Why Aren't Tertis' and Wide Patterned Violas More Popular?

May 20, 2017, 1:04 PM · I might bite the bullet on switching from my 17" Yita to a 16 or 16.5 viola with some wider construction, (inb4 jingoism) but why are Strad and Gaunerius patterns the norm?

Is the deeper timbre not as desirable? Why do luthiers keep to the tinny sounding almost-alto tone? Do the wider bouts cause some type kind of resonance issue with even volume, or do players find them too cumbersome?

I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on the matter:

Thank you for your time.


Replies (62)

May 20, 2017, 2:02 PM · On the A-string side of the viola, having an excessively wide lower bout would result in the player's bow hand constantly hitting the viola. Excessively wide upper bout would make high position play insane difficult. It is possible that viola models like Tertis sound too much like cellos, which some players don't like.
May 20, 2017, 2:07 PM · I think the majority of players still dont agree on what the viola sound even is and looking at pieces, composers neither.
Thinking of a string quartett you want something to fit the violin more than the cello in most pieces. I think thats what many have in mind when building violas. Of course there are also solist violas out there, I think Manfio just presented a video showing one of his.
Edited: May 20, 2017, 2:30 PM · I now have a 2-cornered viola inspired by Gasparo da Salo's "Lyra-viola" in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK (try googling). Mine was made by Bernard Sabatier, Paris, but Ann Cole in Albuquerque makes a similar model.

Mine has a 15-3/4" body but only a 14" vibrating string length. The bouts are wide, with very little middle bout, as only the lower bout has corners.

This shorter body gives the usual F-F# resonance on the D-string; the arching is high, and the internal air volume considerable, but rather than seek a very low air resonance like the Tertis model, it's long f-holes keep this up to the usual B-Bb, but more powerful and more widely spread over neighbouring tones.

The result is a plummy contralto sound over the whole range, rather than the "mezzo-soprano" tone of my other, narrow "Strad" type viola of the same length. It does not have that "baritone" quality that we find in the longer violas, but neither is it nasal like many of those with narrower upper bouts.

I might prefer the narrow JTL for Mozart, and the Sabatier Lyra-Viola for Brahms...

May 20, 2017, 3:41 PM · @Brian--So, you didn't bite on the 18.5" behemoth?

My second ever viola was a Du-shi Tertis model (same company as "violin-shops" that comes up when you search for a Tetris viola on EBay). It sounded pretty good, albeit perhaps a little "boxy", or lacking a solid core to the sound if I wanted to be picky about it. But that could well have simply been that particular instrument, or that luthier, or that I was brand new to playing Viola and didn't know how to draw out the tone very well at that point.

As mentioned above, running into the extra wide middle bout was an issue for me. The c bout always had a nice rosin coating after a session.....Again, a lot if that may have simply been that I was even more inept at playing than I currently am. But the extra wide shape certainly didn't help.

I ended up selling it, as I then got one of the Yita Maggini contralto models, which I felt had a much more "solid" tone.

Difference in design? Or was the Yita simply a better made viola than the Du-shi? I have been tempted to try the Yita "double bass gamba" viola, but since I recently splurged on that 18", I'm out of viola acquisition funds at the moment. So, I must live vicariously through you for the moment! ;^)
The interesting thing about the Yita gamba is that it has fairly short ribs,

I sold the Maggini after I got the Yita 17". Say what you will about the "inferior" Chinese instruments, but they have allowed me to sample a wide array of shapes and sizes that I could not otherwise have afforded (8 violas so far; 2 Eastmans, that Du shi, and 5 Yitas). I'm currently away on a business trip to Japan, and packed my 15.75" Yita Gaud to come along. I'm enjoying the tone on that one too. Not as many overtones as the 17" or 18", obviously. But it gives a satisfying deep tone on the C and G for such a "small" viola.

The only other affordable Tertis viola was sold by Old Violin Shop, but they don't seem to have any in stock any longer.

Edited: May 20, 2017, 4:43 PM · There are other threads about Tertis-model violas on this site too.

I have an Arthur Richardson Tertis model (the usual 16 3/4" in body length) that I don't play often. The body and string length aren't much of an issue by themselves. But all three bouts are unusually wide and the ribs are very tall. I find it less comfortable to play than many larger violas.

