Viola A string suggestions?

May 26, 2020, 9:01 PM · I've been playing the viola for about 2 years now. I recently upgraded to a nice workshop instrument. I really like the tone of it in general. The harmonics speak clearly and chords resonate very well.

However, it was set up with a Jargar A string, which at first I didn't mind, but it sounds a bit too metallic for me. The rest of the strings are Dominants and really fit nicely with my instrument. I'm not really a huge fan of Dominant As however.

Do you have any suggestions for A strings that might suit my instrument? I know that strings can be a personal thing, but at the same time, I don't have money to blow on trial and error, so if I can narrow it down to just a handful, that would be great.

I would love a string with a tonal quality that sounds more on the smooth side rather than piercing, if that makes any sense.

Thank you for any advice.

Replies (27)

May 26, 2020, 9:09 PM · I tend to use a Jargar A with Dominant viola strings, but I don’t put that set on most violas. I really like the Larsen A, which I use with Obligatos or Evah Golds most often.

If the instrument is piercing on the top end, it might be more to do with the soundpost position than the string choice, though. Switching out the A is an easy way to test, but if it doesn’t work, you might need to visit a luthier for an adjustment.

May 26, 2020, 9:09 PM · Larsen. Larsen. Larsen. Larsen. Larsen.

Sweet upper register sound, seems to mostly eliminate the nasal sound that violas have in that range.

May 26, 2020, 9:21 PM · Thanks Andrew and Rich. I will definitely look into Larsen. I doubt there is a soundpost issue because it was checked by the luthier when they set it up, but you never know. I guess I'll have to bring it in if. changing the string doesn't help.
May 26, 2020, 10:52 PM · I do think that a Larsen A string might help to achieve the sound you are looking for.

As violinists often need to do with their E-strings, it's also possible that you may benefit from trying different gauges of A strings, e.g. a Jargar dolce or forte A instead of medium.

Edited: May 27, 2020, 3:52 AM · I had a similar experience with my William Harris Lee workshop viola that came fitted with a Larsen A and the rest Dominant. I was told that this combination is a popular one but I found the sound of the Larsen obtruded uncomfortably in Bach and chamber music so back to Dominant I went.

Guivier's the dealer are close to the Royal Academy of Music and I suspect many of their customers are advanced students with soloistic ambitions! Of course all violas and all players are different and one solution definitely doesn't suit all requirements.

Edited: May 27, 2020, 6:02 AM · Larsen is a very good steel-cored A; you can also try a synthetic-cored A.
I find that Aricore, or Aricore-Eudoxa A's are sweet and warm, and go well with Tonica or Obligato C,G,& D stings. But I now see that Aricore has disappeared from the Pirastro viola catalogue.
There is no synthetic viola A for Obligatos: Pirastro sent me an Evah Pirazzi one: very harsh!
Zyex: harsh.
Pro Arte: muffled and heavy.
Crystal: a bit dull, the light version better.

The synthetic A's need a longer, lighter bow stroke: no bumping, just a neat attack.
May 27, 2020, 5:16 AM · I'd be interested to know why nobody has a good word for Dominant's A string? Maybe my last two violas haven't been typical, but when multitracking myself in string chamber music I usually have to attenuate the viola by at least 3dB in order to achieve a balance and the last thing I need is more penetration up top. Don't you think Thomastik may know their business?
May 27, 2020, 6:06 AM · I have used all 4 Dominants, and their A sounded well with the other 3.
I think folks prefer a steel-cored A because their bowing is too rough ;)
Edited: May 28, 2020, 5:20 PM · From my own experience I know it is foolish to make string suggestions for an unseen, unheard viola. I can only tell you of my experience.

My viola #1 is strung with Thomastik Dominant-Weich (i.e., low tension) A & C strings and Pirastro Permanent D & G strings. This is the combination I finally settled on after experimenting (i.e., messing around with it) for 20 years.

My viola #2 is now strung with the Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Gold strings that viola #1 vehemently rejected. I have owned #2 for 46 years and have not found a string combination that did not work on it. It's just that #2 is a luthier-regraduated German factory instrument, and #1 is luthier-made and has more "potential," as its current string setup demonstrates.

May 27, 2020, 6:38 AM · Ida - I would suggest you consult your luthier. S/he can hear your instrument with its current strings and propose an A which might better achieve the sound you seek. Larsen may well be the answer, but none of us can hear your viola with its current strings, and different strings sound different on different instruments. So, I suggest you take your viola to the expert who can hear it and make recommendations based on the best evidence. While we may all have significant experience with our violas and the string combinations that work, we have no experience with your viola.
May 27, 2020, 6:42 AM · I'm playing obligatos on my viola and the A string is fine.
May 27, 2020, 1:56 PM · Thanks for all the responses so far. It's a difficult at the moment to see my luthier as I'm still under quarantine, but I will certainly bring it in after things start to open up again in my area.
May 27, 2020, 3:27 PM · Another vote for Larsen, also the Warchal Amber A is a nice string to try.
May 27, 2020, 6:30 PM · Have you considered Kaplan? I got a set at a convention and have been happy with them. Otherwise, for A I have liked Corelli, Jarger Red, Vision Solo.
Edited: May 28, 2020, 3:09 AM · Nobody has yet given a reason why they think it's desirable to have a non-matching A-string, as seems to be the current trend. It's as if the viola's A-string sound is an embarrassment that we're trying to cover up cosmetically.

