Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves

A Customer’s Guide to Identifying the Unscrupulous

Unfortunately, the business of instrument repair and sales has its share of—shall we say unprincipled practitioners whose main goal is to separate you from your nest egg.  Assessing the integrity of a violin shop can be a challenge, but here are a few pointers:

1. What is the condition of the shop and showroom?

It may seem obvious, but first impressions matter.

A messy shop is a red flag—a reflection of the level of care and respect your instrument will receive while there.  It’s been said that a messy desk is a sign of creativity, but don’t fall for that.  A messy desk is a sign of disorganization and lack of respect for the craft of instrument repair, your instrument and, ultimately, you.

2. Does your repairperson listen to you?

You are the customer and what you have to say matters. Beware the over-talking repairperson whose motive is to  derail your reasoning, only to suggest extensive (read expensive)–and often unnecessary—repairs.  A reputable repairperson will offer a customer options.

3. Who, exactly, is going to perform your repairs?

It’s okay to ask.  You have a right to know if your instrument will be cared for by a qualified repairperson, a novice, or a student.  Basic, minor repairs might well be handled by a repairperson-in-training, provided the work is supervised and inspected by an experienced professional.  Complex repairs are, of course, better left to those with extensive experience and expertise.   If you have any doubt as to the integrity of a repair shop, ask about the training and experience of its repair staff.  Also, a reputable shop will happily oblige you with references.

4. Keep a keen ear for the common ruse.

For over thirty years customers have been coming to me with tales of questionable—and downright deceitful—treatment encountered at other shops.  I’ve compiled a list of the most common tactics intended to deceive:

“You should be playing on a better instrument.”

While this may be true, beware that flattery can be a ploy.  Ask yourself if you came to this shop intending to purchase a new instrument.  Remember, upwards of 30% of an instrument’s tone is the result of its adjustment—including the bridge, sound post, and strings.  With proper adjustment, your own instrument’s tone and playability just might surprise you.

Justifying exorbitant repair costs

This is a big one.  Recently, while shopping around for repair estimates, a customer was quoted a cost of several hundred dollars for various repairs to a violin worth—at most–$250.00.  She was told the violin would be worth well over $1,000.00 once the repairs were completed, which, sadly, was simply not true.

Don’t be taken in by this age-old trick.  Know the approximate value of your instrument beforehand.  Of course you will maintain your instrument’s value with professional repairs, but you already know this—it’s why you are having it repaired in the first place.  Proper maintenance will make your instrument more playable, and therefore more valuable—to you.  If you suspect the quote for repair work is unjustifiable, it’s always best to get another opinion.  Ask your teacher or colleagues to refer you to a reputable shop.

“You’ll need to leave the instrument here for a few days for an estimate.”

While this can’t always be avoided, given the shop’s workload, make it clear that no work is to be performed before you’ve approved the estimate.

It happens a lot:  A customer is told he must leave his instrument for a work estimate, only to be told later that the shop “did him a favor” and managed to “fit the instrument in” due to an unexpected break in the repairperson’s schedule.  Now the work is done and the bill is high.  What about the estimate?  Too late.

Buzzes, Rattles and Wolfs, Oh My!

Those niggling little noises are not only frustrating, they can also be an open door for price gouging.

Generally these noises fall into two categories:  metallic-sounding, and woody sounding.  Metallic buzzes and rattles can usually be traced to the fingerboard, tailpiece, chinrest, or tuner, and commonly require only modest adjustments and inexpensive repairs.

A “woody” buzz may indicate an open seam around the instrument’s perimeter, or perhaps a loose fingerboard, both repairable from the exterior.

Occasionally—and only after eliminating the above as possible culprits—an irregular woody noise will warrant an interior repair.   Cracks, loose linings, ribs, end blocks, and bass bars are some of the items that may require the removal of the instrument’s top or back, a complex—and expensive–undertaking.

Be wary of the repairperson who is quick to prescribe an interior repair, when a less invasive (and much less costly) repair may be all that is necessary.

Labels, labels—who’s got the labels?

A Chinese Strad?  A German Guarneri?  For the most part, labels today mean very little unless accompanied by an authenticating certificate.  The mislabeling of instruments goes back hundreds of years.  While it’s true that some mislabeling was meant to intentionally deceive the buyer, the vast majority of labels were designed as a means of identifying from which maker, model and/or style the instrument was copied.

Given today’s global marketplace, instruments made in countries such as Romania, Germany, China and Italy are distributed worldwide.  They range in quality from excellent to, well, not so good.  Even the wood used in instrument making is difficult to source—woodcutters today sell on the open market and once the wood leaves the cutter’s warehouse, it’s hard to tell where it will end up.

So if you are thinking of buying a new instrument, don’t be taken in by its label.  Chances are, it’s merely identifying the model of instrument.  Of course, if you are investing in an instrument by a known maker, certificates of authenticity should accompany the sale and the label inside the instrument should be intact.

A new twist on the “bait and switch”

Here’s one for you.  A customer made an appointment with a well-known shop to look at instruments for sale.  After trying several instruments, the customer was unable to choose an instrument.  Suddenly the shop owner “remembered” an instrument he was about to send out to another customer. The instrument–handily retrieved from a shipping box—held a price tag slightly higher than the customer’s given price range.  (Red flag!)

The shop owner said, “ If you like this one, I’ll call the customer and tell them the instrument is no longer available.”  This was a set-up designed to appeal to the “I’ll get it first” factor.  Instead of falling for this, the customer—put off that the shop owner would sell an instrument out from under another customer—took his business elsewhere.

Profiling happens

Unless instrument prices are posted, how can you be sure you will be paying the same price as the next customer?  The truth is, you can’t.  Unfortunately, instrument shops are notorious for shifting prices on the fly—based on anything at all, from the business of the day to the car you pulled up in, your manner of dress, your profession—even your name.  The solution?  Take your business to a reputable shop that displays established pricing.

5. Channel your inner skeptic.

Finally, trust your instincts.  If your radar detects unseemly practices, change course and seek higher ground. As in any trade, there are those practitioners who will take advantage, given the opportunity.  On the other hand, there are also many dedicated luthiers who pride themselves in their service and integrity–the challenge is in determining which is which.   Armed with a little background knowledge and a discerning nature, you will be able to search out a reputable violin shop with which you can develop a lasting, rewarding relationship.



Hershey Violins

11 West Main Street
Mechanicsburg, Pa 17055

Shop Hours:

Tue. thru Fri: 11am – 5pm
Saturday: Noon until 3pm
Other hours by appointment
call: 717. 697. 6341