I owned another Tertis model viola for a short time that I also won at Tarisio, and I later reconsigned it. I missed the fat sound of the lower strings and that's why I bid on and won the Richardson. That viola was by Olaf Anderson, which incidentally, someone else on this site won after I reconsigned it to Tarisio.

On both violas, but especially the Richardson, the sound of the A string was overly bright, which can be dealt with through string choice. The sound of both instruments could also be described as a bit boxy, perhaps lacking a bit of focus, but the bottom ranges of both are undeniably tenor-like.

May 20, 2017, 4:42 PM · Don't forget that the Tertis model viola is 16 3/4". Tertis was adamant about this and made his design public domain so long as you followed his dimensions and credited him on the label.

Wider violas have their own set of problems, as do narrow ones.

May 20, 2017, 5:23 PM · I think the size of the bouts can play a huge role in comfort. Wide middle bouts pose bow clearance problems. I already talked about upper and lower bout problems. The rib height can be a concern to a degree, especially those with a short neck. We can tweak our chin rest-shoulder rest equation to compensate, which could mean ditching the shoulder rest due to rib height, but I personally think that's okay.
May 21, 2017, 12:42 AM · Craig, I was really tempted on that monster, but after reading and playing all of the dimensions, I figured this mini bass shaped thing was most familiar to me! My 3/4 Roth plywood bass doesn't have cornered bouts though, lol.

I emailed Du Shi and got the measurements on the 16 inch wide pattern that they had (5/20/17) listed for $199.99:

upper 200mm
lower 260mm
string length 380mm

But for my Gamba shaped 16.25" vs the 17":

Upper bout: 192mm vs. 201
Lower bout: 202mm vs 253
Stting length: 373mm vs. 393

And the middle bout is 139mm vs. 134

May 21, 2017, 12:53 AM · I had a 16.5" inch that I recently sold but found it was too tinny (is that a helicore thing) but it was loud and responsive! The string length was ~365mm and I felt a couple of cents sharp on it, compared to a quarter tone flat on the 17" when I'm thinking small

Just reading up on viola construction I read that there should only be a large arching OR a big rib depth, but if you do both you're just going to hollow out the tone!

I think the big ribs end up canceling out the movement of the plates too much instead of only focusing the sound production on and through the f-holes.

Just earlier today I was playing a 16" Tertis pattern that *cough* I could swear was identical to the eBay ones but had some guys name on it. The rib height on it was probably 37 or 38mm, but it didn't sound as epically as I would have wanted it... It had the dominants and the 3.4k price tag, but IDK what else could be done. It was responsive and pianissimo was extraordinarily easy!

Wait, I was using a violin bow and no chin rest and I forgot to check the air resonance. The volume was even and the C string didn't really pack as much a growl as I hoped. That 17 inch is spoiling me!

May 21, 2017, 1:06 AM · I think some wiser heads prevailed in regards to that 18.5".

I hadn't noticed the small and widely spaced f holes on that one until someone mentioned it.

I think you made the right choice not going for that one

May 21, 2017, 1:42 AM · Why Aren't Tertis' and Wide Patterned Violas More Popular?

Because they are awfully difficult to play! I would never play on anything larger than 15.5 inches. Preferably a 15 inch or even 14.75 inch. If you play on anything larger in a full time orchestral job you are signing a suicide note. (I did play on a 16.5 inch viola and I regretted it - especially when bashing through the Ring Cycle ...)

May 21, 2017, 1:53 AM · I currently got a 17 inch here, the owner went for a long vacation asked me to keep it in tune and play it once in a while.
Its a monster, I cant really handle it and if I play it to long I feel my muscles getting stiff.
I might add, that I generally dont play viola, so every viola seems to big for me.
Edited: May 21, 2017, 2:46 AM · Tertis model violas are much cheaper at auction than "normal" violas by the same maker. This is because they are not fashionable for the reasons outlined above.

Cheers Carlo

May 21, 2017, 2:26 AM · The "real" Tertis Model violas have their air cavity resonance right down around F on the C-string, a full octave below the main wood resonance at F on the D-string. This can give a boomy bass, leaving the "woody" treble high and dry, rather like a french horn doubled by an oboe.
May 21, 2017, 5:00 AM · @Peter--maybe its the Ring Cycle that needs avoiding, not the larger violas?



