Rickert and Ringholz have written a good rant about Chinese fiddles – with some interesting notes about their construction – but makes sense when you see the high gloss on those instruments. I guess the key thing in buying any instrument is what it sounds like – and the cheapies quickly show their lack of pedigree with often a woeful sound that would not encourage a beginner to go any further.

I will confess to owning a Chinese solid-body electric violin that I bought in Beijing when on tour there a couple of years back – and the electrics are not bad. But that is a solid-body instrument that I have since heavily modified to reduce its weight – it was solid MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard) and certainly not aimed at being a high quality acoustic instrument. [yes I routed out the main body, and used a bandsaw to remove much of the heavy skeleton shape in order to make it playable without it feeling like a millstone].

The key thing is whether or not it is fit for its purpose – and many are not. You can buy reasonable student-quality second-hand hand-finished instruments for about the price of a Chinese fiddle so there is no real reason to resort to playing a really bad acoustic instrument. Actually, let me qualify that. If you have bought a reasonable instrument but the case has fallen apart – the Chinese fiddles usually come with a reasonable case, and sometimes a tuner and shoulder rest that together would cost less than if you just bought the case!

Where I do buy cheap is bows – I can get a straight average bow for less than the cost of re-hairing a bow. Horsehair is horsehair and they do the job for me – but then I play in folk festivals in all weathers, play in pubs where the clientele are not too fussy about where they fall over or spill their drinks, and drive the bow hard enough to go through bow-hair at a prodigious rate. If you are just playing at home or in climate-controlled auditoriums then by all means buy a really decent bow and delight in its balance and spring.

So let me add my rant to those at Rickert and Ringholz Instruments – choose your instrument carefully and it will make even an average fiddler sound good – it will also make learning the instrument easier, because a good quality instrument will ring when you’ve hit the notes in tune – so it will help your intonation, whereas a bad instrument can make your practice sessions harder than they need to be.