Violin Buyer's Guide
Some of the Questions Answered Below
The viola is an integral part of the symphony orchestra with 4 strings that produce tones a fifth lower than the corresponding strings on the violin. Violas are slightly larger than violins and are commonly associated with classical music. Violas are found in orchestras and string quartets. However, a quick internet search will turn up many violas used in classic, indie and folk-rock music.
Violas are particularly child-friendly instruments because they're available in a variety of sizes. As a young viola student grows, their viola can be traded for a larger size. It's critical that a student has the proper size viola. One that is too large for the student can create a very uncomfortable situation. In extreme situations, this can lead to tendonitis. A viola with a body length of 15 inches or greater is considered to be 4/4 size or full size.
Florea Prodigy Viola Outfit
Student violas are made for beginning students and are often produced by machine. Maple is sometimes used for high-friction parts (pegs, fingerboard) and dyed black to resemble ebony, which is found on most violas. Student violas are excellent for the early stages of development and are priced to easily fit into most budgets.
Intermediate violas are crafted with better quality wood and workmanship, most (if not all) of which is done by hand. The result is a viola that sounds better and accommodates players at more advanced levels. Intermediate viola pegs and fingerboards are usually made of ebony. Extensive hand graduation—the process of carving wood to different thicknesses—of the top and back of the viola produce a warmer and more refined sound. If the wood is good quality and the craftsman has paid attention to the necessary details, some intermediate violas may even approach professional performance levels.
Professional violas are made from only the finest woods, and built with near fanatical attention to every detail of the instrument's construction and appearance. Because of the relatively low number of craftsman skilled at this level, and the number of hours required to produce a viola of this caliber with a select piece of natural wood, the price of these professional instruments is considerably higher than intermediate violas.
View Recommended Instruments:
Straight-grained spruce is the only material used for the top of a viola. Most of the sound is produced by the top, and straight-grained spruce is the only material strong enough to handle the heavy tension of the strings and ensure a resonant sound. Natural-aged, straight-grained spruce is preferred. The longer the natural aging, the better—five years is the minimum preference of viola makers.
Viola necks, sides and backs are generally constructed from maple, which strengthens stability and enhances beauty.
The fingerboard, pegs, tailpiece and chinrest of a viola are usually made from ebony. This dense, dark wood is strong, but light enough that it will not make the viola feel top-heavy.
Rosewood, boxwood and a few other exotic woods are also used for viola pegs, tailpieces and chinrests. These woods are chosen as much for their beauty as for their individual sound characteristics.
Strings, rosin, and a good shoulder rest are accessories that will make playing a viola much easier. A practice mute and a sturdy case are also great accessories for viola players.
Anatomy of a Viola
A decorative piece at the top of the viola.
Typically constructed from a very dense wood. Viola pegs are used to adjust string tension, resulting in tuning changes.
A box between the scroll and nut that secure the viola's pegs. The holes on either side of the peg box are tapered to secure the pegs and allow for easy, stable tuning.
Typically constructed from quality hard maple. A lot of stress is placed on the viola's neck. With proper tuning, there can be 200 pounds of tension on the neck.
A long piece of wood glued on top of the neck. This stiff, dense wood adds strength to the viola's neck and prevents it from warping. Quality fingerboards are scooped inward towards the center and made from ebony.
The viola bridge is held in place only by tension—no glue is used. Quality viola bridges are hand-fitted against the body to ensure proper sound transmission. The bridge is higher where the lowest string crosses.
Two holes precisely cut in the top of a viola permit the top to respond more freely, and for sound to be projected from the viola's interior.
Generally made of the same material as the chin rest and pegs, typically for cosmetic purposes. However, it can be made of any dense material.
Tail Gut (tail piece gut, tail piece adjuster):
Originally made from animal intestine, now constructed from nylon, this piece holds all the tension from the viola strings into the button, across the saddle.
Small button-like feature on the bottom of a string instrument that holds the tail gut.
Located on the inside of the viola frame, the sound post provides structural support and transmits vibration from the top to the back.
On the inside of the viola frame, a long piece of wood that is glued under the lowest string. The bass bar strengthens the structural support of the top and distributes the sound over the entire length of the viola.
A misnomer because the jaw should actually rest against the chinrest and the chin should be near the tailpiece for a proper fit. Chinrests are available in a variety of shapes, heights and sizes for a personalized level of comfort. A viola chinrest can easily be adapted for viola by purchasing a set of longer barrels.
Construction of a Viola
Building a viola is as much art and as it is science. Manufacturers employ luthiers at different levels of experience. The least experienced crafters typically work on less-expensive, student violas. As the luthier's experience increases, so does the level of viola they make.
Manufacturer's employ set-up technicians to prepare the viola to play at its highest potential. Detailed shaping and shaving of components, fitting the bridge, precise fit and finish of pegs, adjusting proper depth and shape of the notches at the bridge and the nut, and fine tuning are all responsibilities of the set-up technicians.
Flaming is a popular technique to enhance a stringed-instrument's visual appeal. However, this technique does not necessarily enhance the quality of the sound produced.
Most viola backs are "book-matched," or constructed from two pieces of wood glued together. This process gives the viola a uniform appearance, but does not necessarily improve the sound quality.
The single most influential factor (after skill) of sound quality produced by a viola is the choice of strings used. There is not a correct type of string for all players under all circumstances. Each type of string has qualities that make it more appropriate for different situations (i.e. solo vs. orchestral performance; country vs. classical performance). Other factors such as cost, the viola players' individual preferences, and the way a particular string sounds on an individual viola also come into play. See The Woodwind & Brasswind string selection buyer's guide for more in-depth detail.
Buy Your Viola with Confidence from The Woodwind & Brasswind
In choosing a viola, you need to consider your musician's age and skill level, and the kind of use (school band, orchestral, etc.). If for school, consulting with the band teacher is a good idea.
Whatever viola you select, The Woodwind & Brasswind's 100% Satisfaction Guarantee means you have 45 days to be sure it's the right instrument for you. If it's not, just return it for a full refund.* And you don't need to worry about paying too much. Our 45-Day Lowest Price Guarantee means that if you find the same viola advertised for less elsewhere, we'll make up the difference. When you buy a viola from The Woodwind & Brasswind, you can buy with complete confidence.
*All returned instruments priced over $3,000.00 are assessed a $20.00 fee. All bows are assessed a $4.00 return fee.
Download the Product Charts: