5-string violins

July 19, 2010 at 06:42 PM ·

As a 5-string violin player, I'm wondering if anone else owns / plays one. Do you find the low C "nice to have", or do you use all 5 strings in your regular playing? Any pros  / cons for this instrument, in comparison to the standard 4-string? It has had a short evolutionary period compared to standard violins. Is it here to stay? Any opinions welcome.

Replies (24)

July 19, 2010 at 08:58 PM ·

 I bought a five string Song violin from China, the viol shape, and had to convert it to a four string because the C string was so bad it was unplayable. The sound of the C string had no body and did not resonate enough because it was too slack. My advice would be to stay away from a 5 string violin. But if you convert it to a 4 string you have a wider finger board with more space between the strings, ideal for those guys that find their fingers are too fleshy for the conventional 4/4 violin.

Now that I converted the violin it suits my big hands and double stops are easier to play. On the other hand you will be disappointed if you think that you have a violin and a viola rolled in one. That is only a dream and not reality. If you buy a 5 string viola and think that the E string will be like a violin the same disappointment awaits you.

For me 5 strings as a playable proposition are out even if  there are better C strings than those that I have encountered. The gap between the strings were also a problem.

 

 

 

 

 

July 19, 2010 at 10:21 PM ·

I agree with Dion. I am mostly a viola maker today and it is already hard to get a good C string in a viola, in a violin it is almost impossible, I think.  That for an acoustic instrument.

A relatevely small viola (15  1/5) with a C string would be a better idea for an acoustic instrument, I think.

www.manfio.com

 

July 19, 2010 at 11:01 PM ·

Thank you for your replies. That's interesting to hear these things said about a 5-string violin. I got mine from KC Strings in Kansas. The neck is standard violin length, and the neck is slightly wider than a 4-string (28mm at the nut) and the string spacing is fractionally less (5.5mm between the strings at the nut). The body is 46mm deep all round, and the upper body dimensions are about the same as a 4-string. The lower body is a bit wider, at 230mm, to accommodate the low C mainly. It sounds good, sweet and rich with good balance and a lot of projection too. it sounds like a violin, even the tone of the low C. it doesn't sound like a viola at all (the timbre of the tone is of a violin, and it's unmistakable). I don't think of it  as a combined violin and viola, although it has the note range of both.

Good point about the C string sounding bad - it's quite a feat of craftsmanship to get a good sounding 5-string, and it doesn't always work. I have played some instruments before, and noticed this problem. Luckily this one has worked for me. As I said, it's still an evolving instrument, but it's not to everone's taste.

July 20, 2010 at 12:56 AM ·

In addition to good conventional violins, Jonathan Cooper of Maine has a sub-specialty of 5-string instruments.   Not my thing, but he is a smart guy and a fine, well-respected maker.

July 20, 2010 at 01:20 AM ·

I bought one of G. Edward Lutherie's Dahlia 5-string violins about three years ago.  I wanted a second violin, mostly to cart around to practice sessions so I could leave my more valuable instrument at home.  I'd like to be able to give a well thought out, cogent reason for selecting the Dahlia over a conventional instrument, but I can't.  To be honest, I just liked the looks of the thing, and the idea of five strings was intriguing.  Not the best of reasons to plop down the $1200 it took me over two years to save up, but there it is.

On the upside, I enjoy playing the Dahlia, and if I don't feel like lugging the amazingly heavy violin/viola (I swear it gets a little heavier with each passing week) case off to practice, I've got both in one instrument.  The string spacing is standard violin spacing, and it took less than an hour to adjust to playing with an added string.

The down side; I just did a one-after-the-other comparison with the viola to be sure.  The Dahlia's open C string sounds pretty good and volume is decent, but yes, it does sound like a violin, not a viola.  And unfortunately, physics inevitably takes over; both the 'C-string-sound' and projection fall off rapidly as one moves up the neck.  By the time you get to fourth position, it's pretty much over. So the vast majority of my viola playing is done on the viola.

