What size viola ( string length) should I play based on hand span?

November 8, 2010 at 06:51 PM ·

There is lots of talk about "what size body should my viola have?" but I have not been able to find any information about "what should the stop length (length from nut to bridge) of my viola be?" Among instruments of the same body length, the vibrating length of the string can vary by as much as a cm or more. A 16.5 inch viola could have a shorter stop length than a 16 inch. How can one know what their ideal string length would be? I am an intermediate player playing a 16 in viola with a stop length of 373 mm. Generally all is ok except the stretch between a low second finger and the fourth finger. I kind of have to do a "mini-shift" (just a few mm.) to hold on to my intonation. For example on the "D" string it would be F to A. My teacher says I should get a 15.5 or 15 inch instrument. I can fully cup my hand around the scroll of a 15.5 inch instrument, mostly around the 16. Arm measurement charts are all over the place telling me to play everything from a 16.5 to a 15.5 size viola. Right now I don't have any pain issues (at least not any that I didn't have on violin). My hand span is about 8 inches.

Replies (17)

November 8, 2010 at 07:25 PM ·

My nut-to-bridge is about 14.75" -- body is 16".

November 8, 2010 at 08:23 PM ·

BTW, reading the hand-span-based advice here and elsewhere is what motivated me to pick a viola that was 16.5" -- and too big.  (Although I still would like to pick another 16.5" up someday and see again.)  I can reach a tenth with no problem at all on a piano and have an nearly a 6' armspan, but the span of the hand isn't as useful for a viola since the thumb is out of play.  I have a relatively large hand as a pianist and still have a 16" viola.  I'd just go with that for now and leave myself room to trade up or down in future if it doesn't work out for you.  Some luthiers will let you trade in for another if you need to.

November 8, 2010 at 09:29 PM ·

Believe your teacher and if your hand can cup around a 15.5 viola scroll then that is the viola for you. Don't worry about hand span the smaller viola should suit your hand perfectly. The 15.5" should also give a fuller viola sound than the 15". 

November 9, 2010 at 10:22 AM ·

In the violas I make the string length is always 375 milimeters, regadless of their size (from 15  1/2   to 17 inches).

Playing confort is not only related to the body size of the viola. Other aspects such as weight, string length, rib depth and  how wide is the instrument are very important too. So If you take a small viola that is  heavy, very wide, with very deep ribs in the neck root, with a long string length, it may be less comfortable than a bigger instrument that is light, not all that wide, etc. 

Sound is not allways related to the size also. You may find small violas that sound good and dark, even when compared to bigger instruments. 

I just sold two small (15  1/2) violas to players of the GEWANDHAUS LEIPZIG ORCHESTRA. Both players are tall and played big violas. They told me that playing Wagner Operas on big violas is a pain, and that having a smaller instrument that sounds the same of a bigger one is a blessing. I would do the same.  Here some photos:




November 9, 2010 at 01:25 PM ·

Mr. Manfio, Those are beautiful instruments! I love the backs! I could look at the first one for hours. That is interesting what you say about pro players wanting 15.5 sized instruments. I have heard that Roberto Diaz is even playing a 15.5 instrument. So the stigma against playing smaller instruments is fading away?

November 9, 2010 at 01:32 PM · Somewhere else here I and a few others have commented on violas that are not violin shaped. I currently play a Sean Peak 15 1/2". It has a wide lower bout & is pretty deep, so it has the airspace of a bigger viola. The space is organized differently, of course, but the tone is rich & deep. Viola players are often wanting bigger & bigger violas to keep up w/tone production ease of violins & cellos. I traded in a 16 1/4" because of pain down through the top of my shoulder. Your teacher could be on the right track for you, but before you look at smaller instruments, also experiment with different chin & shoulder rests. You may find a combo that puts the viola at a more-advantageous angle to facilitate fingering. How are you measuring hand span? I like to stand the fingers (contact points for playing) on a ruler. I can reach @ 5" between pinky tip & first finger w/o much stretching. Rocking towards 4th finger for wide intervals is pretty common, but I would think you'd want to be able to reach the pattern you describe w/o that accommodation. Sue

November 9, 2010 at 02:08 PM ·

The vibrating string length of the viola is derived from the proportions established by its design geometry. Since string instruments are considered beautiful to look at as well as to play and hear, the place where design collides with ergonomics occurs in the viola at about 16" body length. I could go on at length about this, but this comment once made to me encapsulates it rather well: "If you look at all the younger violists, they're playing 17 1/2" violas; if you look at all the older violists, they're playing 15 1/2" violas."

I make ergonomic violas, and what I see in players is that some have problems that derive from the size of their hand, and some have problems that derive from the length of their arm (some have both). It is possible to address some of these problems simply by shortening the string length, but this would result in a different position for notes on every instrument. A lot of violists get to the point where they are willing to relearn how to play in tune whenever they change instruments.