May 21, 2017, 8:52 AM · Violas were subjected to some fashions, very big ones in the classic Italian lutherie period, small violas in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, then very big violas again, all that in a search to "solve" the viola sound problems that are, in general, a dead C string, a too narrow dynamic range, slow response, lack of focus and playability.
The Tertis model is wide, the ribs very high, the plates are low and flat with almost no scooping in the edges. That may favor a quick response and volume, but the sound may lack colors too and, yes, some may find it very uncomfortable to play.
I make my C bouts wide and in order to have a good bow clearance I make my bridges high, but that is compensated by a 10 or 11 mm projection of the neck over the table, as well as by a high low saddle. Eventually, what matters more is the angle of the strings over the bridge, and not the heigh of the bridge.
May 21, 2017, 8:55 AM · A well thought out solution to the problem, Manfio.
May 21, 2017, 9:23 AM · Here's an informative spiel on the Tertis model from the son(Jacob Saunders) of one of the original makers that worked for Tertis, Wilfred Saunders.


May 21, 2017, 9:37 AM · @Peter--maybe its the Ring Cycle that needs avoiding, not the larger violas?

Yes, avoid the R cycle - but even then, long concerts and especially long operas, are a problem too. Maybe those violas that are played like cellos are the answer to the sound and the awkward size of violas that have to be held up.

May 21, 2017, 10:47 AM · Yes, Wagner can be a challenge for viola players... Some years ago I sold a small, 15.5 viola to a very tall player of the Gewandhaus Leipzig. He mentioned that playing Meistersinger (almost 6 hours of playing) was a pain in a big viola.
May 21, 2017, 11:11 AM · Meistersinger is a pain on every instrument ;)
May 21, 2017, 12:26 PM · Peter, you're right. If acoustics are a problem, why not play viola like a cello?
May 21, 2017, 3:09 PM · Why not play the violin like a cello as well?


May 21, 2017, 3:14 PM · The violin is small enough to be reasonably ergonomical.
May 22, 2017, 1:38 AM · The violin sits perfectly as it is, there is no need to change anything. Three hours playing on the fiddle is fine, two hours on a big viola is murder.
May 22, 2017, 1:59 AM · Nobody ever gets injured playing violin?
May 22, 2017, 3:14 AM · Nobody doing it right is getting injured by playing (no protection against murder though).
May 22, 2017, 3:37 AM · The number of violists getting injured playing the viola is much bigger when compared to violinists.
Edited: May 22, 2017, 12:37 PM · Short violas with shorter than average vibrating string lengths but fat bellies and bottoms are sometimes described as "ergonomical", and destined for violists recovering from injury, violinists "moonlighting" as violists (William Primrose's expression), violists with dainty hands, or stubby fingers (like me), or tired violists "in the last five years of their careers" (me again). I have had a serious bout of Viola Elbow (extended arm plus greater pressure in the pinky than on the violin) which took two months of complete res to recover. No neck or shoulder problems though, thanks to highly customised CR and SR (grin)..
May 22, 2017, 9:07 AM · Adrian, the violas you mention are also for violists who are physically tiny (like me...)
Edited: May 22, 2017, 11:48 PM · OK, so riddle me this, Batman...(or whomever...).

I'm a novice violist and normally play on a 17" or more recently 18" viola. No issues so far, except for my own lack of virtuosity.

I am currently on a business trip to Osaka for the last 9 days I've been playing my smaller 15.75" "travel" viola (I customized a hardshell violin case that fits it great).

I now feel some amount of discomfort in my left elbow after having switched to this smaller, and allegedly 'less prone to injury' viola.

I have been playing for my usual ~1 hour a day.

And i haven't gone anywhere near any Wagner, neither ring cycle, nor wash and rinse cycle...nada. Just Suzuki book 4 and below.

I've experienced this on my other trips here as well (I come over 5-6 times a year).

So, is smaller REALLY any better?

BTW-I'm a svelte, yet ruggedly handsome, 6'2"

May 23, 2017, 12:49 AM · You have problems that have nothing to do with the size of the instrument. You need a good teacher who can sort this out before it gets worse and does real damage.
May 23, 2017, 1:00 AM · Scientifically speaking: the constant in this equation is me and my admitted faults.

