Why no B string?

September 10, 2008 at 04:38 PM · I recently saw a 5-string violin with a C-string being used to teach a mixed group of violin and viola students. I thought it was a cool idea and looked on the web, and found out that there are also 6- and 7-string violins out there. Both acoustic and electric.

As far as I can tell, the extra strings are always lower, not higher than the standard G-D-A-E. Why is this?

My daughter, in her quest to avoid having to play 4th finger, was asking me the other day if you could have a B string on a violin. This seems like a good idea too, but I've never seen one or heard of it. Would the tension required just be too high or the string too thin?

Replies (22)

September 11, 2008 at 06:26 AM · It would seem that we have a similar interest in this subject. I think that a high b string could be possible, given the proper structual integrity and possibly even confining it to a solid body electric. But with electric violins, it is possible to simply use an octave/pitch pedal/processor to achieve this, therefore making the addition of an extra string, either it be a high B string or a low C string, useless, respectively. I've played and tested many multi string violins, both electric and acoustic, and have found that certain alterations need to be performed on the instrument: the makers never seem to take in account sting spacing and usually their instruments' string spacing is too close together. The fingerboard and neck should be wide enough to accomodate the proper spacing needed to execute double and triple stops,without hitting against the other fingers. This problem is even more present with 6 or 7 string violins, and the lower strings, under such low tension, tend to produce a unfavourable, almost false sound, especially on acoustic models. Some makers are better than others, but be aware that a fine electric can run upwards of $2000.00 and up and, as a teacher, do not condone the use of them with beginning students. I would encourage you daughter to apply herself to the 4 strings, and if she continues on, to experiment with the 5 string in special situations. The use of the fouth finger is useful is some instances and avoided in others (such as the common use of open strings, both utilized widely in both baroque music and bluegrass/old time fiddle music). It is actually a specialized instrument which is undergoing constant experimentation as to the size of the violin body (which ideally should be the size of a viola,(with an high E string added) but this is a personal artistic preference argument. Playing a 5 string is the most viable choice as I could further explain in my post on this site "5 String Violin-Your Thoughts". I hope I was of some help and keep encouraging your daughter in her practice.

Jerald Franklin Archer

September 10, 2008 at 11:49 PM · Someone is building (limited) a family of "new" string instruments which includes a piccolo-violin. It's extra-small but not intended as a kid-fiddle, but I don't recall how it is pitched. Sue

September 10, 2008 at 11:56 PM · Playing the violin with 4 strings I think is hard enough :)

September 11, 2008 at 12:59 AM · Greetings,

that`s why I took one of the middle one`s off. I just skip the notes that are missing.

Cheers,

Buri

September 11, 2008 at 01:27 AM · I don't want to be anywhere near a B string if it breaks.

I've had friends with too many close calls with popping E strings and fine tuners with sharp prongs. Safety glasses and the violin? :P

September 11, 2008 at 02:24 AM · Gosh, not another string even more squeakier than the E!

September 11, 2008 at 02:29 AM · I've always wondered about this, too!

September 11, 2008 at 03:20 AM · Because if it's much higher, the over-90s that the audience is comprised of can't hear it. Might as well be the mosquito ring tone.

September 11, 2008 at 03:26 AM · I was picturing a B string so that you wouldn't have to cram your fingers up so close to your nostrils to hit high notes. It hadn't occurred to me that violinists would naturally try to play new realms of high notes with it. Yuck.

September 11, 2008 at 04:34 AM · I think we could use a Banjo as a model, and have one string a bit shorter for the b string.

Of course, it may be a bit rough having to reset your bow every time you want to play that string, or maybe just add an extra peg 1/2 way down the neck.

That would resolve the problem of the tension; it would not need to be any tighter than the e string.

I have an old violin sitting around.... maybe I'll start work on it now!

September 11, 2008 at 05:22 AM · Might be a bit tricky trying to shift over top of that extra peg setting partway down the fingerboard:).

I'm not sure that I'd want to hear the sound of the notes one could play way up high on a B string....not to mention how many ledger lines would be required to notate those notes.

It's an interesting question, but as I think about it, I ask myself...why? Doesn't the violin go up high enough already??

Though, now that I think about it, it might be nice NOT to have to play in 56th position on a few of the wilder orchestral parts. Hmmm.... this could have promise. It'd be like playing in 5th position, in 1st.

Hmmm......

Serious question here to those of you who play 5 and 6 string instruments. Do you even get lost on the fingerboard...like getting confused about which string you are on, or having bow and fingers on different strings?

September 11, 2008 at 06:23 AM · In scope,a high B string would be possible,but not viable,as it really is not a question of how high the notes can go up,as they are the same as on a 4 string violin's E string and would also depend on the musical application involved. One could use a "piccolo violin" for such an effect, which I believe one of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti does. The other possibility is the use of such an invention in new music, for effect, naturally. The lower string is simply useful in a number of applications. A good example is that a viola piece/part could be played as well as a violin piece/part, all with one instrument. The most useful application, to date, it that the instrument lends itself to wider possibilities in the area of improvisation and expression. It has become very popular with both bluegrass artists and Jazz and Blues artists, respectivly. I have written some exercises and duetts for 2 5 string violins with good results. There is very little classical literature available, if any, since the 5 string is not universally recognized in the classical music world. Nevertheless, I write my pieces in treble clef, just as one would read for violin, as it is the most useful for avoiding extra ledger lines, except in the lowest register, which only uses 4 ledger lines in playing the open C string. It is not a difficult task to get used to the lower string, but many 5 strings, unless they are custom made, tend to have their strings too close together. It is also a question of really knowing the fingerboard well, I would venture to add. I cover that problematic topic more in detail on my post about 5 string violins.

