The $50 Ebay Fiddle Outfit - A Review
Here is a question I get sometimes:
“Hi, I just bought a cheap fiddle outfit off Ebay. It was only $50 and that included shipping and a cruise to the Bahamas. I opened the case. It looks a mess. Did I get ripped off? Do these cheap fiddles really work?”
In the interest of science and consumer awareness, I bit the bullet, loosened the ties on my Paypal account and bought one of those extraordinarily colored cheap fiddle outfits. Mine is GREEN! That and a bunch of other brilliant colors were about all that was available the night I went a-Ebay-ing.
It was cheap - fiddle, bow and case - but-wait-there's-more! - a replacement E string and a block of rosin - but-wait-there-even-more!! - TWO straps for the case - a belt to wear with your suspenders, as they say. Cool. It got here in under a week.
My son, who couldn't wait for me, opened it right away. “Hmm. A green fiddle. It looks broke.” And it did. The strings were all loose. The bridge was not on it. Some hair was loose and falling off the bow and a tuner peg had fallen off. I am somewhat of an expert on Internet bargains so listen up. Here's how to deal with that cheap fiddle outfit you just got or might be thinking of buying.
The fiddle I got was not “set up.” That would have cost considerably more. For people who prefer that - no problem. But for those that go a-bargain hunting for whatever reason - here's what you will need to do with that Ebay brand new fiddle outfit to get it up and running.
Take all the strings off the fiddle. Sometimes they have been wound on backwards, sometimes backwards and forwards. It's best to have them all winding in the same direction. Take them off. Set them aside.
Take each peg out one at a time. As you do, clean each one with a piece of fine sandpaper. Clean out the peg holes the same way. Put each individual peg back into the hole it came out of. My peg holes were green from overspray so I cleaned off the paint. That would cause problems later on if the weather got humid. Some day you may want to apply some peg dope. Or just run a pencil up and down the peg.
The bridge was not fitted. It was a blank which means it was brand new, un-sanded and un-carved.) I knew it was not fitted because the feet did not fit flat against the surface of the fiddle. To have a bridge fitted you could take it to a Luthier (aka: highly trained violin repair person who knows more than you do.) It will cost $35- $75. Or you can buy a self-fitting bridge for about $11. Get a “low” one. The action was high on this green fiddle I got. I suspect this may be the rule not the exception for these.
If you like to tinker, go ahead and fit the bridge yourself. Lots of fiddlers like to tinker with their bridges on their own. Get a piece of #220 sandpaper, tear off a piece, and with one hand hold it flat on the fiddle surface between the F holes. Grip the top of the bridge nice and solid in the other hand and slowly but surely move the bridge back and forth (from fingerboard to tail) until the feet of the bridge fit the curved shape of the top of the fiddle. I took the feet on mine down quite a bit because I like a somewhat low action.
One of the fine tuner screws had come off my fiddle tailpiece in transit from China. I found it in the case and screwed it back in.
Line your strings up from fattest to thinnest: G-D-A-E (these are the names of the strings - not an arbitrary thing - these are actually the notes that they will be tuned to for standard tuning.)
Get your bridge. Take a look at it. One side will be lower than the other side. The lower side is for the E string which is the right side as it sits on your fiddle. The higher side is for the G string - left side or chinrest side. There are tiny slots in the bridge. This may be where your strings go (this sometimes needs adjusting. No problem. Just put your strings where they should go and the pressure from tuning them will make grooves in the bridge.)
Get your G string.
Put the wire end of the string through the tiny hole in the G peg - closest one to you and on your left as you look at the fiddle (make sure you're looking at it right way `round.) Put the thing at the other end of the string in the fine tuner slot. Wind the peg away from you with the winding going toward the “cheek” or left side of the peg box. Neatness counts.
Wind it tight enough to put just a wee bit of tension on the string - enough to hold the bridge up.
Now do the same thing with the A string.
Now the D string.
Now the E string.