The variable is the size of the viola.

For me, playing on the larger ones was fine, switching to the smaller one caused discomfort.

May 23, 2017, 1:03 AM · Well, you know best then ...
Edited: May 23, 2017, 1:32 AM · I can't argue with that reasoning..

Yet, those portentous ellipses at the end of Peter's message give me pause. Could it be there is something I'm missing here?

May 23, 2017, 1:32 AM · It can be nearly everything, the shoulder rest, the chin rest, everything. I would follow Peters advice! Discomfort during playing is nothing you should take lightly!
May 23, 2017, 1:32 AM · It can be nearly everything, the shoulder rest, the chin rest, everything. I would follow Peters advice! Discomfort during playing is nothing you should take lightly!
Edited: May 23, 2017, 2:06 AM · Yes, I'm not taking it lightly, as I am the one feeling the discomfort. I do appreciate the sentiment (from you too, Peter).

I'm simply adding my own personal experience to the Vcom database.

I've played on a 17" or larger viola for the past three years. No discomfort to speak of, and yes, I'm just some middle aged beginner. Which I would assume would accentuate the "problems" with using a big viola in the first place.

Yet, as soon as I started on the smaller viola last week, the discomfort began. I don't use a shoulder rest (those cause further discomfort,doncha know!), and I'm pretty particular about modifying my chinrests to suit my fit.

I will say that I had originally intended during this trip to become quite familiar with this smaller viola and make it my primary instrument for all of the same cautionary tales commonly listed, as above. My thinking was that perhaps my instruments were indeed "too big", and maybe switching to this smaller instrument would allow me to make some other headway into progressing as a violist.

I felt it starting day one. I figured I just needed to adjust to the difference in size. But it didnt get better, it got worse.

I can switch between my 17" and my 18" (prior to that, my 17.5" that is now deceased) with no issues other than adjusting to finger spacing. No elbow issues for those.

Could be that 15.75" just hits some wrong combination of body mechanics? Maybe a 15.5" would be fine, or a 16"?

I don't know at his point, just sharing my experience.

Edited: May 23, 2017, 4:14 AM · I think you need a really good teacher, or someone, to work out what is wrong. Because the instrument is smaller and probably lighter, you may have a fear of dropping it (without realising you even have the fear). That can cause tension without it being obvious. That's just one possibility. The best players who go on and on are the laziest ones. They may have worked hard intellectually - but they find the easiest and most comfortable, and laziest, way of playing. It's mental over physical - not the other way around.

Look towards it being YOU, and not the instrument.

A really good teacher may crack open the problem in one lesson.

May 23, 2017, 4:27 AM · You dont use a sr and a smaller instrument is harder to handle for you.
If you do the invisirest thing not entirely correctly thats exactly what will happen.
Can you hang it comfortably like this?
May 23, 2017, 9:11 AM · Like anything, generalizations are fraught with peril. Many big instruments sound worse than smaller instruments and vice versa.
A good poplar backed Tertis on a large scale can sound much more like a large Brescian than a good small bouted 15.5. Is that what you want?
Personally, I prefer play-ability, endurance without injury, better intonation, easier doublestops and chords, and I don't mind a more violinistic upper register that I get with my smaller 1926 EH Roth. It is much more resonant than many of the larger instruments in my section and can play as loud, if not louder. (Turns out the 15.5" is close to Carleen Hutchins' mezzo violin plate size.)
May 24, 2017, 11:19 AM · Next trip I'll try having my chin more to the left on the chinrest. Perhaps that will decrease the angle when using the smaller viola.

June 1, 2017, 8:09 AM · EDIT: Sorry, I tried to upload an image, but couldn't figure out the new fangled image upload procedure.
Edited: June 1, 2017, 3:44 PM · I am primarily a conductor, secondarily a violist, and lastly a violinist. I have never played a Tertis model, but own more typical (Strad) patterns; three 16" violas (two WK Fuchs, and a Czech Strad), a 15-3/4" (John Juzek), and a 16-1/2" (Richard Blois). I am used to playing the 16"ers. I love the sound on my 16-1/2", but it's just too damn big (especially after rotator cuff surgery). I am exhausted after about 20 minutes. As I approach 70 years of age I am playing more and more violin, as it doesn't tire me out as much as the viola (which I LOVE) does. I have never tried out one of those lop-sided violas with exaggerated bouts and regular bouts on alternate sides (kitty-corner from each other--one upper, one lower). Maybe there is something they have to offer. Unfortunately, they are rarely seen, so I have never had the opportunity to play one.
Edited: June 3, 2017, 12:45 PM · The power of an instrument is largely governed by the size of its vibrating top and back. The vastly oversimplified result is that the larger the instrument is, the more power it will tend to have and the more it will tend favor the lower notes. Think of a string orchestra that might have many violins and violas but only one or two basses because more are not needed.

