buying a viola

January 13, 2007 at 03:26 AM · I'm interested in buying a viola. How does one put a viola "through the paces" in order to know that one wants to purchase it?

For instance, when evaluating a violin I always want to try parts of Tchaikovsky concerto, a little G major Brahms sonata, a little Bach, some scales. I try some spiccato to see how the instrument reacts to short notes. And I always compare it to whatever instrument I'm using at the time.

I have a very limited viola repertoire. I can play a little G major Bach, a little Walton, a little Handel. How can I evaluate a viola sufficiently to know what I want?

Replies (15)

January 13, 2007 at 06:12 AM · When I bought mine, I played through Bach 6th suite, some Mozart, a few opening lines of Beethoven’s symphonies, a few scales scales, and did the “wandering violist” going from place to place where I could take the instrument in different acoustical environments. What I looked for was comfort in my arm, resonance, responsiveness and other people’s perception. Look for the differences between the lower strings to the upper. You may “see” a difference between the two – sometimes with a better sound from the lower than the higher strings or visa versa. Also, do not forget to try the higher positions as well on all strings – there will be a definite difference. My idea of a “perfect” viola sound is actually seeing the tailpiece getting a sympathetic vibration as well as feeling it in the collarbone. The fast response time with a bow will not happen like it does on a violin. Since the strings are ‘fatter’, the response time will be a bit slower than you will get off of a violin. This is totally OK. In fact, a faster response does not (IMHO) represent a good viola. Good luck in your search!

January 13, 2007 at 09:14 AM · Basically you can test the instrument the same way you would test a violin -- play scales, with and without vibrato, play some passages, try to get a variety of tone colors with the bow, play on all the strings in all registers. If you're pressed for passages to play, you can always play violin rep down a fifth. :^) One thing to keep in mind (that you might not think about when trying violins) is that violas differ greatly in their ergonomics, and you want to be sure that you have an instrument that you can hold comfortably and on which you can shift freely to the upper positions.

Violas tend to take more force to play than violins, and you may need to push some of them more than you're used to if you want to get the best out of them. Mendy is right that violas tend to respond more slowly than violins, but I'd still make speed of response a priority.

January 13, 2007 at 01:55 PM · Also, make sure that the viola is a comfortable size for you. Violas come in a much wider range of sizes than do violins. The width of the upper bout is an important consideration, as well. I have a perfectly good viola that I want to sell because, (aside from the fact that I only fool around with the viola once in a great while,) at 16 1/2" it's just a bit too big for me.

January 13, 2007 at 03:14 PM · Hi, good advice so far. The process is very like, I'd say, but there are notable variables. Violas aren't even minimally standardized like violins, so you need to have an idea of how long a viola is too long. Second, there is more variety of body shape, with differences in both upper and lower bouts and in overall depth of sidewalls. Third, shops don't stock as many violas as violins, so you have less to consider at any one time. I had a decent student-grade 16 1/2 Juzek for a long time which was just plain big everywhere. When I went to buy a smaller viola, I ended up with a handmade Swiss viola of almost the same size, but because the response was so much easier, everything felt better. If that sounds like you should go with ideas of length,depth and shape but try everything that looks appealing,anyway, that's about what I'm writing. A radically-different concept is to look for a very good-quality violy-sounding student instrument in 14", the ones with the wide lower bout particularly. That feels like picking up a different violin. I have a Meisel like that that I haul around if I'm teaching a mix of violin and viola students the same day. Less adjusting as I go. Sue

January 13, 2007 at 05:03 PM · There's one major difference between buying a viola as opposed to a violin. When you buy a viola people point and laugh at you.*

Why are people so unkind?**


* I'm a violist (of sorts)

** Recycled joke from old Australian TV show - had to be there.

January 14, 2007 at 02:15 AM · I've been playing a lot of violas at shops lately. One thing I noticed is that the price range is completely different. Maybe just around here? But a good viola seems to cost less. What would be a mid-grade price for a violin is, in the selection of violas, the top. It is hard to put prices on violas because of what everyone has mentioned. The sizing and differences between one viola to the next makes it a very personal for what is a good viola and what isn't. Some people like a cellistic sound, some not.

