Viola string help! Urgent!

October 20, 2018, 12:09 AM · Hey!

So, I'm taking in my old viola i bought to be restored tomorrow (Oct. 20) and my luthier is going to ask what strings I want on it.

I don't know what its personality will be, so I don't know if it likes dark or bright strings (ex. Evahs vs Obligatos), so what strings could I say that are pretty neutral but still sound good?

I want to stay away from Dominants. As much as I try to like them, they're just not my cup of tea.

I've heard Tonicas or Helicores are good for violin, but what about viola? What would you all recommend?

Thanks guys, I really appreciate all of your answers on my posts, no matter how silly or naive they seem. It's nice to be part of a community where everyone is helping each other learn :')

Replies (22)

Edited: October 20, 2018, 12:59 AM · I think both Helicores and Tonicas might work well - they are generally neutral-sounding, even, responsive strings, and both also happen to be relatively inexpensive. I found that the Tonica D (new formula) cracked unusually easily, and I experienced this with 2 different samples. But maybe that’s not a common problem on most violas.

You might (or might not) prefer a different A string in place of either.

Edited: October 20, 2018, 2:44 AM · Have you tried Dominants on a viola, or do you just dislike them on a violin? I ask because I tend to like them on a viola and dislike them on a violin myself.

I use Vision C/G/D and Larsen A on my viola. Vision projects well without much loss of complexity, is a little on the bright side (not far from Tonica), and still sounds great after 7 months (the longest I've gone between string changes while using Vision) while playing in two orchestras and practicing almost daily. Larsen is a great A string to pair with almost any string set; it has a clean, balanced sound.

Interestingly, the two most common viola strings I've seen among local pros and high-level amateurs are Obligato first and Evah Pirazzi second.

October 20, 2018, 4:31 AM · I use Tonicas on two very different violas. I can't comment on the Old vs New Formula without comparing two unused sets..

My newer, fatter, warmer viola was supplied with Helicores (rope-cored steel) but I found the tone monotonous, and too loud for my orchestral section; I might use them for a concerto, though, as the tone doesn't "crack" under pressure.

With my Tonicas I like their synthetic A, with a longer, lighter bow-stroke, but many folks prefer a steel A e.g. Jargar.

Tonicas, like Dominants, are lower tension than Obligatos or Evahs, as well as being cheaper and longer lasting....

Edited: October 20, 2018, 6:47 AM · What you really need to do is turn the question around and ask your luthier what s/he thinks would give you the best sound. You can start by thinking about what you liked or did not like about the last set of strings you had on it. Depending on the amount of work done, the viola may have a somewhat different sound, but at least that gives you some basis for the discussion with your luthier. If you have never had strings on it or want to start with something as a baseline and go from there, Dominants (neutral), Obligatos (warm) or Evahs (bright) will give you a good start. The problem with asking people for advice is that different strings sound different on different instruments, so what sounds good on my viola may not on yours. We can tell you what sort of general sound a particular string will produce, but not necessarily how that will work on your instrument. Good luck!
Edited: October 20, 2018, 7:44 AM · As mentioned before, vibrating string length (the distance from nut to bridge), is the most important factor in string selection. It is in inverse proportion to string's gauge: the longer it is, the thinner strings should be (and vice versa). Failing to chose a proper gauge may cause certain brand to sound bad and non-responsive. This in particular in higher positions or all away up on A! Last thing you want to have is a slow-respondig viola.....

On my humble viola, this measure is 360mm and it sounds rather good with Cantiga light (C,G,D) and Larsen A strong. (Note that Cantiga strings are high tension, so light is in fact medium!) Cantiga string are still quite affordable and last very long....

October 20, 2018, 8:44 AM · Hmm thanks guys!

Tom, the viola isn't playable at the moment. I bought it so I could get it restored (and thus spend a little less money on an old, seasoned instrument rather than a new one. I like the sound of older ones even if they're not "professional" grade. My violin is a Vogtland garden variety, but I think because it's so old, it sounds beautiful amd rich compared to a garden variety one made these days). If I were able to play it, I'd have a better time guessing what strings to put on it, but since it'll be the first time playing it, I wanted a neutral string so I can see if it lives on the brighter or darker side naturally.

I'll take what you guys have said and ask my luthier what he thinks about it. :)

Edited: October 20, 2018, 5:53 PM · Prejudice against Dominants is unwarranted.I harbored that feeling because I tried them when they first were marketed in 1970 and they did not work on my violin that had previously only experienced Eudoxas and Olives. Tonicas worked well on that violin so I switched to them - for a while. That was probably more than a dozen string brands ago.

