Thinking 'bout acquiring some firewood...

March 7, 2018, 12:29 PM · Hey viola players out there! It's already one year that I'm struggling with the idea about joining you. First time I tried one of these hunky dinosaurs made by my Luthier, I was lost. Problem is: his instruments are way out my prize range. "Entry level" instruments I tried yet (1-1,5k) did work fine from the technical point of view, but missed the sexappeal of that sound digging deep down into your guts. And he's not on stock with instruments in a prize range I would regard as reasonable (probably around 5k).

I have to go for viola hunting somewhere else. As I observed violas do not sell as easy as violins, at least where I live Violists are rather exotic, and even a very good instrument for a very attractive price may sit in the shelf for quite a long time. But I'd like to maintain the chance for an upgrade later on, if I should run into too much money eventually. So I kindly ask your advice on what I should be looking for, not only concerning tonal quality and craftsmanship, but also other factors that might influence the instrument's resaleability.
Any ideas?

Replies (17)

March 7, 2018, 1:25 PM · Yesterday was the first time in my life I even touched a viola. I was in a Sam Ash music store in New Haven (they mostly sell guitars but have a few stringed instruments and lots of band instruments). I tried a Carlo Robelli (their store brand) viola and liked it a lot. It was priced $899, had a nice deep sound and felt great in the hand. As a violinist I was still surprised how much further apart the notes were on the fingerboard, but I enjoyed stretching fingers and moving left hand to hit them. The wood was a beautiful dark with nice tiger-stripes on the back, a lot like my older violin's stripes. I have zero advice on violas and zero refinement in identifying a good one, but I'll just say there was nothing firewood about it and I am sure that one of these days I will get a viola and add it to my collection of instruments I'm trying to learn. That will be a beautiful day!
March 7, 2018, 1:35 PM · The market for viola as a second instrument is in a really bad shape, at least here in Canada. There are simply no good instruments for not too much money.... Used instruments are often bigger than 16,5 '.
I guess, you first need to decide what size are you looking for and can be reasonably comfortable with.
There are a few student-level alternatives, such as Dvorak, Jay-Heide or other made in China, but you will have to search for a long time and try out many of them to find a decent instrument.
If you are not 100% sure that you will play viola in next 5 years from now, I would say rent and spend more money on a good viola bow. Sound production is even more challenging on viola and suffering with poor bow simply does not make any sense.
Edited: March 7, 2018, 2:52 PM · Good bow... is already there. Not a really really really good one, but quite a decent one. Good enough.

I had a €1300 Roderich Paesoldt Viola on rent for a year now,and tried a couple of others within the same range. Wasn't really excited with it. But I'm sure I'll stick with the instrument for more than the next 5 years. First, I enjoy the sound, second, for a late starter it's hard to get into amateur ensembles as a violinist, but all community-based orchestras are in urgent need of violists... And I do love the Viola part of Franz Schmidt's Quartett in A major, as a goal for the far future... I also love my violin, but it is relaxing for me to switch to the viola sound after an hour if violin studies!
And my intonation on viola is much better than on violin, no matter the scale length of the instrument. It is just so much easier to differentiate for me than this e-string...
There is one old nameless Viola from Saxony, something like late 19th century. 38,5 cm back length, but almost "normal" scale length (like most 41-42cm violas). Strong sound for that size,for €5000. It is sold on commission, so I know that I cannot get the full investment back when eventually upgrading to another instrument. And there are some cosmetic issues which make me hesitate. And it is sitting in this shelf for at least two years now...
I do not have any ergonomic problems with bigger instruments. Actually, the violas I felt most comfortable with were 41-42,5cm in back length. So the size wouldn't be an issue anyway. It also does not feel hard to me to switch between instrument sizes. Usually I can fully accommodate within a few minutes.

Rocky, do you mean it might be easier to resell a smaller viola than a tall one?

