple, ebony), along with carefully applied and selected glues and varnishes. The aging of those woods might take a decade after harvesting before being used to build a violin.

Craftmanship: It can take months and sometimes years to build a great stringed instrument. And that’s after years of education, which includes an understanding of such things as acoustics, varnishing techniques (which can affect the sound), and of course how to play the instruments.

Appearance: The handmade fine violin will always be recognizable on sight. Aside from the intricacies of the top of the instrument (the neck, fingerboard, pegs, and strings), the back plate is often “flamed” for a dramatic visual effect.

A fine instrument can maintain or increase in value, depending on its condition and care, if proper documentation is maintained (e.g., provenance), if market demand remains strong – and if the instrument is rare, particularly after the luthier has completed a finite collection of work (i.e., has retired or expired).