Would I buy the Dahlia again, knowing what I know now?  We'll, I'm not ready to sell it off, and for anyone really wanting a 5-string, but not ready to pay for a custom-made instrument,  the Dahlia is what I'd recommend.  And for the violin/viola teacher tired of that heavy dual case (or worse, two cases), the Dahlia could be good choice to take to lessons.  But no, if I could go back and do it over I probably wouldn't repeat the purchase.  In fact, I would probably not even get a second violin.  I'd get a viola.  Of course, that's hindsight.  I never even considered playing the viola until I bought the 5-string, and now I'm  playing the viola as much, or more than the violin.

July 20, 2010 at 02:41 AM ·

 Getting the C right on a violin is not an easy task.  The lack of string options makes it even harder.  The best result I have had so far is with a higher tension C like a tungsten.  Regrettably it only comes in a 15 inch viola size.  It takes a little getting use to but does work better.  I get one request for a 5 string for every 4 or 5 requests for a 4 string.  I think they are gaining in popularity.  With a little work they can be made to sound excellent.

July 20, 2010 at 05:05 AM ·

I had one that had a nice rich sound on the C, not powerful, but sounded beautiful.I ended up selling it, for two reasons.

  1. The neck was too narrow, and the strings were too close at the nut
  2. I found the C a distraction, and my practive habits got worse.

I would be interested in another, at some time, or if I get a chance to buy that one back and do some neck work on it. For now, I'll stick with 4 strings.

July 20, 2010 at 09:28 AM ·

It obviously depends a lot on the design.  John Silakowski has been making some VERY nice 5-stringers for many years, and there's a line of country players around the block, waiting for one.

 

Barry Dudley posted an mp3 online last years that sounds really, really good.  He uses a violin body that is extra-wide, but normal dimensions in all other respects. (I think)

String spacing is critical, and I see a lot of 5-string with 4-string fingerboards.  I don't get that at all.

My fiddle has the normal 4-string spacing, plus that extra c-string.  If it were less wide, I'd never be able to play fingered double-stops (I have large fingers.)   The downside is, if you use a shoulder rest you may have trouble playing an extra-wide FB.  You have to roll the fiddle to the right when playing the C, and the SR impedes this.

 

Last:  IMO, in many ways the best 5-string is an electric, since the body resonance is much less important.  I'm currently playing the new Yamaha SV-255. (see my recent review here)  The sound is amazingly close to a good acoustic, seriously, and the string balance is perfect. I just LOVE that low C!!  -but then, I don't play classical music.  I [lay a lot of supporting lines behind singers & guitarists, and the C-string is a Godsend for this.

August 13, 2010 at 09:27 PM ·

So much depends on the type of music you play and the venues. Most of my customers want an acoustic 5 string because they play many times into a mic and they also want that true violin sound.

My 5 string violins are just slightly larger than a standard 4 string with many features that make it possible to just pick it up and play it. with very little adjusting.  

The pros are fairly obvious...you have a larger tonal pallet to chose from. this is great if you improvise much. A 5 string violin is also very handy if you teach violin and viola. You only need to one instrument to teach  both.

The cons are that generally a classical environment will not be receptive to the idea of a 5 string.

August 14, 2010 at 02:25 AM ·

Using 5 strings to teach viola is OK for basic stuffs, but when it comes to advance techniques it's pretty different. Viola require different bow pressure to bring out the sound, different adjusting to deal with the C string quirk (pitch stability), different approach to tone etc.

What I observed from local violists in my country is that, most of them doesn't really play like a viola, they don't bring out the deep tone of what a viola should have. There's one player that really bring out the true viola tone - powerful yet deep, rich, and focused. I tried his viola and I sound no where near!

April 21, 2011 at 01:56 PM ·

while i understand where the "5 strings are a compromise" attitude comes from - i would say it is only a compromise if it isn't used or treated just as what it is. and it isn't a cross between a violin and a viola - that is just a useful way of describing it to somebody who has not encountered one before.

as an instrument in it's own right it is not a compromise at all and is only seen as such when compared to traditional instruments. like them you get good 5 strings and not so good 5 strings but they are such incredibly versatile instruments that i think it's a shame they are sometimes treated like half baked violins/violas. just don't expect it to sound like a violin and a viola at once because that is a ludicrous idea considering how different violins and violas sound even on their comparable strings (G,D,A).