September 11, 2008 at 11:12 AM · I'm not serious about giving my daughter a B string--she needs to learn to use the 4 she has. I just thought her question was funny and actually insightful for her level (she's an advanced beginner).

I like thinking about the violin and viola structurally, how the strings are tuned in fifths, how this fits with the number of fingers we have (would we have invented an instrument tuned in fourths if we had evolved hands with only 4 fingers, or an instrument tuned in sixths if we had evolved hands with 6 fingers?)

I also like thinking about the sequence in which fingers go low (or high) as you move through the keys. So many students learn D-major first, which has high 2's on all 3 of the lower strings, but not the E. And then as you take away sharps and add flats you get a low 2 on the A, then the D, and finally the G. And the first finger works that way too--first it's low on the E string in C major, then you add a flat and get a low one on the A string in F major, then you add another flat for a low one on the D string, and so on.

And the hypothetical B-string fits the pattern--it would have a low first finger and a low second finger, and a low 4th finger, in C major. I remember being so excited when I figured all that out.

But climbing up the E-string just doesn't have the same satisfying feel, to me. When I was thinking about having a B-string, I would want it mainly for the reason Emily said, and just to do less climbing in general. Not to be able to play even higher and squeakier notes. I agree--yuck.

September 11, 2008 at 01:10 PM · The thing is you could climb up, like it or not, to get higher notes while to dig lower on G one would need lower strings.

To me, fifth seems natural. Strings are in tune against each other for one thing. And maybe for the same reason as there's Circle of Fifth?

September 11, 2008 at 11:37 PM · Consider what would happen if we tuned a violin in 6ths.If you started with open G on the bottom, that would make the top string a (high) open A. So maybe "tune down" so the lowest open is an F (like Cajun) or an E (VERY swampy.)Fiddlers do use a variety of tunings, but they reduce spacing to fourths once or twice, and less commonly to a third between the top two. In 6ths you would play open-1-2-3-4 on each string and have no duplicates available. I'll have to think about it a while to guess what might happen to resonance. Sue

September 11, 2008 at 11:59 PM · I could imagine more reports of exploding violins.

September 12, 2008 at 02:19 AM · It would be bad idea to add B string. This way every violist would be able to play violin... but until new composers will write something for this instrument. lol (Dear violists, I am kidding! Your instrument is great, and I'd really wish to play it the same way as I know violin.)

September 12, 2008 at 03:05 PM · I have specialized in 5 string violins over the last several years, mainly because of demand, and have found that classical players are not very open to any variation on the "standard" 4 string violin. Jazz, Blues,Celtic etc. are very excited about 5 string violins and violas. They offer a larger tonal palate for them to improvise with. It is also used to support vocals. A high "B" IMHO would not be as useful in this type application as the low "C".

The viola typically has a high "E" added so moving up the frequency range is done with a viola.

As far as no one taking string spacing into account, I must disagree. I do consider string spacing both at the nut and the bridge.

If you take a 4 string violin that starts with a fairly narrow neck and convert it to a five string then you may not have enough room to give good spacing. Other 4 strings that have a bit wider neck can be converted with much more playability.

A purpose built 5 string can have a very comfortable neck width and string spacing if it is designed into the instrument.

To try to answer the original question that was asked I think that the high "B" is not a useful to those who play non-standard violins or violas.

September 12, 2008 at 05:21 PM · What's the difference between a 5-string viola with an added E string and a 5-string violin with an added C string? Just the string length?

A 5-string violin or viola might be an interesting way to play Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata, which, after all, was originally written neither for violin nor for viola but for an instrument that no one plays today, so that if this work is to be performed at all, no one can quibble about authenticity whether it's played on a 4- or 5-string violin or viola or a cello.

September 12, 2008 at 07:22 PM · What an interesting idea, Karen! Congratulate your daughter for me.

I personally love the idea of a B string, both to alleviate the nostril-cramming (thanks for the visual, Emily!) and to play even higher higher higher notes! The higher the better! Why does high automatically mean squeaky? I'd think a B string would make the notes even LESS squeaky, with a longer length to vibrate.

The idea of one popping does scare the heck out of me, though.

September 12, 2008 at 08:50 PM · You're right, high doesn't automatically mean squeaky. It just means squeaky when *I* play high notes (only kidding . . . sort of . . . cue the viola jokes)

But yeah, I wonder if something played on a B-string closer to the scroll with more string length would sound better than something played way up there next to the nostrils.

September 13, 2008 at 03:22 PM · >>>What's the difference between a 5-string viola with an added E string and a 5-string violin with an added C string? Just the string length?<<<

Body size and timbre. My 5 string viola has a 15 1/2" body, and the longest scale I can fit an E string to, about 14 inches. The fiddle has a 14 1/2 inch body, and a normal violin scale. I'd make the viola bigger if I thought I could make an E string work on it.

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