15-inch 5-string instrument strings

Edited: February 8, 2021, 3:31 PM · I have a nice 15" 5-string violin/viola whose setup I'm looking to optimise. The playing length is 14". Initially, I had it setup with the C string wound on the lowest peg on the left side (so the D ends up right at the top of the pegbox). The first strings I put on it were the Helicore viola E string (long scale because I had no choice, but it works fine), Zyex medium-scale viola A, D and G, and a medium-scale Helicore viola C. The E and A strings sounded great, but the D and G strings were a little muddy and felt flabby under the fingers, and the C string lacked a little punch.

Now, I have it set up such that the C string is wound on the top peg and the other four strings are wound as a violin would be wound (so the C is the extra string). I swapped out the G and D strings for some old Pirastro Wondertone Solo violin strings I had lying around and it sounds much better, but the C is still missing its punch.

I now have two related concerns:
1) I'm worried that in general violin strings are just a bit too short for this instrument, so they're being stretched more than they should and might wear out quickly. The violin G and D I put on are old so I'm not that worried about them, but when I replace them I'm guessing I should use something designed specifically for violas. So short-scale viola strings would probably be better for the G and D with the current setup. However...
2) The C string is now wound really high up in the peg box, so it basically requires a medium-scale string otherwise it likely won't stay in place. I'm worried, though, that medium-scale strings are generally not best optimised for an instrument with a 14" playing length. That said, if I rewind everything back to how it was, with the C string at the lowest peg, then certainly the D string and possibly the G have to be medium-scale to accommodate for where they are in the pegbox. But tone-wise that didn't work so well for me. I get that different strings have different tensions, but I'd have thought that it would be better to optimise for string length first before messing around with tension.

Any thoughts on what a good solution might be? For what it's worth, I was thinking of putting a Kaplan Forza C string on the instrument, maybe a G too, but I'm having a hard time finding a short-scale version of the string (there are plenty of mediums).

Replies (9)

Edited: February 8, 2021, 11:56 AM · It depends somewhat on the type of playing you’re doing. If it’s Bluegrass or Jazz, many players use Helicore for their twang. They don’t have much tone color, but they’re quick when playing with a mic.

If you’re playing more classical music, I’d go with a different set, like Obligato or Evah Gold.

What prompted you to put on the Helicore/Zyex combination? If you were trying to adjust the balance, perhaps the instrument needs a sound post adjustment. Mixed sets are often a sign of an instrument that is out of adjustment.

Edited: February 8, 2021, 4:53 PM · Hi Rich, I mainly just play on it for myself (trying to learn Bach 6th Cello suite) but I've been using it for classical chamber music, where I switch between violin and viola. The Helicore/Zyex combination 1) was cheaper than Pirastro strings, 2) has served me well on my regular viola in the past and 3) will probably last a while based on prior experience.

I think the idea of certain strings being suited to certain repertoires is partly a function of design/manufacturing and mostly a function of marketing playing the mind. For instance, I've played violin concertos with a full set of steel strings, as well as gut G and D, synthetic A and steel E.

While my 5-string is not an expensive instrument, I disagree with you that not wanting to use a full set is a sign of an instrument being out of adjustment (not least because I had it set up professionally by a well respected maker). Everyone has a different concept of what sound they want to produce from their instrument, and if it doesn't match up with what a single string set has to offer then that's not necessarily the fault of the instrument. Plenty of people, for instance, would never use the regular Evah Pirazzi viola A string because it is nasal and harsh. Similarly the Oliv violin A string is prone to cracking, and even if you adjust your technique to match the string its tone quality in my opinion is not so much better than say a Dominant or Vision Solo A string. On the flipside, I know there's only so much I can get out of this instrument, so I have no problem with experimenting with strings to get what I want out of it.

February 8, 2021, 7:57 PM · Quinn seems to have short scale Forzas.


I think Thomastik Spirocore or Superflexible could work well for the lower strings too.