April 22, 2011 at 04:29 PM ·

Good post, Ben. It is indeed an instrument in its own right. It really does require a different mindset, and a different set of chops too, to be honest. Having a real middle string helps as well, from a  compositional point of view :)

Jim  

April 22, 2011 at 07:30 PM ·

 Ben, you are exactly right! A five string violin is not an attempt to be a combination of a violin and a viola. It is a different instrument in it's own right. In my opinion a five string violin is a different approach than a five string viola.. Either can be used for things like teaching both violin and viola but a 5-string violin , IMO, works better with singers. Some of my players are using their 5 string violins to play classical. Once you the new technique becomes second nature there are few limitations.

April 23, 2011 at 02:10 PM ·

 I am more of a free style fiddler than a violinist, but for me the 5-string fiddle gives me more range for improvisation and gives me a lower register for backing up vocalists. It really is a different instrument . 

It is also nice for playing fiddle tunes an octave below the way they are normally played. I have been playing a 5-string fiddle exclusively now for 5 years or so and have no desire to go back to a 4 string fiddle.

 

David Blackmon

April 23, 2011 at 03:45 PM ·

For a really awesome 5 string check out Bradley Higgins from NY State near Lake George his website has many photos and all info. He is endorsed by many famous players. His prices are great too. His web site is www.bradivarius.com  I just bought one and really love it, I got the Bradivarius ll model in a Cedar top and Sapele sides and back. He uses many different woods and builds either a Chanot or a Traditional style. He can have one ready in about  3 months.

July 15, 2015 at 12:24 PM · Only just spotted this link.

Most 5-string violins I've tried are tricky as the spacing differs from a 4-string. Not so the electric 5-string Merlin A300 I got a few years ago. Made by Mike Burnham in the UK, I found it feels exactly like a 4-string, just with an extra string at the bottom. Most don't. It's also just about the truest electric violin tone-wise I've come across with the possible exception of the Violectra (which costs 3-4 times as much). Oh yes, and the C-string works perfectly (no buzzing/fouling) and you get a great deep tone from it as well.

The link to his site is here

Does anyone else have one of these? I want to get hold of one of the A100 ones as well...

July 15, 2015 at 05:13 PM · Wasn't the viola pomposa, for which Bach's E-flat major suite was originally written, a C-G-D-A-E five string viola?

July 16, 2015 at 11:10 PM · "Wasn't the viola pomposa, for which Bach's E-flat major suite was originally written, a C-G-D-A-E five string viola?"

Nope. You're probably thinking of BWV 1012 D Major Suite. All we know is that in Anna Magdalena's manuscript it's specified to be played to something with C, G, D, A, E strings. It's probably a violoncello piccolo, but played da gamba or da spalla, who knows...

July 17, 2015 at 02:36 PM · 5 string violin, also known as Milanolo is excellently played by Milan Pala, a violin and milanolo virtuoso. You can also check some of his interviews and concerts on Youtube or website. There he demonstrates everything you want to know.

July 18, 2015 at 11:19 PM · Thanks, Dorian, I can't even claim drunkenness as an excuse for that howler (an excuse actually more reprehensible than the misdemeanor!). Of course it's number 6, the D-major. One transcriber of the suite for viola, Jerzy Kosmala, states in his preface that it was written for viola pomposa (but you probably know better), and gives that as a reason for putting it all into key G. Another editor only puts one movement into key G, leaving the rest in D.

July 25, 2015 at 07:57 AM · Just by way of comparison, my 5-string has a nut width of 28mm, and the string spacing is 5.5mm between all strings.

I don't own a 4-string, so I'm not sure what the measurements are.