March 7, 2018, 2:59 PM · I already considered an instrument from china or romania, i know one can get a lot of quality for the money. But in the end it would turn out even harder to resell it than a german or french or even a czech one...

Renting isn't an effective option. If the rent for given student viola costs me €350 per year, then within less than 4 years I would have paid it off. So it would be more effective to buy it and trade it back in later. But I don't want to buy something I do not really like...

March 7, 2018, 6:01 PM · Take a look at Luis Claudio Manfio violas because if I was to buy a nice one he has the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. And not just a few but every one of them.
Edited: March 8, 2018, 10:48 AM · The maker of my primary viola, Charles Woods, won an award for tone for one of his early violas back in (I think) 1994 at the Arizona convention of the VSAAI. He made my viola (his #6) in 1996. He made his "final" viola (according to his local newspaper) in 2016. In all he only made 12 violas in his violin-making career that has included 3 cellos, 12 violas and 86 violins (the last - so far in 2017). He is a retired mechanical engineer who took up violin making as a hobby in his 40s and turned it into a vocation after retiring at 55 (around 1990 or '91).

His instruments are priced in the range the OP is talking about. In addition to my viola I have also purchased 2 of his new violins his #11 dated 1990 and his #54 dated 2000. I bought #54 after my granddaughter commandeered #11 when I offered her whichever of my violins she wanted.

I think the tone of my viola's C string's lowest fifth is a bit too "edgy**," but when I took it to Ifshin Violins a few months ago to seek a more suitable C string the salesman (a violist) played it for me and the sound away from my chin really blew me away. He said "I could play a concert on this!" I have noticed that there are frequently flattering remarks about my viola's sound when I have a heard part in orchestra or quartets - it's gotta be the instrument because my playing skills have shrunk drastically with age.

My point is that there are "hand-made" violas out there that can blow you away in the price range of reasonable commercial instruments - you just have to spend some time and cover some miles searching.

The best (and cheapest) of my 4 viola bows came from ebay last year for less than $400 (a really lucky find). I thought it was just "brazilwood" by the salesman at Ifshin's said it was pernambuco and like their commercial bows and it is the one he played with on my viola.

Even though I have had this viola for more than 20 years my search for the best strings continues - although I'm sure my choice of Pirastro Permanent D and G cannot be improved upon, my recently installed Dominant-light A and Pirastro-Passione C are transitional (although the best so far).

My newest rosin, Andrea Sanctus (viola) is truly amazing; noticeably the best on this equipment of anything I have ever tried - and believe me I have tried and used dozens.

I mention all these things because they all contribute to the making of music with an instrument.

** Charles (who has now been a personal friend of mine for almost 30 years) apologized when he delivered this viola to me 21 years ago because he had completed two at the same time and sold the "better one" to a young person who was specializing in viola, while I was a 62 year old "violist wannabe" who also had violins and cellos to amuse himself. I only started to "specialize" in viola 3 years ago.