Have a good idea in your ear of what kind of sound you want from the viola before trying a bunch out, or y ou might be lured into getting the one that is the most comfortable, but not the best sound. It needs to be a balance of both.

Also, make sure you can find accessories that fit the viola before getting it home...


January 15, 2007 at 09:28 AM · Hello Jennifer

Are violas really cheaper (or less expensive) than violins?

I know it's very difficult to put prices on a viola, but do you have an general idea of what an advanced violist should spend on his viola? I mean a viola that could serve as (beginning)professional instrument as well.

January 15, 2007 at 02:58 PM · I'm currently looking for a viola that will hopefully take me through undergrad and graduate studies and serve as my first professional isntrument. Everyones milage may vary depending on the instruments they come across and their tastes/requirements for a viola, but as for myself so far the only instruments I have played that I would consider adequate for this start in the $8-10,000 range (isn't this the general range that is reccomended for violinists at this stage too?). So far the better instruments seem to be the more contemporary ones which I think accounts for the prices being a bit lower overall. In general it seems that apart from a few great older instruments the violas being made today are generally better than in the past so there isn't really anything to be gained soundwise by shelling out the extra money for the antique value of an older instrument.

As for what to look for I would say that the two most important things (for me at least) have been a powerful C-string (if you don't have this you might as well have a violin) and projection. I know that in general violists don't need to project over the orchestra as a soloist, but in chamber music (especially piano quartets) it is often difficult to hear the violist even when they are giving as much as they can and a lot of violas project poorly. I also think that despite what some people have said about vioals having a slower response in general that response is an important quality to look for in a viola. I used to think that violas had to respond slowly until I tried a few and one in particular, where the sound just jumped out at the slightest touch, so if you like a fast response it's worth looking around for, although I would guess that everyone is telling you the truth when they say that even the best viola won't respond as fast as a fine violin (my violin isn't good enough for me to tell because I've tried violas that respond at least as fast as it does). Sorry if this is kind of long, but this is a subject that I've been giving a lot of thought to recently.

January 15, 2007 at 03:51 PM · Thanks everyone for your comments.

I actually have a viola that is adequate, and I can use as a basis for comparison. I do favor a cellistic C string so am definitely looking for that. The responsiveness that everyone spoke of is definitely something I've experiened. In fact, it seems like the fundamental difference between the two instruments, in addition to ergonomics related to difference in instrument size.

I talked to a violist who recommended a short instrument with relatively wide bouts - for use by primarily violinists - to not mess up one's violin technique ergonomics too much.

Also, Thomastik Dominants tend to be one of the more popular violin strings. Any recommendations for where to start with viola strings these days? I've heard also that Dominants aren't the best viola strings. (Mine has about 20-year old dominant strings on it right now! Seems like it could be time for a change... ;) )

This is getting to be pretty detailed viola-type stuff. I've seen but it seems that violists don't talk to each other. (I feel a viola joke coming on...) Does anyone know if there are any decent viola websites out there?

January 15, 2007 at 08:23 PM · Hi Terry, I'm a violist. I own a nice (but very large 16-7/8") Honeycutt viola and I am lucky enough to have a small (15-1/2") Gagliano viola on long-term loan. In the mean time, I've been trying violas here and there, with the idea of perhaps finding a 16-1/4" instrument that sounds huge. Mainly, I'm looking for the following:

1) Coherent sound across all four strings, i.e. no big "jump" in tone when playing a passage from one string to the next.

2) Big, bold C string, and big, sweet G string. This is so important in a viola, otherwise, why bother?

3) Sweet D and singing A - why let it get nasty up there?

4) Overall volume and responsiveness. As others have pointed out, a larger instrument isn't as much of a problem if it speaks easily and projects well. And since it is more difficult to hear the viola voice in an ensemble setting (99.9% of playing) then volume and projection are very important.