Big violas are uncomfortable for many to play, so the obvious solution is to make them smaller, but then the sound tends to become more violin-like and the low strings suffer. To some extent this can be compensated for by adding the wood back and making the instrument wider. Then of course it gets more difficult to get around the shoulders and play in extreme upper positions.

Life's not easy for violists!

Someone mentioned playing the instrument vertically, which is how the big altos of the New Violin Family are designed to be played. These vertical violas are not freaks of design, just violas in the range that a viola should be in order to support the lower two strings. It often surprises people to know that violas in this size were made up through the golden period of Cremonese violin making, but they were not played vertically.

Musical tastes and styes changed, and we lost the big viola, the soprano violin, and the tenor violin. If it hadn't been for Haydn and his love of string quartets, we might have lost the small viola, too. For violists who can make the transition to vertical hold and cello-style bowing, the big altos can be a career-saver.

Edited: June 1, 2017, 11:23 PM · I would have consided a Tertis model viola as my last purchase, but I couldn't find any near enough by to even try, let along purchase. The size of it doesn't matter to me overly much, as with my wingspan I can handle just about any common viola size up to 18" - comfort being different than 'handle'.

I find the sound lovely and right up the ally for what I enjoy, but alas it was not to be at this time. There are many years for it to 'be' though. Maybe I will try my hand at building one, some day. I think it would be fun to build my own viola, no matter how bad it would turn out. Worst case it's a travesty that becomes a nice wall mounted conversation piece.

Edited: June 3, 2017, 4:46 PM · My Gamba-shaped 16.25" came in today!!!

 photo IMG_2021.jpg

I like it because it looks like a little double bass with a chinrest, lol. The neck is wider all around and the upper/lower bouts are 192mm and 262mm. Vibrating length is ~373mm, the ribs are only 36mm, but the arching is insane!


But I think they both came shipped with the wrong tailpieces, haha.

 photo IMG_2023.jpg

Really though, they make eachothers 1/6th afterlength even though the Bass shaped ones tailpiece is an eight of an inch wider at the strings.

I will switch them out today or tomorrow.

Edited: June 3, 2017, 6:19 PM · That's your 17" also? Loaded with Warchal Brilliants, nice.

I await your report on the widebody. Looks yummy. That's next in my Yita shopping list....

That gamba looks nice. If it had a theme song, it would be "Big Bottom" from Spinal Tap

June 4, 2017, 1:39 PM · Craig... this thing is seriously DEEP!

The lower bout is slightly bigger than a tertis, but this thing carries the low end evenly across the strings and the higher strings aren't thin or anything.

I'm still using the factory Yitamusic strings so overtones and harmonics are pretty crap, it certainly has a more tenor-ish growl than the 17 inch, but I have yet to run the toneright (speakers) on it.

I seriously thought my 17 had a phenominal low end compared to other Violas that I've played or heard, ever matching some 16 inch Tertis' that I've played... but now I want to try some brighter strings and see how the sound can carry in a big room!

June 4, 2017, 6:46 PM · Dadario Vivo is a nice powerful set of strings. Check out the violinstringreview site for a review.

I've tried them, and like them.

June 4, 2017, 8:16 PM · Those sound nice!!

I have a set of Opera Perlon strings that I may throw on it. The tailpiece end of these strings matches the D'addario Amo set and spparently they are supposed to sound like Dominants.

The Yita strings are going on this 15" Eastman (Stroebel) that I don't use, lol.

June 8, 2017, 8:27 AM · OK, Brian, let's have an update.

Do you have rosin buildup on the C bout because of the wide midsection?

Have you jilted your 17" for this new curvy Jezebel?