One of the reasons small violas tend to be less acoustically satisfying has to do with string length as it relates to the physical properties of the string. Modern string research has produced some strings that work well on small violas, so it's possible now to consider alternative designs with the player's comfort and longevity in mind.


November 9, 2010 at 02:45 PM ·


Lovely looking violas - I bet they sound good too.


Interesting comments.

Generally: I was a viola player for years until I escaped from prison and took up the fiddle gain.

If I were to spend all that time playing viola in orchestras again, I would not play on a 16.5 inch viola. I would do what the sensible players do and get one at about 15 to 15.5 inches.

That damned Wagner Ring cycle clinched it for me. Never again!!

The fiddle is paradiso!


November 9, 2010 at 08:56 PM ·

Thanks for your kind words on my violas Liz! It was a surprise to me to sold these two small violas to such tall players, I think they were not looking for such small instruments but eventually they got them, thanks God! Yes, Roberto Dias plays an Amati that belonged to Primrose, the instrument was bigger but reduced in size a long time ago and it is under 16 inches, I think. 

I developed this small viola recently, I was very concerned about the sound, it gave me a lot of mental work but the 3 ones I made sold quickly, so I will keep the recipe!

Bob, you are correct, as viola players get older they prefer smaller violas...

Thanks Peter!




March 17, 2011 at 04:29 PM ·

Hello guys. I am a beginner violist, and since I am tall (6'3"), I thought "Hey, I should get the biggest viola available" and then I ended up getting a 42.5 centimeter one (around 16.73 inches). Its string length is 383 milimeters, a little longer than Luis mentioned he uses for his violas. I am fighting a bit to play it, of course it may be due to poor technique :) - I 've been playing for less than 1 year and part of that time I was playing the violin and then switched to viola... I just put Helicore HEAVY strings on it, and I wonder if they are too thick for this string length? I feel like I am putting too much pressure on the bow to get a full sound, and sometimes I slide the bow a lot because of that, and/or get some squeaks. Should I try medium strings next time?


March 17, 2011 at 05:00 PM ·

"I just sold two small (15  1/2) violas to players of the GEWANDHAUS LEIPZIG ORCHESTRA. Both players are tall and played big violas. They told me that playing Wagner Operas on big violas is a pain, and that having a smaller instrument that sounds the same of a bigger one is a blessing. I would do the same."

That would be the reason if I were playing the viola again. I would only use a 15 1/2 viola maximum!! Even a 15 inch would be my ideal. Otherwise its just hell. Doing one Ring Cycle in a week was enough to convince me.

March 17, 2011 at 07:37 PM ·

Rodrigo-  It sounds like you are bumping up against some viola technique stuff.  You don't want to press with your bow.  You need to use weight in your bow arm, but not pressure.  Hard to explain the difference, but pressure tends to go with stiffness, while weight doesn't interfere with flexibility and fluidity.  It also doesn't crush the sound.  Do you have a decent viola bow?

Is the viola well adjusted?  If the bridge, soundpost, etc., are out of their optimal position the sound will suffer.  As far as strings go, both my 15 1/2" and my son's 17" are happy with Obligatos.  The heavy strings you are using don't respond as quickly as a thinner one would, but I think they'd do better on a larger rather than smaller viola.

March 18, 2011 at 10:25 PM ·

Lisa, how thick are your strings on both violas?

Thanks    : )

March 18, 2011 at 11:57 PM ·

I think Obligato viola strings only come in one thickness.  I'm not sure what it would be equivalent to.

March 19, 2011 at 12:26 AM ·

The Obligato viola strings are available in 3 thicknesses.  And I would actually think that instruments with longer string lengths would generally require thinner strings, since the vibrating portion of the string is stretched out over a longer length. 

July 1, 2011 at 11:24 PM ·

I got a 17-inch viola, and then I discovered that strings for the beast were horrifically expensive. And perlon strings were impossible to find. I did find some zyex strings that would fit 17-inch for about $48/set, which isn't real bad, but I finally did find some Chinese perlon strings for $35 that were pretty good.

July 2, 2011 at 12:53 AM ·

Some posts here refer to "hand span". There seem to be two ways of defining it – from the tip of the index finger to the tip of the pinky; or from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the pinky (everything under full stretch). The difference between the two definitions of hand span can be as much as 3 inches. I would assume that the first definition would be the useful one for the violinist and the violist because on these instruments the thumb isn't used for stopping a note. Am I correct in this assumption?

However, the thumb-to-pinky span is important to the cellist and bassist because the thumb is used for stopping a note (the "thumb position" – a very useful "capo"). And we mustn't forget the keyboard players.


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