The feet of the bridge are placed between notches in the F-holes. Or more importantly - the E string foot is placed ¼” in front (toward the fingerboard) of the sound post (little dowel of wood inside the fiddle.) Let's hope it didn't fall down in transit from China - but if it did - you will have to stand it back up. I defer to the experts here because the few times I've had to reset a sound post I have become incredibly frustrated and probably didn't do it right anyway. Take it to someone who knows how to do this. This doesn't usually cost very much especially if you refer to your instrument as a fiddle when asking for a price and not a violin.
As you try to tighten the strings you may find that the pegs slip. Push them in a bit. You may wonder why fiddle pegs aren't like guitar pegs - but this is how they come. It's just something we fiddlers have to put up with. The fiddle I got would not stay in tune. No amount of pushing the pegs into their holes would make them hold. One thing I noticed was that the holes were drilled too close to the ends of the pegs. As the peg was pushed in to make it hold, the strings squeezed under the peg box wood. Not a good thing. You could re-drill the pegs with a tiny drill (I've done this and I'm no genius) or get new pegs fitted. Ka-ching! Price just went up some more. Since I had planned to play this fiddle outside in cold weather and need for them to hold I bit a bigger bullet and ordered a set of Schaller self-tightening pegs and installed those. Cost: $25. Ka-ching! The price for my cheap fiddle went up a little more.
Now tune up your fiddle! Hold it away from your face - just in case the manufacturer cut corners on the glue.
Get your bow. Try it out. Most likely no sound will come from your fiddle but don't go giving bad feedback just yet. Get out that little block of rosin. Get your sandpaper. Sand off the top of the rosin (that's the yellow stuff in the block that's in your case) until you have worked up a powder. Turn the screw at the end of the bow. One way loosens the hair - the other way tightens it. Make it a wee bit tight - about a half inch from the stick at the middle.) Wipe the rosin up and down the hair. Try it. Keep doing this until you get a sound from your strings.
My cheap bow was crooked. I held it out. Looked at it. It kind of slanted off to one side. So I bent it the other way. It more or less straightened up then it went right back the way it was. Playing with a crooked bow is akin to driving with a flat tire. It can be done - but it ain't easy! One can re-shape a bow by holding it the way you want it to be and heating it or a stove burner. An old-timer showed me this trick. I wouldn't suggest doing it with a really good bow but you don't have much to lose with the bow that comes with the $50 fiddle outfit. This will only work if the bow is made of wood. If it's made of fiberglass, it's probably ok. They're born straight. As I looked at the bow while it was somewhat slack, I could see some very loose hairs. I cut these off with scissors. The bow I got ended up being really bad. The grip fell off. The stick was too crooked to deal with. The “silver” winding was baling wire covered with Scotch tape. The hair was loose no matter what. I used it to stake a tomato plant and bought a fiberglass bow for this outfit. Ka-ching! Up went the price. However, you may get lucky and get a usable bow with your outfit.
Even with the bridge fitted and lowered, the action on this fiddle was still too high so I loosened each string one at a time and ran a piece of folded sandpaper in the groove at the nut. I lowered the action a little more this way.
Then I ran a pencil (graphite - for slip and slide) in the groove.) Do this. Do this anyways every time you change strings. Graphite is good for fiddle string grooves on both bridge and nut.
The action was still too high. Now comes the real tweaking. There are many thoughts on this - so go get your internet hiking boots on and search “fitting a bridge.” What I did with this green fiddle was nick out the groove where the string crosses the bridge so that the height of each string was the same height as the strings on my GOOD FIDDLE are from the end of the fingerboard. I marked where the strings would go then sanded off the top of the bridge to get rid of the deep notches.
So far. So good. The green fiddle works! It was a real hit in the St. Patrick's Day Parade this year! It sounds half way decent. Nothing has sprung loose and hit me in the face yet. It's got enough paint on it from the factory that I doubt weather will affect it much. I may paint a fancy design on it. May not. Don't know.
If something buzzes when you play - check for any loose parts. Check the chinrest. If it is loose at all - tighten it. Put a pointed object (I use a paper clip) in one of the holes on the holders and turn it. Tighten down all the knobs on the tailpiece fine tuners just enough so that they are not loose. Just to be on the safe side, check to see if a big Chinese bug hasn't stowed away inside the fiddle. Ya' never know.