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Buying and Selling Violas

      Buying or selling an instrument can be particularly stressful - especially with buying instruments online becoming more and more popular. This article aims to familiarize you with the main dangers and principals of buying and selling, as well as some tips and tricks to make buying or selling your viola as stress-free and risk-free as possible.

a viola buyers guide

If you are thinking about buying a viola, first ask yourself what kind of viola you need, and what price you are willing to pay. If you are just beginning, chances are you will just need a student viola. However, if you are buying for a younger player, check with a teacher or music store salesperson first as sometimes the viola will be too big for younger students to hold. In this case, most people will recommend learning on a smaller viola stringed with viola strings until you are able to hold the full size viola properly.

Here are our top tips for buying a beginners viola:

  • Look for sellers who guarantee the quality of their product, especially when buying online. Ask if the seller has a money back or swap policy if the viola is not up to standard.
  • As a rule, try to buy something that has a label in it or make sure the seller tells you where and when it was manufactured. Always ask when and where the instrument was made, so you have an idea of what kind of quality to expect.
  • You get what you pay for. If you are spending less than $100 on a viola, it will have a poor tone, and be harder to play than a more expensive model.
  • As a rule, avoid mass-produced violas, including anything made in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong etc. These tend to be unbalanced, have a horrible tone (meaning your playing will be extra scratchy) and are usually badly put together, making the viola harder to play than usual.
  • Ask for the height between the fingerboard and the strings - the higher this measurement, the harder the strings are to push down (and the harder it is to get a good sound.) 5-7mm or under is good, if it's more than a cm, don't buy it.
  • Check the feedback from other buyers, or ask for recommendations from a local teacher or professional. Don't buy from a website you are not familiar with.
  • Check the size! Adults need a full-size viola, whereas children should be sized by a professional. Violas are harder to size than violins, so it is advisable to get professional advice.

When upgrading your viola or bow to a more expensive model, remember to always, always get a professional opinion, and never set your heart on a viola before you get it valued. It may look fine on the outside, but could be damaged on the inside. (Or not worth the amount it would cost to repair.) Have a look at these general tips to make upgrading easier.

  • Always ask for valuation papers/get the seller to do a valuation for you. Make sure this is a professional valuation (ring the person/business who evaluated it to make sure they are qualified to value violas.) If there is any doubt in your mind the instrument is not up to standard, don't buy it.
  • Always try before you buy. Preferably for a few days/weeks, as you will not get a good feel for the viola otherwise. Check to see how the viola compares to others (including your own) Is the bow heavier (bad) or lighter? (good) Is the tone the same, or sweeter, or deeper? Is it easier to place the fingers on the fingerboard? Move positions? Play in high positions? Make sure you really think about every possible difference, and whether this difference suits you and your playing style.
  • Violas never depreciate in value (if you do not break them, and don't get duped into buying a viola for more than it is worth.) It is OK to upgrade several times if you need to, as long as you can find a buyer for your current viola, you will never loose out.
  • Check the balance point of the bow (should be around a quarter-couple of cm less than half of the way up the bow.)
  • Check the quality of the strings. Strings are expensive to replace, ask what brand of stings the seller has on the viola, if they are damaged, ask if the seller will replace them, or if the viola comes with a spare set of strings.
  • Don't buy if you can't try, or if they don't have a refund policy.

Musts for Sellers

an antique violin

It is important when selling a viola to know exactly what it is you are selling. If you have no idea, go and speak to an impartial expert or valuator who can give you an idea of what sort of price you should get for your instrument. Occasionally you will see advertisements for people seeking second-hand instruments for sale. Be warned!! Often these people are looking to make money off buying and selling - don't expect to get a reasonable price. If you have a viola hanging about in your attic, make sure you get someone to take a look at it. Even if the instrument looks to the naked eye to be in bad shape, if it is from a good viola maker you may be looking at several thousand dollars down the drain if you sell it at a garage sale or to a pawnshop. (as long as there is no major body damage, a viola can still be worth a lot.) Violas tend to look useless without strings pegs and a bridge, but all these things can be replaced at minimal cost, it is the body (and especially back) of the viola that is important in order to create the sound. If you want to fix up an old viola, it is a good idea to learn a little about things you can learn to do at home yourself (like restringing, bridge setting, etc) Have a look at our maintenance and restringing guide for step-by-step guides on how to string and maintain your instrument yourself. If you do know how much your viola is worth, but want to sell it on anyway,make sure you target your advertisements towards the right people - an add in your local newspaper may not attract much interest, but an online auction or listing at an auction house may target people who are actively looking to buy a viola.

Buying and selling instruments can be daunting, especially if you have a limited knowledge of the type of instrument you require. If in doubt, always seek a second opinion, as there will always be someone willing to rip you off. Above all, remember not to become too emotionally attached to an instrument you don't own, as there are others out there - with higher quality instruments there is less of a market available so the power of the sale and negotiation often lies with the buyer. Remember basic buying/selling security - always look into what it is you are actually buying/selling, as there is a lot of money to loose on both ends if you are not sure what reasonable pricing of an instrument is. Most of all, just remember to take your time, and learn as much as you can on the way. Happy hunting!


Written by Emma Hinge


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