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5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

September 12, 2010

Credits: The Session

Here's an excellent discussion on this topic. I'm mirroring it in case it got removed since it's in a forum. It's a discussion that's related to the 5-strings violin-viola hybrid I made at my workshop, which in short is a viola shrunk to a violin size, but retaining the ribs to keep the bass tones strong, and keeping it a violin size to help the E string's projection.

----here's the discussion----

I've looked through the discussions about 5-strings, and seen tons of comments, but I'd like to ask some subjectives about the difference between the two.

I happen to like the sound of fiddles that are dark/woody (like Man of the House or She Lives by the Anner -- Frankie Gavin on Fierce Traditional) rather than an overly brite sound.

I was thinking that one way to get this would be to get a 5 string viola (which tend to be darker/more resonant I am guessing), and just mainly use the top 4 strings (although I can think of a couple of tunes I would use the lower string for).

How does a 5-string violin vs viola sound??
What are the differences between the two to consider?
Would a 5-string fiddle give me more of that resonant sound as opposed to a standard 4-string?
There are many 5-string fiddles now that keep the 4 string spacing, so I would imagine that getting used to them would be easier than worrying about a narrower string spacing. With a 5 string viola, I am guessing that I'd have to get used to the different scale.

Any other points to consider?? (I know I'm going to get the "just get a good woody-sounding violin" type of comments, and I'm not set on actually getting a 5-string -- just thinking about it!)

# Posted on December 20th 2006 by jlg

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

Unless you are going electric, there are going to be compromises with both. the top e on a viola 5 string will be thin and the c on the violin will not be strong enough. This is not just to do with the shape, but to get the bass, the bass bar will be bigger and top relatively thinner. Have you thought about getting an octave? I made a five string but it did not turn out too well, apart from the sound it was very difficult to play fast. I thinned the top and put a huge bass bar in and turned it into an octave. It has no difficulty getting heard over a dozen other fiddles, and has good sound over the entire range.

# Posted on December 20th 2006 by tlittlewazzock

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

I do realize that there will be comprimises.

I'm not too worried about the C on the violin being thin -- I am wondering if the G/D and/or A would be any darker/woody in tone? I was thinking that a 5-string fiddle would give me the good high end E, and a bit more resonant tone on the G/D, which to me would be ideal.

I didn't realize the E on the viola would be thin sounding -- is this due to a damping effect of the larger bass bar?

# Posted on December 20th 2006 by jlg

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

For christ sake, why can't you
understand that they are
completely different things. Once you
know this, end of discussion.

One is perfect for one thing, the other
for the other. Hybridise and you will
forever loose both.

# Posted on December 21st 2006 by llig leahcim

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

I play a five-string regularly and I would recommend going the viola route over the violin route. I currently use a heavy gauge A and E, and that helps with the thinness that did occur in my case. If you are looking for a deeper sound you might just consider stringing up a small viola with violin strings and skip having a fifth string. I think that part of the problem I have with thinner sounding higher strings is the added pressure of the C string. When I have taken my C string off and just play it as a four string, my sound totally changes. I really don’t need a five string in most Celtic settings but really need it in other settings. I would not recommend a five-string unless you have a specific need for the extra string because there are going to be sacrifices. And yes, it does sound deeper and darker than my four-string and I do like that a lot.

# Posted on December 21st 2006 by txfiddler

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

If your main problem is that the 4-string violin is too bright and harsh sounding, you could try different strings before resorting to another instrument (if you haven't tried that already).

A lot of fiddlers use steel strings, which are bright and a bit harsh sounding. Gut-core strings are much more warm and mellow, but are expensive and don't last as long. Synthetic-core strings are something of a compromise between those two types.

I use Pirastro Oliv (gut-core) strings myself, which are an odd choice for fiddling but have something like the sound you seem to want. They're painfully expensive, though, and they don't really have that "fiddle" sound...they also aren't as responsive as steel strings.

# Posted on December 21st 2006 by Marklar

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

As Tlittlewazzock implied, a bigger base bar makes the sound louder, by spreading the vibrations over a larger part of the belly. A baroque fiddle, in its original setup had a comparatively short base bar and a corresponding lighter tone (helped along by other factors such as uncovered gut strings and a lower pitch). The base bar was lengthened (and other modifications made) over the next century or so to provide the bigger sound demanded by the increased size of orchestras of the 19th century through to the present day.
As Llig and Tlittlewazzock say, you'll always be running into tonal problems if you try to make acoustic 5-string violins/violas. Similar effects have been observed when guitar luthiers have made Spanish (classical) guitars with more than 6 courses. 10-course guitars have been made, and one I heard, played by the great classical guitarist Narciso Yepes had a remarkably dull tonal quality, quite inappropriate, I thought, for a player of his eminence.
Btw, I can assure you that Tlittlewazzock and What?!!? really do know about fiddles in great depth.

