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Buying a Viola: What to Know

Viola Breakdown

Viola Diagram

An essential part of the symphony orchestra, the viola consists of 4 strings that create tones a fifth lower than a violins corresponding strings. Somewhat larger than a violin, the viola is associated often with classical music. Although they are usually found in string quartets and orchestras, violas are also used occasionally in classic, indie and folk rock music.

Available in numerous sizes, younger players normally trade in their violas for larger ones as they grow and progress with the instrument. It's crucial that a younger player has a viola that fits their stature, for a viola that's too big can lead to troublesome situations such as tendonitis. Violas with a length of 15 inches or more are considered to be 4/4 size or full size.

Viola Categories

Student Violas

Normally made by machine, student violas are crafted specifically for beginners. Maple is occasionally used for high-friction parts like the pegs and fingerboards, but it is dyed black to look like ebony, which is normally found on violas. Student violas are quite affordable, and superb for players still in the early stages.

Intermediate Violas

The quality and workmanship of an intermediate viola is higher than a student viola, and they're crafted mostly (if not entirely) by hand. For this reason, they sound better, and in some cases they're even used at more advanced levels. The pegs and fingerboards are typically constructed with ebony, and extensive hand graduation of the violas top and back creates a warmer, sophisticated tone.

Professional Violas

Crafted from only the finest woods, an extraordinary amount of attention to detail is to a professional violas construction. Due to the rare amount of skilled craftsman, along with the high quality of materials used to make a professional viola, they're typically quite expensive.

Body Materials

Spruce

For the top of a viola, only straight-grained spruce is used. Since most of a violas sound comes from the top of the instrument, a naturally aged, straight-grained spruce is the only material firm enough to handle the strings heavy attention, and ensure a rich sound. Five years is the minimum age preferred of viola makers, but the longer the natural aging, the better.

Maple

To enhance a violas stability and beauty, the sides, neck and back are typically constructed with maple.

Ebony

To ensure that a viola doesn't feel top heavy, a strong yet light wood is needed for the pegs, tailpiece and fingerboard. For this reason, ebony is the preferred choice.

Other woods

To enhance a violas beauty and sound characteristics, exotic woods such as rosewood and boxwood are sometimes used for the pegs, chinrests, and tailpieces.

Viola accessories

To make playing easier, accessories like rosin, strings, and a quality shoulder rest are ideal choices for any viola player. A sturdy case and practice mute are also great options to consider.

Anatomy of a Viola

Scroll

An ornamental piece on a violas top.

Pegs

Typically crafted from a very dense wood. These are used to adjust string tension, for tuning purposes.

Peg Box

These sit between the nut and scroll to secure the violas pegs. Holes on both sides of the peg box are tapered to make tuning easier.

Neck

Normally crafted from a quality hard maple. A lot of stress is placed on the neck. In fact, proper tuning can put around 200 pounds of tension on the neck alone.

Fingerboard

Glued at the top of the neck, the strings are pressed against this long, dense and stiff wood. Meant to add strength to the neck and keep it from warping. Quality fingerboards are made from ebony, and scooped inward towards the center.

Bridge

The viola bridge stays in place solely by tension, and is higher where the lowest string crosses. For proper sound transmission, quality bridges are hand-fitted against the body.

F-hole

For a freer response, two holds are cut in the top of a viola. This also allows sound to be projected from the instruments interior.

Tail piece

Generally for cosmetic purposes, the tailpiece is made of the same material as the pegs and endpin, but any dense material will do.

Tail Gut

These were originally made from animal intestine. Now, tail guts are made from nylon, and are meant to hold the tension from the violas strings into the button, over the saddle.

Button

Located at the bottom of a viola, this small button-like feature holds the tail gut.

Sound Post

Found on the inside of the frame, the sound post delivers vibration from the top to the back, and offers structural support.

Bass Bar

A long piece of wood that's glued under the lowest string, inside the frame. The bass bar disperses sound over the violas entire length, and strengthens the structural support of the top.

Chin Rest

For proper fit, your jaw should actually rest against the chinrest, and your chin should be close to the tailpiece. Chinrests come in a multitude of heights, shapes and sizes to suit different levels of comfort, and by purchasing a set of longer barrels, they can be easily adapted for the instrument.

Viola Construction

Hand Crafting

Manufacturers employ stringed instrument makers (known as "luthiers") depending on their level of experience. Building a viola is an artistic endeavor as much as it is a scientific one, and it requires a certain level of patience and skill. For this reason, less experienced luthiers normally work on less-expensive, student violas. However, as their experience increases, so does the level of viola they craft.

Set-Up

To prepare the viola so that it plays at its greatest potential, manufacturers employ "setup" technicians. Responsibilities of the setup musicians include adjusting proper depth and shape of the notches at the nut and bridge, the shaping and shaving of various components, precise fit and finish of pegs, and tuning.

Flaming

To further enhance the beauty of a stringed instrument, a technique called "flaming" is used. Flaming is meant solely to improve the instruments visual appeal, and will not necessarily improve the sound quality.

Book-Matched

Constructed from two pieces of wood that are glued together, instrument backs are commonly "book-matched". While this doesn't necessarily enhance the sound quality, it will give the string instrument a uniform appearance.

String Selection

Not counting a players skill level, the most influential factor of a violas sound quality is the choice of strings. There isn't any definite type of string that all players must use. Every string type has their own characteristics, each of which are more fitting for different situations, from country to orchestral performances. How much the viola costs, as well as an individual's preferences are also big factors.

Trust Woodwind & Brasswind

When buying a viola, both skill level and the musician's age should be taken into consideration, as well as what the instrument will be used for (school band, orchestra, etc). If it's for school, it might be a good idea to ask the band teacher for guidance.

Woodwind & Brasswind offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee. If you decide your instrument isn’t right for you, you have 45 days to return it for a full refund. Also, if you find your instrument for a lower advertised price, you have 45 days from the time of sale to let Woodwind & Brasswind know and they will make up the difference. The best price and best instrument for you, that’s the Woodwind & Brasswind promise.

* All returned instruments priced over $3,000.00 are assessed a $20.00 fee. All bows are assessed a $4.00 return fee.

Author

David Rumpf

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