December 16, 2015 at 05:20 PM · So after some serious thought, I decided to try out a 5-string violin since I really do love those lower registers. I went with the Fiddlerman 5-string, which had a slightly longer/wider body and fingerboard. First thing I had to do was take it to a luthier and have them readjust the sound post, then I put on a set of Helicores (which I've heard are also loved by viola players). The next step is probably to get the bridge re-cut so I'm not doing accidental double stops all the time but...yeah. I like this. The viola dimensions give me a much more mellow sound, which the Helicores really help to liven up. I'm debating making this one my main instrument, it's just that fun to play.

I will be honest though, I don't use the lower registers nearly as much as I'd hoped. Considering I use violin sheet music that's not too surprising since, frankly, I rarely even use the G string (let alone the C), but for improvisational work and taking something down half an octave (or more), it's fun to have that lower register. :)

December 16, 2015 at 11:58 PM · Anyone interested in playing or acquiring a 5-string violin should listen to the beautiful recordings of Canadian folk violinist Oliver Schroer. He died tragically early in 2008 of leukaemia, at the age of 52, but left a marvellous original legacy of violin music which exploits the full tonal palate of his 5-string acoustic violin with great sensitivity and nuance. Oliver walked over 1,000 kilometres of the Camino trail in 2004, and was recorded playing original compositions in all the churches along the way. The result is an extraordinary album, simply titled Camino. Here is a link to a Youtube in which he plays one of the tunes, "The Silence at the Heart of Things", and reflects on that journey:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-_sjz6Iazo

There are plenty of other Youtube recordings of his performances. I heard him play a live concert in 2005, and was entranced by his music and by the sound of his remarkable instrument. His use of the lower registers of this violin are hauntingly beautiful. Wikipedia has a fine article about his life and work.

December 19, 2015 at 06:50 PM · I got a nice- as far as I'm concerned, and I'm a hack- 16.5 5 string viola from China almost two years back, and I still really haven't got it set up to my satisfaction- although all that remains is another filing down of the bridge. Beautiful deep body, nicely put together- came with individual tuners though it advertised a 5 string Grover in the ad- oh well, heavy, but they work well. It really is a beautiful instrument and should hold it's worth I imagine. I already had a violin and a viola, and while I love the sound of the 5 string- it's got a much deeper body and thick tone than my other cheap 16 viola, I haven't played it much. (Very spread thin on lots of instruments- guitar and piano- just re-flanged a couple of hammer butts on the old Baldwin Hamilton studio piano I tune twice a year, and recently got a rather large 34 string harp)

Anyway, I've found the size is just really too large for my normal sized adult hands- the extra string- PLUS the large 16.5 size really stretches the reach. But that C does sound great- if I had to do again I'd probably get a 15 viola or violin, they put out a nice baroque style 15 body.

One thing that should be done is that the middle peg on the bass side, where there are 3 pegs should really be stuck out more from the other two beside it, it was very difficult to work with at first especially- the pegs were sticking tight before the viola was holding much tune as well, and it was to turn the center peg without getting my fingers up against the others-

It might look weird but it would be much better if the center peg stuck out the full peg head width. I finally had all the pegs out and gave them all a light reaming. I got an extra wide bridge- the widest I could find, and now I think it may not have to be quite so wide, but it IS difficult shaping the bridge for five strings- getting the outsides to stay on and then still have enough angle for double stops and other playing. In fact, I think it's always going to be a bit of a compromise and more difficult to keep the bow off neighboring strings unintentionally. And that's part of why the set-up has been difficult too. It's still now just a tad too high for my tastes, but when I finally got it holding tune and had taken the bridge down some, I've been reluctant to finish the bridge, instead wanting to simply play it now and again, or opting back and forth between the fiddle and other viola- neither one get the attention to get me very far very fast.

But now that the long anticipated piano action work has been done, Ill probably get to taking the bridge down soon after another bit of playing to reacquaint me with where I need to get the strings. I was really tired of working on instruments at this time last year, and now it's almost over.

Anyway, that's the main things . The extra string may make the setup more tedious, the string separation and angle is more crucial and difficult, and you may need just a size smaller than you thought because it's a reach across the wide neck.

I love the low C sound though, and I'd have bought a cello by now if I just had ROOM for it!

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