But it has not been serial monogamy for me, because I have acquired additional violins and found that some of them even like Dominants - not that I'm using Dominants at the moment on any of the 4 violins I still own.

But then the violas came into my life and on my newer and better 16-inch viola Dominants worked quite well and when I started to get serious about playing it a few years ago I began to experiment and replace this or that string to try to improve and balance sound. The set of Evah Pirazzi Gold I tried were horribly rough sounding (especially the C string) - and I removed them in a very short time. (Maybe I'll try them on the other viola, which I have currently strung with "Octave" strings to sound like a cello).

I finally took the viola (which was strung with a set of Pirastro Permanent strings at the time) to my luthier (Ifshin Violins in El Cerrito, CA) a year ago and fortunately the "clerk" who served me was a violist (a very good one) who played my viola and suggested possible string changes. So --- I still have the Permanents on the G and D strings but a lower tension C (right now it's a Pirastro Passione) and a lower tension A (for now it's a Dominant Weich). These changes have worked wonders and this viola sounds rather glorious to me - and that's what counts most - and I get favorable comments about it at times from the people I play with.

October 20, 2018, 12:16 PM · Kristen - good luck and let us know what you choose and how it works. I would still ask the luthier for an opinion based on what s/he thinks after restoration.
October 20, 2018, 12:19 PM · I'll let you guys know! He said he'd figure something out, so I'm wondering if he's going to try a bunch and see what sounds best. He's really great! :)
October 20, 2018, 3:22 PM · Just FYI for everyone: the Star website has a visual aid specifying the relative cost and type of sound for many of the viola strings:

Edited: October 20, 2018, 6:00 PM · Graphs or tables of string tensions might be more helpful since many instruments have weakness on certain strings - at least once you know what your instrument's weaknesses are. But it is a nice graph, unfortunately it does not include strings SHAR does not sell!
October 21, 2018, 5:54 AM · Andrew - good point. However, for most, this graph is a decent starting point. It includes every string I have ever tried and some I have not. Which strings in particular do you think are important that are not included?
Edited: October 21, 2018, 11:35 AM · Warchal as an entire brand, Tricolore and I don't see Spirocore. Also, the Pirastro line of steel-core strings seems to be missing: Flexocor-Permanent for violin (Permanent for viola and cello and Flexocor for cello).
Edited: October 21, 2018, 12:41 PM · An analytical look at some strings:

Skip to page 43 to get to the good stuff.

October 21, 2018, 3:35 PM · Wow, what a study! So much information there (and so much not) it will take me a long time to try to work that all out (or in) if I do. Good thing the study stopped where it did or it might still be going on.
October 21, 2018, 7:39 PM · That study is a very interesting one, because the study also quoted multiple reviews of every string set.

For computer analysis purposes it defined brightness in terms of strength of upper harmonics. And for most of the string sets tested (the only exceptions being Larsen and Evah Pirazzi), the conclusion on "dark" or "bright" tended to be the exact opposite of what reviewers said. The study found Obligato to be brighter than average, and found Red Label to be the darkest of the strings tested.

Perhaps the perception of darkness or brightness isn't so simple as looking at upper harmonics? It may differ by pitch, or by odd vs. even harmonics. (Consider the clarinet, for example: its distinctive dark sound comes from strong odd harmonics and weak even harmonics.)

October 23, 2018, 10:07 PM · If you want dark and pliable, aricore a,d, and obligato g,c. (Substitute tonica for $) I used to like that combination quite a bit before my instrument darkened with a series of setup changes. Now, I like Kaplan AMO for responsiveness. Helicores would be bright to my ear on most instruments, but they are thin and responsive. I also found Tonica to be a fair set for a reasonable price. IMHO, YMMV, yada yada.
October 24, 2018, 7:18 AM · Thank you! My luthier said he'd figure something out, so I trust him. Eventually I'll upgrade when I figure out my instrument's personality :)
October 24, 2018, 8:08 AM · Kristen - sounds like a good plan. Good luck!
October 24, 2018, 11:58 AM · Looks like Pirastro discontinued Aricores for viola, as well as Synoxas (and both are gone for cello too).

No more light/heavy gauges for Tonica and Obligato violin strings, either. That’s a bummer. I liked Obligato heavy A on one of my violins.

October 24, 2018, 12:34 PM · The Helicore Viola A is good on my Violas. For the C-string, we want as rich a sound as possible, so, if you can afford it, try a low-tension gut C. For the middle strings either metal or synthetic core, depending on whether you want a bright or mellow sound. You will see a lot of Helicore strings on the Cellos and Basses of orchestra players.
October 24, 2018, 1:06 PM · a low-tension C will not work on a short VSL viola, for the reasons described above.

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