Most of the contemporary violas I auditioned a few years ago sounded very much on the bright side, with whatever strings they were set up with. In contrast, most of the older ones could be faulted the other way and in some the sound seemed to come from the end of a short drainpipe. Even some soloists don't seem to care much about the strangulated, undernourished noise their instrument makes throughout most of its register, as long as the top is loud and clear. I don't often hear what I consider to be the ideal, natural balance - rich at the bottom, mellow in the middle and a touch plaintive at the top. I'm thinking of starting a Campaign for Real Old Viola Sound

Edited: May 28, 2020, 3:37 AM · Steve, count me in on your campaign!
My French violist friends like a C like a trombone, an A like a trumpet, and a hoarse mess in between. Someone described the viola D as "playing on wet cardboard"..

Andrew's viola #1 is interesting: synthetics for C and A, and (I believe) steel for G and D. I must try this.

William Primrose, in the gut era, had a steel A but changed to a plain gut one under the influence of Heifetz.

Experiment: Just before renewing the set, I inverted the D and A. Of course the fingerings became "stimulating", but the A then sang like a violin A, and the D became clearer and more responsive.
So I think part of the Viola A Problem is its place on the corner of the bridge, with less wood to sweeten it, and practically right over the soundpost. Indeed Tertis wanted is soundpost further to the right than usual (or than safe?)

May 28, 2020, 12:16 PM · Changing the top string has been a common practice for so long that I would consider it a part of the “old sound.” Heifetz used a Goldbrokat E with his Tricolores.

Steve, the reason changing the top string is an ubiquitous practice is that the top strings really don’t work as well in many different sets. If I ran out of Larsen As, I’d use an Obligato A in its stead until I could get the Larsen, but there would be a tonal penalty. As wonderful as Dominants are, Thomastik has never produced an E string that really works well. They came out with a new version a few years back to attempt to make up for the unpopularity of their E, but it never took off. Thomastik has been frustrated by losing sales of cello D and A strings to Larsen for years, which is why they came out with their Versum line, but, again, the substituted set has remained largely the preferred one.

When it comes to Pirastro E strings, shops use the Gold Label regularly because it saves some money. The E is the same chrome steel string you’d get with Obligatos or Evahs, just without a matching thread winding at the bottom. When you’re buying strings in bulk tubes, it’s a lot easier to get a big tube of E strings and use them for multiple sets.

May 28, 2020, 12:57 PM · If I were a Thomastik executive I'd be asking "what are we still doing wrong?" and "what exactly do players want from the A string that ours don't deliver?" They wouldn't be getting many clues from this discussion. Is it too dull? Does it tend to whistle? Rich's description is the most specific on offer; the top strings of many sets "don't work as well". As compared with Larsen the Obligato A entails a "tonal penalty". If you particularly like the Larsen A, why not go for the full set?
Edited: June 10, 2020, 4:10 PM · I like to test complete sets, assuming (naïvely?) that the makers know what they are doing..
Some viola sets have a choice of A-strings: wound synthetic or wound steel,
e.g. Tonica, Evah Pirazzi, but not Obligato..(Why?)

To my ears, the shreiking A-string is a defect, of all violas, of bad violas, or of worn-down violists who don't mind anymore?

May 28, 2020, 3:31 PM · For me it's a specific thing. When I first switched to Larsen A, I was using Dominant strings. The Dominant A string sounded very nasal, at least on my viola. The Larsen A does not sound even slightly nasal.
May 28, 2020, 3:32 PM · The Evah (plain steel) e-string is actually made from a different material than the Gold Label e-string, per Pirastro's website.
May 28, 2020, 4:27 PM · Ida, I think we don't know enough about your instrument to give solid advice. Is its sound even across all strings, or is it (as too many of her sisters) out of balance and nasal on the D and A? Is it a large or smallish exemplary? What's the vibrating string length?

Personally I prefer higher tension strings like Evah on my Viola No.1 (413mm back, 375 vibrating string length, Amati model with a warm, strong and even sound). The set I'm currently using seems to be quite popular, at least amongst luthiers. It's Spirocore C, Evah G & D, and a Larsen A. Perfect match, works like a charm, but to be honest, with such a fine instrument it's hard to find a set of strings that sounds really bad. My babe has run well on complete sets of Evah or Obligato, too.

May 28, 2020, 5:51 PM · @Steve if you look at sites like SHAR and JSI they now offer string "sets" that contain various popular non-matching E strings. Marketing imitates life.
May 28, 2020, 8:59 PM · @Nuuska The sound is actually fairly even across the strings with the exception of the A. The C string I especially like and would probably not change unless I tried something stellar. I have yet to discover any obnoxious wolfs even in the highest positions. (I actually prefer the sound in the higher positions). It's a 15.5 size viola. I'm not quite sure the exact vibrating string length but I believe it's about 360-370 mm?
May 28, 2020, 10:31 PM · Pirastro makes gold-steel, chrome steel, and carbon steel E strings. They just put different thread windings on the bottoms of the strings so that the colors will match for various sets. That means that the Evah, Obligato, and Gold Label are all the same chrome steel string. In the same way the Obligato and Evah gold-steel E are the same string. Fan Tao at D’Addario has said many times that there is really no need for the colored thread at the bottom of the strings, just that it has been the tradition to use thread for such a long time, and that players have an expectation that the colors at the bottom will match aesthetically.

Representatives for the company and other businesses that market strings have admitted this on multiple occasions. It’s not a big secret, just a solution so that the strings will be color-coordinated.

Edited: May 29, 2020, 7:14 PM · Rich, as I mentioned, the Evah plain steel E actually does have a different core material from the Gold Label E.

The Evah gold-played E also has a different core from the Obligato gold-plated E.

Pirastro’s website confirms this, and to me, they sound and respond quite differently, also.

May 30, 2020, 8:37 PM · I’m well aware of what the website says....

If you prefer to use the matching E strings it’s certainly not a problem.

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