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Choosing a String Shop


When it comes to venturing into the violin world — whether renting, buying or learning to play — many people are often left feeling overwhelmed and painfully uninformed, and possibly even victimized. While the number of skilled private luthiers and quality string shops has never been higher, the consuming public’s access to reliable and unbiased information remains disconcertingly low. Even teachers and professional players whom one would assume to be well-informed often concede that they are baffled by instruments other than their own.

This puzzling contradiction has a simple explanation. String players and luthiers live a symbiotic existence. It takes decades of consistent day-to-day effort in either field to become accomplished. This often leads to a kind of happy ignorance of the depth of experience in each respective field. As the string player matures, they will find their way to the string technicians that matches their instrument and their personality. This is a very personal relationship that can last for decades; very much like the one we have with our physicians. It is not uncommon for professionals, even after having settled in a city for 10 years, to put off basic maintenance and servicing of their prized instruments until they are able to go to their “home” shops where they have been going since they were students. This cozy arrangement works great for established players who already have their long-term instruments and bows.

For the newcomer, the world of stringed instruments is a murky one, full of myths and half-truths. The best defense is to be informed about the basics and then compare what you know with what you are told.

As with all businesses, from the corner gas station to the grocery store, a violin shop has to earn a profit in order to stay in business. If you want them to be there to service your instrument and have an A-string available in a hurry when you break yours an hour before the concert, you should be willing to shop there. Sure, it’s possible that you can save a few dollars buying from a catalog or online (check shipping costs!). Local shops will habitually stock the items you want only if they sell. It’s your buying habits that determine the inventory of your local merchant. The question then arises; how much is too much?

There are clues that can help you understand a little bit about the business’ policies and whether their primary concern is in providing a service to their customers or just selling products and making money. Believe it or not, some music stores believe it is normal to consistently make 100% and sometimes 200% profit on the items they sell. These tend to be large chain stores selling pre-packaged name brand goods with very little or no emphasis on “in-house” service. Generally, family-owned string shops work on a 35% margin although there are notable exceptions. Try to avoid shops that seem negative or condescending.

Without question, the best person to assist you in finding a shop where you can feel comfortable and be assured of adequate and professional service is your teacher. If you’re not working with a teacher, ask other players and listen to what they say. In the absence of friendly advice, the following tables show a list of questions and possible answers that may help you judge whether a merchant is going to be your best choice. Generally speaking, the best way to find out about a dealer is to ask lots of questions. These should get the ball rolling and help you get a feel for how well you will get along.

For ease of understanding and because of space limitations, we will use violin-related prices to establish our benchmark.

What to Ask Before
You Choose a Shop

1st Choice

2nd Choice

Never

What do they charge for Dominant violin strings? $50-60 $60 + installation Over $70
How long to rehair a bow? 1-2 days or
by appointment
7 days (in-house) 1 Week + (off-site)
Cost to fit a new bridge?
(Full size violin)
Student $65
Prof. $125+
Student $75-100
Prof. N/A
“Self-fitting” bridges only
Take trade-ins? (sold by them) 80% purchase price 50% or less No trades
Take trade-ins? (sold by others)
*Price range is always a factor
Wholesale minus Reconditioning

Never Never
Teacher recommends the shop? Unconditionally Sometimes Not sure/ Never heard of them
How do they portray other shops or products? Supportive/
Curious
Skeptical Negative

Online Shops

Instrument trials or 100% refund (for any reason)

No trials. Limited warranty. Limited refunds.

Purchase only.
No warranty. No returns.


Many people choose to rent an instrument for their first experience in music. This makes financial sense for the first six months to 1 year, but soon the quality of most rental instruments will offset the student's progress and you should move into owning an instrument with the understanding that you can trade up as you grow out of each size. Dealers will have a variety of policies. It is likely there will be restrictions and incentives to encourage your continued business. Often, the store where you first rent your violin will be the most tempting to purchase from as well. Be careful here because you want to be sure they have the staff and expertise to take care of you when you work your way into a really good instrument.

Questions About Rental Programs

1st Choice

2nd Choice

Never

Do they offer rental credit toward later purchases 100% 80% Partial No
Does rental credit apply to regular discounted price? Yes Restrictions List prices
Are you locked into buying the rental instrument? No Yes Yes
Does the rent start low, then change rates over time? No Yes Yes
Are there (required) protection and maintenance clauses that raise rental charges but don’t apply to purchase credit? No Small Yes


One final thing. There has been a lot press recently about teachers having a commercial interest or relationship with dealers. This is far less common than is portrayed. However, it does bring up an important concept. That is, if your teacher takes time outside of your lesson to help you select an instrument, pay them. Pay them at the same rate as the lesson; after all, they could be home teaching and earning their living. Every minute you spend with them while they could be teaching a lesson is money out of their pocket. They will never tell you this, but I will. Don’t take advantage of them no matter how nice they are and how much they profess not to need the money. The truth is that they earn their livings exchanging hours for dollars and any time they’re not teaching, it's costing them money.


Order your rental instrument online now!