5) Size and feel. Smaller is certainly easier, and now days, it's easier to find smaller violas that sound big. However, string tension plays a role in tone and I've noticed that instruments under 16" seem to start lacking punch and responsiveness on the C string. This is similar to why 9' grand pianos have amazing bass response while "studio grands" and "baby grands" just don't.

When I'm checking instruments, I generally play a variety of material with which I'm very familiar. A few different types of passages, some slow, some fast, some stuff on one string, some stuff with lots of string crossings. I also have friends listen because how an instrument sounds under the ear vs. "in the room" are two different things. I also use more than one bow, since the bow can make a difference. However, I mostly use my own bow because if I'm buying a viola, I'm probably not buying a new bow for a while.

With regards to strings, I've been using Pirastro strings for the past year and a half. I find the Obligatos and Evah Pirazzis excellent. Right now, I have Evahs on both violas - they are louder, brighter, and more responsive than anything else I've tried. I understand that gut strings can sound amazing, but for me, synthetic is the way to go. They stay in tune, last a long time, and sound very very good. I used Dominants for 20 years but upon discovering Pirastro strings, I won't be going back.


January 16, 2007 at 08:13 AM · Hello Terry

1) Strings: I'm very happy with my Pirastro Obligato. Nice, warm alto sound, very good sound projection, easy response. I didn't try the Evah Pirazzi yet, but I've heard a lot of good things of them. Evahs seem to be brighter than Obligatos and Obligatos darker than Evahs.

2) Violist do speak to each other. Therefor, they have a very good and active viola forum, that you can reach via Here's the address:

Good luck!



January 16, 2007 at 10:26 AM · I just got my viola back from the luthier. A minor, inexpensive adjustment....sanding down and fitting the bridge...and changing back to Obligato strings changed my violas life (it was about to get smashed by one truly frustrated violist). My viola is smallish. 15.5, but it sounds deep and mellow and lush. The C string problem can be solved on some violas by stringing the bottom two strings backwards, which gives the C more tension, and the G a little more room. This only works if the strings are happy being in those postions...and if the peg box is shaped in such a way that the C string isn't leaning on other pegs or the side of the pegbox on it's way tot he nut.

My violin is about a 10,000.00 instrument. When I went to the shop, in a general overview of instruments there, a 4000.00 viola was about the equivalent in range of selection. But I know a violist who has a viola that cost her 1000.00 that is absolutely gorgeous. It helped her reputation immensely. I think we need to maybe be asking what the criteria on pricing is, from a dealer's point of view. Maybe not the same that we use as a buyer, or player?

If teh viola is sluggish, but you otherwise like the sound, or has an ill-fitting componnt, the luthier can always adjust things to remedy that specific measurement or problem. Usually.



January 18, 2007 at 07:21 AM · perhaps you should mention what instruments you were looking at (violas that is).

Professional instruments Violas that is, that are of concert quality range from 8K to 400K.

It all depends where you are in your artistic level and if you are looking for old Italian or not.

Vuillaume Violas are excellent and are rare.

There are many excellent 20th century Italian Violas that are great. For example a Sgarabotto Viola these days is around 80K.

There are also excellent instruments (concert quality) that are between 10K & 20K.

January 18, 2007 at 05:32 PM · I'm envisioning being in a serious amateur quartet where I might need to play some viola. In a perfect world I'd find a concert quality viola for the lower end of the spectrum (or less if I'm lucky)

Right now I have a 16" circa 1978 Martin Karall viola made in Vancouver BC that I can't find any information on. I'm told since it's a handmade instrument it should probably go for around $5K. It doesn't have the greatest playing characteristics, but also needs new strings and clearly needs a new post and bridge. The bridge on the instrument right now is kinda thick. I'm going to get these things worked on to start and see what I have. (i.e., play around with it, try it in different settings, compare...)

June 11, 2010 at 08:08 AM ·

Hello everyone. I have genuine Italian viola Alfredus Contino 1909. Certified by Jacobus Jan van de Geest 1959. Signed over the label and branded on the back. Looking $25 000 for it. email me if interested on  

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