Convert Viola to Viola da Gamba?

November 28, 2019, 7:04 PM · I've been checking out a lot of videos of musicians playing treble, tenor and bass Viol's, and I became curious if a standard Viola can be converted simply by adding Gut frets? Some guys actually use zipties because they're easy to tighten.
I guess the principal of the frets is to give each note the tone of an open string. Does anyone have any idea if converting a Viola will get me in the ball park of a Treble Viol tone wise?

Replies (16)

November 29, 2019, 7:49 AM · Tone match may be a challenge because viols typically have more than 4 strings and are tuned around 4ths rather than 5ths. Also, the construction is dramatically different which will yield a different tonal balance than a viola.

However, I have fretted cheap violins a variety of different ways and just about any method will work well. You will have two challenges, however.

1. Different strings will sound their diatonic tones at slightly different stop lengths from the nut. This is due to the differences among their stiffness and height from the fingerboard (or fret in this case).

This can be especially noticeable for the C string of a viola or the e string of a violin, since they can have a construction that is decidedly different from the other strings.

It might be less noticeable for notes sounding close to the nut. But as one progresses up the fingerboard, the distance one must depress the string to stop it increases rapidly and this exaggerates the effect. Hopefully you can place the fret with a slant across the board that will be a good compromise among all the strings.

2. The other challenge is fingering. You might be used to placing your fingers at the positions now occupied by the frets. I found I needed to place them very slightly "low" (closer to the nut) to get a clean sound. This can be disconcerting if you have been playing for awhile.

On the plus side, use of frets does make it easy to get clean, basic intonation. Contrary to popular belief, it does not compromise the ability to do vibrato or quarter steps, but it does require an adjustment of technique.

Plastic ties are a good choice because they are less likely to slip, easy to install and remove and very inexpensive.

November 29, 2019, 9:05 AM · Thanks for the info!
Edited: November 29, 2019, 9:40 AM · Tie-on frets are movable, and can even be slightly crooked, to favour certain intervals.
I have two very complicated books on trying, desperately, to accommodate viols and lutes to mean-toned keyboards.
Some say that this led the guitar (fixed frets) to adopt equal temperament earlier than keyboards...
Old engravings often show irregular fret-spacings, but this could be inattention on the artist's part!

I have adapted some of the magical gamba music of Marin Marais, Saint-Colombe etc. for viola, usually transposing it up one fourth to make best use of our four strings, thus avoiding ugly octave shifts.

November 29, 2019, 11:48 AM · I was going to ignore this until I noticed your question was about achieving gamba tone. The answer is a resounding NO.

A gamba is definitely not a viola with frets. The proportions are different, the ribs are nearly twice as high, all of the wood is much thinner and lighter, and real viol plates are bent, not carved, with an entirely different arching than the violin family. And then there's the problem of the missing string/s.

What you are suggesting is similar to asking if you remove the trunk lid from your car, will you then have a 4-wheel drive 3/4-ton pickup.

November 29, 2019, 12:16 PM · Michael, there ARE 4 string Viol's out there, in the treble, alto and tenor sizes
November 29, 2019, 1:06 PM · Primitive ones, yes, if you don't intend to play all the usual music. Kind of like three-legged dogs: they also exist.
December 6, 2019, 1:43 AM · And don't forget that gambas are Thu need in fourths not fifth, which means three string will react differently to when it's tuned as a viola. This may mean you need higher tension strings.

If you go ahead with the experiment, please tell us how it went. I really really want to learn tenor viola da gamba but it will be a fair few years before I've saved up enough to buy one. (Not going to waste my saving on the cheap likely vdg shaped objects on ebay...).

December 6, 2019, 3:58 AM · One thing to keep in mind when trying to learn a similar but different instrument -- don't approach it as if you already know a lot about how to play it. It's a different instrument, with a different bow and it needs to be approached as if you are a complete beginner, starting with baby steps just like we all did when learning violin/viola/cello.
December 6, 2019, 7:21 AM · Why don't you just buy a cheap viol and be done with it? Zipties? Really?
December 6, 2019, 7:28 AM · Are you particularly bothered about being authentic? There are stick on frets - I believe they do them for viola too.
December 6, 2019, 8:14 AM · I was talking casually at a lunch about viola pomposas with Colin Garrett, and he pointed out to me that a fifth string puts extra force on a bridge, so there needs to be a difference in construction between four bowed stringed instruments and those with more than 4.
December 6, 2019, 8:18 AM · As the human companion of a three-legged dog, I have to chime in to say they are decidedly NOT to four-legged dogs as a viola with frets is to a viola de gamba. Tripawds can do everything that a four-legged dog can do, besides scratch the ear on the side with the missing paw. :)
December 6, 2019, 4:22 PM · Just buy a gamba. Problem solved, time CANNOT be won....
December 6, 2019, 4:41 PM · Let them eat cake!
December 6, 2019, 5:51 PM · I thought gambas were much closer to cellos in size than to standard violas. At least, all the gamba players I knew at school were converted cellists.

I agree with those who suggest that you simply buy the correct instrument you want.

December 6, 2019, 10:58 PM · they come in different sizes just like violin family

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