March 8, 2018, 10:02 AM · I got my Ming Jiang Zhu workshop viola a few years ago. Great sound, real nice chocolatey C-string sound. Not super playable but pretty good -- hard for me to judge because primarily I play violin. Much better with Obligato strings (it came with Dominants). Also jujube pegs were replaced with Wittner Finetune pegs. With Cadenza 3-star bow, gear pegs, Bobelock case, Wittner chin-rest and strings probably I paid about $4700 altogether. Viola alone was $3500. Our local luthier Patrick Toole (Toole Studios, Roanoke Virginia) makes really great-sounding, nicely playable violas, but I think they're in the $9k range, more than you want to spend, but a great value for the quality of instrument you're getting -- fully bench made.
March 9, 2018, 3:05 PM · I've had a bit of luck purchasing violas off craigslist and at estate sales. The craigslist one was German, paid $175 for it and sold it for $4500. The estate sale one was in my neighborhood. I missed the violins which went for $100 each -- three of them -- and bought the viola for the same price. Sold it for $9K. It was Italian, made by a well known luthier. Hate to think what the violins were because the deceased played in the Sacramento Symphony, had no near relatives and a distant cousin came from back east and basically gave stuff away so he could sell the house in one week.
March 9, 2018, 3:53 PM · I do think that smaller violas are easier to sell, for what that's worth. My current viola is 16-3/8" and sounds great, I'm very happy with it. I've been trying to sell a 16-7/8" for some years now - it sounds amazing but is too big for many (most?) players. Next in importance for selling is of course sound, and perhaps aesthetics. It is sometimes hard to know which one plays the bigger role in selling an instrument in the lower price ranges. One viola I know about that is IMO a bargain is a John Honeycutt instrument for sale at Robertsons in Albuquerque. It is 16-3/16 and sounds very nice, and I think it is priced at $2500 and has been there for years. The only problem is that it is not particularly attractive. So, it would not be easy to sell, despite the smaller size and quite good sound.
March 9, 2018, 4:41 PM · Thomas, I hear you... Maybe I should focus more on private sales. Especially because I have been really lucky with bow shopping this way, if I had bought bows from the same makers at a dealer I would have had to pay three to four times as much than a did. Only drawback is that one has to travel a lot to try out the instruments. Sure it is easier to walk into a shop and look what they have.

Karl, you may be right that smaller violas sell easier, because there are still more violinists who "also own a viola" than dedicated violists, and violinists usually believe that it's easier for them if the scale is somehow similar to their primary instrument. I'm just not sure if I want that, since I usually liked more the "normal" patterns and also physically felt comfortable enough. But this is something I have to find out by myself.
You're right, the optical attractiveness also plays a big role if it is about reselling an instrument. This is exactly the issue I'm having with another affordable but good instrument I considered buying for some time. But if I'm honest, optical beauty isn't something unimportant for me, too...

March 9, 2018, 4:46 PM · ... and if one buys an instrument that was sitting in it's shelf since years, it is obvious that it will be hard to resell again without maximum loss. So if one buys something like that, then only with the guarantee that the seller would take it back in case of an upgrade.
I would already be happy to know that I wouldn't loose more than 25% or so...
Edited: March 9, 2018, 4:51 PM · Now then... Smaller violas sell easier. Good sounding and easy to play violas sell easier. Beautiful violas sell easier. Something else? (e.g. price range, origin,... )
March 9, 2018, 4:55 PM · I have found that with a 16-inch (400 mm corpus) viola with a 375 mm vibrating string length the left-arm extension and the finger spacing seem to be exactly the same in the viola's 3rd position as in a 4/4 violin's 1st position. The proportionally extra-wider finger spacings in the viola's 1st position and the narrower spacings at higher positions should be very familiar to any violinist who plays in multiple positions.
March 9, 2018, 5:53 PM · When I started playing viola one of the first things I noticed was that all of my first-finger-first-position notes were sharp. You'd think with wider spacing the tendency would be to play too close to the nut, but I found just the opposite. I had to re-calibrate my left elbow to find first position farther away from my chin.

It just occurred to me that the words "thinkin' 'bout some firewood..." can be sung to the tune of "Struttin' With Some Barbecue."

March 9, 2018, 8:49 PM · Victor, the problem with longer string is that one can hardly play in tune in 1st position; try to play an octave double stop - f you do not have long fingers and wide palms, it would be impossible to do it without injuring yourself. All the jokes about viola players may in fact have some ground - people pick a larger viola and then can not play in tune!
March 9, 2018, 9:21 PM · Guess I'm lucky! I now find 1st position octaves easier on viola!
March 10, 2018, 1:18 AM · Rocky, I do understand your concerns. But from years long piano playing I'm used to stretching, so for myself it is rather like Andrew said - it feels easier on viola. And mine is 16 2/3 inch / 42,3 cm back length, so not the very smallest one, although I'm not tall.

But since the discussion is about reselling value, you may have your point... When I'll travel to Vienna next time I'll have a look at more 16 inch instruments.

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