June 9, 2017, 7:19 PM · The spacing is just fine for me!!

The C-bout doesn't seem wide to me, and it would take a lot of effort to even angle into either side.

The inner resonance is an F# if I recall, and the wood is still waking up! It hasn't gotten the new set of strings on yet, but I still like the warmth of the Yita strings.

Honestly, it makes that strong Tenor timbre and I prefer this tone when compared to say, a $3,000 Tertis that I've tried out.


The bridge is okay with me, but people always talk of upgrading the Bridge and soundpost, but I am very satisfied with this thing just the way it is. I think a lighter bridge would improve response and need less weight, but with coming from Double Bass and German Bow, I don't understand finesse when it comes to making sound come out of an instrument.

I still have to practice readjusting to the smaller scale, but if I don't sell off the 17", it might have a place with quartet, chamber, and/or non-classical playing, just because body length adds loudness, from What I've learned.


June 9, 2017, 8:09 PM · I often just modify the existing bridge to get the height and curvature correct. Sometime I thin it down or trim it in other ways depending on what's required. I haven't cut any new sound posts, but certaimly repositioning them can make a big difference.

So, it has a deep sound, but am I reading correctly the 17" has more power?

June 10, 2017, 5:03 PM · It might be really from the strings, but a longer body always gives more volume.

The Gamba is ~410mm back length with the larger lower bout while the 17" Strad Copy is 430mm with a larger upper bout and has all of the extra vibrating string length!

Also, the arching seems twice as pronounce on the Gamba while the Strad's Rib depth is maybe an eighth-of-an-inch more. (~3mm, for the rest of the world)

Physics holds it's own from what I can hear; Surface area vs. construction.



French Horn vs. Euphonium at the same Octave.

June 10, 2017, 5:18 PM · if a longer body ALWAYS gives more volume, then all violins being basically the same size would all be the same volume!!
June 10, 2017, 5:56 PM · Good point.

The baseline here though is that both are made at the same shady Chinese sweatshop, so its more of an apples to apples comparison.

June 12, 2017, 10:40 PM · @Robert Spear, both Arnold Steinhardt and Michael Tree of the Guarneri SQ had cut down violas (one to violin size, the other still a viola). (By "had" I refer to the fact that the Guarneri is sadly no more. They probably still have the instruments.) Steinhardt said a few years ago in a Tarisio interview that he'd come across a couple more violas by his violin's maker that had also been cut down into violins.
June 13, 2017, 3:42 AM · Michael Tree played a Venetian Domenico Busan, cut down to 17-inches or more, but still huge, very similar to the viola played by Bruno Giuranna, but he no longer playing the Busan for years, now he plays a contemporary viola.
June 15, 2017, 9:14 PM · @Luis, Yes he discusses his Busan in "The Art of the String Quartet" (I think it's called) by David Blum and I believe he's playing it in "High Fidelity". It was fun to see exactly how large it was. I was aware that he plays something else now and I was wondering the other day whether the Busan got too hard on his ageing body. Wikipedia says he plays (multiple?) Iizuka violins, That's the same builder Steinhardt mentioned playing a violin of in the Tarisio interview.
June 18, 2017, 5:23 PM · Ciao Francesca! Michael has very long arms, he could (and still can) handle the big Busan viola without problems, he just wanted to change it for a contemporary viola, he just cares about the sound.

I am a viola maker because of Michael, he advised me to make only violas. He is such a kind, great man and musician. His living room is full of photos of his quartet, some with Rubinstein.

I treasure one of his emails:

"Dear Luis;
It was a real pleasure to see you and Gisella again.
I enjoyed playing on your viola in rehearsal with my
quartet. As expected, it sounded clear and strong
with no problem cutting through the other instruments."

Edited: June 18, 2017, 7:28 PM · Thanks for the reply, Luis. Michael Tree is one of my musical heros. I have read over and over his comments about how to play viola with a string quartet in "The Art of the String Quartet". Now you have me curious: is "my string quartet" in the letter the Guarneri? Oh, to have longer arms and larger hands. (At least I have the neck for a viola!) I can't play larger than a 15" viola for a reasonable length of time and it's very limiting. And after reading all the factors that go into making a good viola, it makes sense to specialize if you can. Did he give you that advice after the fact or before you became a viola maker only?

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