# Posted on December 21st 2006 by lazyhound

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

llig leahcim,
the whole reason for ASKING what I am asking is to find out WHY, as you say,
"they are completely different things"

I would rather you EXPLAIN why they are different in real concrete terms rather than complain about me asking the question. I'm sure YOU know why (esp. since you seem to play both), but I don't!!

Lazyhound, thanks for the more thought out answer - THAT is what I'm trying to learn here. I've never played a 5-string of either type (none to found close to home here), so I am trying to learn a bit about them before I range farther afield to look for them.

I guess a weaker sounding bottom C wouldn't bother me all that much if the G/D had a more resonant sound (like the recordings I mentioned) than a standard violin.

What type of adjustments could be made to a standard violin that sounds too brite to darken the tone, other than strings? I have tried a couple of different steel sets, Thomastick Dominants, and Piastro Tonicas, none of which really did the job for me.

# Posted on December 21st 2006 by jlg

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

I know he can speak for himself, but I think Michael was trying to say that the 'ordinary' fiddle and the 'ordinary' viola (ie 4-stings) are completely different things, and you should forget about 5-strings and just get one of each of the 4-string models. I'm very much hoping he has a strong point there, as I've toyed with the idea of getting a 5-string for some time, but can't really afford one.

of course
he was trying
to say it
like this ...


# Posted on December 21st 2006 by ethical blend

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola


# Posted on December 21st 2006 by Dr. Dow

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

I play 5 string fiddles most of the time - although I have 2 four string ones as well.
The five strings have a much more woody sound and the slight extra depth of the instrument gives more resonance.
The bottom C string can be tuned up to a D and used as a drone. The C string also makes the G string sound a lot better than on the 4 strings - I don't do the physics side but when fiddles are in tune you get a sort of sympathetic ringing.
Only downside - besides the extra cost of re-stringing!! - is that I have to be more careful when jumping to the G string not to catch the C string.
Although the spacing is slightly different, it only took me a couple of days before I could go from 5 string to 4 string without thinking!!
I don't want anything lower than the C string so I've never thought of getting a viola - besides which, I have very short fingers and the advantage of the 5 string is getting the extra depth with virtually no increase in instrument size.
My acoustic 5 strings are Tim Phillips but I also have a Yamaha 5 string for band work.

# Posted on December 21st 2006 by Tarrantella

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

Are we talking about trad here, if so, I dont think Ive ever seen anyone playing the 5 string anything...If you dont like the sound of the fiddle, why dont you just take up the box or something. Problem solved.

# Posted on December 21st 2006 by bb

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

I'm talking trad - I play in sessions, for a ceilidh band and for morris.
I love the sound of f iddles - and my 5 strings are fiddles - they just have that bit extra!! I also have an octave fiddle - which is lovely for slow airs and accompanying.

# Posted on December 21st 2006 by Tarrantella

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

ha ha bb, your right.

# Posted on December 22nd 2006 by llig leahcim

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

I LOVE the sound of a fiddle, which is why I play it. I just happen to not like the way mine is sounding of late -- too shrill.
I'm going to bring it to a luthier to see what can be done, but...

Tarantella, thanks for the info. I have been looking at a 5 string from G. Edward Lutherie called the Dahlia 5 which, from the small sound sample I found on a site that carries the, sounds pretty balanced and dark sounding. It keeps the standard string spacing of a 4 string on a wider neck, and a wider body than a standard 4 string. I would guess it makes the transition to the 5-string easier if the string spacing is the same.

# Posted on December 22nd 2006 by jlg

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

jlg, If it were me, I'd try to make the instrument I have work before I started buying others. That is, unless you are yet another of the many victims of Instrument Aquisition Syndrome. That said, going to a luthier is a good start. Explain to him/her just what you are seeking, maybe even play the recording you spoke of as an example. Granted, the instrument itself will determine just what sound it is capable of. A competent luthier can pull a wide range of tonal qualities from an instrument just by adjusting the sound post, for example. According to the luthier I use, often different weight strings require different sound post adjustments. There may be a new bridge in your future. Also, Dr. Thomastik markets strings under the Infeld label. A violin teacher told me about them. They come in two flavors, red and blue. The reds give a deeper, meatier tone (the teacher's words), where the blues give a brighter sound. I have been happy with the reds for a couple of years now, but that's my instrument, my ears. One can also mix 'n match strings to obtain something closer to the sound you seek. Kevin Burke told us that's how he does it in a workshop he led a couple of years ago. Does one require the skill and experience of a Kevin Burke to do this? I dunno, but it does seem an expensive proposition, trying all those different strings. Not like you can return the ones you don't like. Good luck

# Posted on December 29th 2006 by ismisepol

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

I am a violin maker who is specializing in 5 string violins. The 5th string obviously gives the player the ability to play licks not possible with either a violin or a viola. Most violin players really miss the sparkle of the "E" string when they go to the viola for Celtic, Jazz or bluegrass type music.

