Why do most violists prefer steel A strings?

Edited: May 4, 2018, 9:18 PM · Hi everyone,
I'm curious about this. I've noticed that most violists use steel A strings instead of synthetic As. Why might that be? The only explanation I can think of is that a steel A gives a brighter, edgier sound, making it stick out like a violin E string. Any thoughts?
PS. I'm well aware that there's at least one regular poster (Adrian Heath, I believe) who prefers synthetic viola As (like me). Anyone else?

Replies (15)

May 4, 2018, 9:58 PM · I played viola professionally for many years, for most of that time I used a steel A (Jargar medium) because it had more power than covered gut A strings. Later, however, I started using a plain gut A, with Olive D and G and a Dominant C, which was the best combination. The gut A had plenty of power (contrary, perhaps, to stereotype) and wonderful character and on that viola those strings together were very even and blended well with each other.
May 4, 2018, 11:24 PM · I didn’t even know there was such a thing as synthetic e strings
May 5, 2018, 1:11 AM · I think it has a lot to do with bowing: the viola body and strings have greater "inertia" than those of a violin, and thus a heavier bow and a deeper bow-stroke.
Then we cross onto the A-string, and tend to want to bow it like the others, with a high tension, "clean" toned, steel-cored A.
I have always practiced a transition from shorter, heavier strokes on the C to a longer, lighter stroke on the A, treating it like a violin A. I want a viola, not a trumpet! (Four steel strings is another matter..). I find the viola A strident enough already!

Christopher, there are no synthetic violin E's, alas.
I once tried half a nylon guitar high E as a substitute for a plain gut E: a nice sound, but it got flattened where the fingers pressed. I was told that nylon was damaged by the higher tension. (This was in the early 60's before the advent of Perlon strings)

May 5, 2018, 4:51 AM · Many string sets come with steel A. Warchal is a notable exception. Lika Adrian I dislike the steel A strings (and the steel C that some viola players love). I am currently waiting for a set of tricolore to arrive.....
May 5, 2018, 6:41 AM · The modern viola sound is more soloistic.
Edited: May 5, 2018, 10:19 AM · I haven’t used anything but a steel A for a very long time.

I think a synthetic or gut A might often work just fine in low positions, but in higher positions, where synthetic or gut As might start to sound fuzzy, steel As tend to retain their clear focus, which is helpful and important.

Edited: May 6, 2018, 12:55 AM · And a steel C? Again, I find it odd to enclose the warm, velvety sound of the G & D between a trombone and a trumpet! (which I enjoy listening to BTW.)
But then I am not asked for concertos; if that happens, I might mount all four steel strings, such as the Helicores that came with the viola.
In the meantime, I'll just maintain my sweet, singing bow-strokes along the whole length of my Aricore-Eudoxa A..
May 6, 2018, 5:29 AM · Interesting to note that the great violist, Lionel Tertis, insisted on all steel strings both for himself and for his students.
May 19, 2018, 2:17 AM · .. and Arthur Richardson, who designed and built the first generation Tertis-Model violas, was not pleased!

But as in the 60's when I started, it was either gut or steel: no synthetics.

May 19, 2018, 4:51 AM · ...and Lionel Tertis insisted on all steel strings, even for his students.
Edited: May 19, 2018, 4:53 AM · My viola was made for me by my friend Charles Woods (actually it was one of two he made at the same time dated 1996) and by his own admission he sold the "better" one to a more experienced but younger viola player. It is a quite beautiful and powerful instrument but the C string is a bit "edgy" under the ear. I found that edginess is decreased by dropping the pitch of the C string so I have sought lower tension C strings. Also I have been advised that having a lower tension A string could also reduce the edginess of the C string.
So my current strings are:
A-Dominant low tension

This does seem to be the best stringing (so far) for this viola for the balance I want. Because I have another viola that can tolerate almost any stringing (even the set of 4 Spirocores I had on it for a while) I am well aware the one I have described is probably rather unique. I have just restrung the other viola with Sensicore Octave strings and I'm trying to read cello music with it without fouling up my alto clef reading.

May 19, 2018, 1:50 PM · How do you find the response of the passione C? On my viola it was kind of slow. The oliv-eudoxa C is wonderful on my viola. Very responsive and gorgeous sound.
May 19, 2018, 1:57 PM · because they do not have E string 8-;
May 19, 2018, 2:07 PM · I have no problem with the Passione C, but I'm used to bowing C strings after 6-1/2 decades of playing cello.
Edited: May 19, 2018, 2:51 PM · I use a Larsen A because I need to project, both as an orchestral section leader and as a chamber musician. I'm going to get drowned out if I don't have a more focused sound. I already play a smallish (15.75") viola.

Also, in general, I prefer a more soloistic viola setup because it's easier to blend in ensembles with a soloist's setup than it is to play solos with an orchestral player's setup. I use synthetics for C, G, and D but they're relatively bright and high-tension (Vision).

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