Edited: February 9, 2021, 1:42 AM · I don’t think marketing has anything to do with the fact that certain strings work well for certain settings. As an example, Helicore strings aren’t marketed specifically to bluegrass players. They show up in music stores a lot because they’re made by D’Addario, the manufacturer that makes the majority of strings you find on entry level string instruments. This means they might be used for any number of styles of playing. However, among professional players, Helicores are more commonly used for bluegrass and jazz. This is a player preference, not the market.

I don’t use the Pirastro A strings on viola sets (the Larsen A works better on almost everything), nor do I use the Dominant A, but I do use matching C,G, and D strings. I do the same kind of thing with violin sets (matching G,D, A with different E). Sets are engineered to work together, and it involves a lot more than string tension. I’m always willing to try out different combinations
to see what sounds better, but I keep coming back to the same conclusion, and my customers’ preferences bear that out.

If mixing strings makes you happy, by all means, use the strings you enjoy playing the most. It is true that it’s a lot easier for a player to change the sound and response by switching strings. It’s worth noting, though, that the original post described issues with the sound of the instrument—that suggests something isn’t working.

Edited: February 9, 2021, 11:09 AM · Andrew, thanks for the suggestion to check out Quinn Violins.


Rich – point taken re string engineering. I concur that D'Addario strings are often used on entry level instruments (though their quality has improved dramatically in my opinion since I first tried them way back when). I'm still not convinced that marketing has *nothing* to do with string suitability (there's no single concept of sound within a genre). If anyone was ever offended by the sound I make with an all-steel setup for classical violin, they likely would have told me and maybe not given me opportunities to play with them in future :) String manufacturers are also taking into consideration who buys their particular models and adjusting their marketing strategy accordingly if a particular style of player is super into them. I know Helicores aren't specifically advertised for bluegrass players, but on their website they are advertised for "all musical styles" explicitly while the other D'Addario strings aren't. And all the testimonials are from players of non-classical music. But we can agree to disagree on this one :)

Like I said, this 5-string isn't an expensive instrument (not even 5% of the price of my violin, which is quite a fine fiddle), and I only expect it to take me so far. I can't think of many cheap 15" violas that don't have a somewhat compromised C string. That said, it's not bad, and definitely adequate for how I'm using it.

I'm mainly just interested to know what has worked well for people with small violas or 15" 5-strings, especially given the nature of string lengths on 5-string instruments.

February 9, 2021, 4:19 PM · One way to aid oneself in determining which direction to proceed to improve the performance of a particular string is to vary its pitch slightly in both directions and see if the quality of the sound is improved or degraded in each direction: higher pitch=tighter and lower=looser. If loosening improves the pitch then trying a lower tension string might help. There are two ways to select a lower tension string: (1)either get one of the same length but rated "weaker" or lower tensio or (2) select a longer string rated for the same tension because when installed with your instrument's vibrating string length it will have to be loosened to correct the pitch.

The interior volume of smaller instruments makes good low pitches more difficult to produce, but there are some decent smaller violas (so I have been told).

February 9, 2021, 7:46 PM · Andrew, I have a 14" Karl Meisel viola from the 1950's that sounds great (to me) with Helicores. The luthier recommended the Helicores because he reasons that a small instrument needs to power of the all steel strings. I had Wittner pegs installed and it has the original tailpiece with no fine tuners at all which opened up the sound a lot. However, I may experiment with other strings, just for fun. It's the scientist in me!
February 9, 2021, 9:28 PM · Steel strings aren’t really more powerful than synthetics. They can sound a bit louder under the ear, but they’re not louder at a distance.
February 12, 2021, 8:50 AM · Basic loudness of a string is a function of how much bow speed and pressure can be applied before it starts to choke.

As a rough rule-of-thumb, steel core is a bit better at this than synthetic or gut core, but high tension, metal wound synthetics and guts can also take quite a beating from the bow. So I would not fixate on steel core for getting a louder sound.

Projection, the ability of a sound to be heard at a distance, is a bit more complex. Certainly basic loudness comes into play, but presence of strong, high-pitched overtones and the use of playing techniques, like vibrato all play a relevant part.

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