I have approached it from a different perspective. I have a purpose built 5 string and not a 4 string with a 5th string jammed into it.
I started with a "dark" violin as a pattern...the del Gesu "Cannone" and slightly increased the size to create a larger air resonance chamber for the "C" string to work and have power. The "E" string still has sparkle without being harsh. The instrument is still a size that even a small handed lady can easily and comfortably play unlike a viola which can sometimes be too large.

# Posted on March 4th 2008 by Stradibarrius

Re: 5-string violin vs. 5-string viola

I think Stradibarrius above has very sound reasoning in making 'a purpose built 5 string'. Sure, regular 4 string fiddles and violas are quite different from each other, as mentioned earlier. However, my experience is that a decent 5 string is something else, discernably different from either of those, not just 'a fiddle with a C string' or 'a viola with an E' . I currently have a 5 string cello (sorry, the maker calls it a 'baroque alto'), copied from an Amati cello built as a 5 string in something like 1580, and a 5 string 15.5" viola of the Chinese persuasion, again built as a 5 string.

A good 5 string fiddle is unlikely to sound like a violin from the E down to the G and like a viola on the C. 5 string violins I've played with regular size bodies (half a dozen) may sound like violins G to E, but to my ear they just didn't cut it on the C string. The standard fiddle body isn't big enough to resonate that note properly and standard violin top thicknessing, bass bar, etc., isn't designed for it. Violin scale length instruments with larger air chambers (ie the body) can be very successful, though, as Stradibarrius suggests above. Those I've played have sounded darker than a regular violin, but consistent over all 5 strings. I'm going that route soon as my 5 string viola is starting to make my back ache.

My 5 string cello has a smaller than usual body and scale length - to allow the high E string to resonate better. This one blows out of the water any theory that God made fiddles as 4 string, as the cello developed from the viol family, which I believe most commonly had 6 strings, sometimes 7 or more.
At the time my cello was made, you could buy them with 3, 4 , or 5 strings, and in different body sizes depending on what you were going to use them for.

My 5 string viola isn't as dark or nasal as a good viola can be, but it's close enough to be recognisably a viola. The E is softer in tone than a violin E, but I have yet to experiment with a high tension E string. E strings can be a problem on big violas - I'm told they break too often over about 16" body length.

So if you buy a 5 string, you won't sound like everyone else (unless you get one with a standard violin body and a duff C string). You will have to be of a mind to experiment with strings, though, and accommodate a few tuning differences. Most 5 strings don't 'ring' on 5ths in the way 4 strings do, so they can be more difficult to get in tune. Once in tune, they don't play like a 4 string either - some are more difficult to voice chords on. The middle string is about equidistant from each bridge foot, so you can have problems matching that string to the others - my cello needs a wolf note suppressor on it.

The internals of fiddles have been optimised for 4 string tension, pitch, and resonance over the years, so 5 string makers often adjust things to suit 5 strings - I think that's why converted 4 stringers often sound disappointing.

Now, here's the big difference - string spacing. Most people who make 5 strings (and most of them in terms of quantity are probably Chinese via Ebay) either use a standard neck width or a slightly wider neck. Don't buy one of those unless you've played a 5 string like that and like it. The string spacing will be far too close to double stop properly, and chances are you'll have trouble bowing without hitting other strings. You need a really wide fingerboard on a 5 string, unless you never play 2 notes together other than 5ths. Unless you're used to 5 strings, If it feels comfortable the first time you pick up a 5 string, it's too narrow! If you want to get an idea what a 5 string fingerboard should look like, google Tim Phillips' fiddle website (no, I don't have any connection, or own one of his instruments). He makes lots of 5 strings for folk players, so he knows what they need.

Finally, once you get a 5 string you'll find yourself wandering off into all kinds of musical avenues. With a 5 string fiddle or viola, you have enough bass to provide reasonable accompaniment to another fiddler. You'll find you can pick which octave you want to play some fiddle tunes in, and swap between them. There's also more available for double stopping and droning. With a high E tuned 5 string cello you can play many fiddle tunes with the fiddles without going any distance up the neck, which sounds cool (and sometimes hacks them off the egotists among the fiddlers...).

So, 5 stringers aren't for everybody and they can be a hassle, but also they're a lot of fun and they open new avenues. I'd suggest they're more suited to determined individualists, so if you'd rather be with the crowd you might prefer not to have the hassle. My next ambition is a 6 string Steinberger electric cello - that has double bass at one end and fiddle tunes at the other.

Rab (or Max, if anyone here knows me - from S.M.O?)

# Posted on June 18th 2009 by rabtheranter

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