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Five String Viola


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As a collector, I'm tempted to buy this instrument, out of




But the question is, in what venue would you use this
instrument?  I was thinking, teaching, but that would not help
the student of either violin or viola.  And you really
couldn't use it in orchestra or string quartet venues.  Only
maybe in some popular or folk music genre, I would think..??


And does anyone have a copy of this article from Strad, or
know about the maker?


Craig Stapley (Rochester, NY, USA) in 1986; for some
information about him see an article in Strad magazine, September
1985, pp. 336-7.

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My best friend just got one from Jonathan Cooper:


She loves it, says it makes teaching a lot easier and doesn't hurt

her ears as much as a bright violin might (she has tinnitus)

and another friend got one from:

http://www.rivinus-instruments.com/Looks interesting.

About a dozen people have responded to this topic. Lots of people

are doing this, and I didn't know about.

BTW, my friend's description of the Cooper five-string



the sound is like melted bittersweet chocolate....warm,

complex and


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A lot of Bluegrass and Jazz players like 5 string violins and violas. Obviously it gives them more to work with, especially when improvising. I am currently making a 5 string violin that is a copy of the Cannone enlarged slightly. I also have a 5 string viola in my shop made by Martin Brunkalla made in 2003. It belongs to one of my customer and he loves it! He is a Bluegrass fiddler.

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I would say this instrument is mis-labeled. If the strings are CGDAE then it is a 5 string VIOLIN not viola.

5 string violins are very popular and also very common in the improvising violin world. They are used for jazz, bluegrass and Texas swing players (Johnny Gimble) have used them for decades.

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Richard - What is your reasoning for saying this is a 5-string violin not a 5-string viola?

I've seen quite a few 5-strings. Both violin and viola 5-strings have CGCAE tuning.

The difference I've seen has been size - if it is violin body length, uses violin strings for the top 4, and tries to have a violin timbre, then it is a violin with a low C string. If it is longer, uses viola strings for the bottom 4, and has a more viola timbre, then it is a viola with a high E.

Better yet, call it a 5-string fiddle. A friend of mine calls it a fiddiola.


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Quintons have different tuning.

From nrinstruments website:

"Around 1725, a new 5-string tuning became popular, particularly amongst ladies. The tuning g,d',a',d",g" had the high strings like the pardessus de viole and the low strings like the violin. Holding and bowing was like a viol, and frets were used.... This new instrument was called either 'pardessus de viole à cinq cordes' or 'quinton'. Either name was sometimes used for any instrument with that tuning, but the pardessus name was mostly used when the body design was like a viol, and the quinton name was mostly used when the design had obvious violinistic aspects."

But hey -- alternate tunings are used on a lot of different instruments without calling it a different instrument. So call it what you wish. That's why I like the term 'fiddle' for slightly odd instruments; historically the term was used in a more generic sense than the term 'violin'.


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I'd use one for English, Scottish or vintage dance music in a heartbeat - any genre where you're going to be interacting with other musicians, improvising melody/countermelody/chord outline/rhythm/bass lines, and probably playing through a sound system so the lack of projection on a short C string doesn't matter. What's the current preference in retrofitting, add an E to a small viola or a C to a violin?

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  • 2 weeks later...

I have a Chinese made 5 string high E viola (subject of a Pegbox

post - fingerboard's too narrow) and a 5 string high E cello (see

left). The general view from makers and players seems to be that a

small (like 15") 5 string viola tuned CGDAE can produce a decent E

string. It may be 'sweeter' than a violin E, and a bit less gutsy -

not necessarily better or worse, depending on your music. On the

other hand, the opinions I've encountered are that the typical

violin body is too small to produce a decent C string sound, and a

15" viola is the smallest instrument the C generally works OK on.

15" violas I've seen tend also to be proportionately deeper than

violins. I'm told there are makers who produce 'violins' with a

decent C string, but that these are the exceptions.

I've played two 14" 5 string violins and 15", 15 1/2" and 16" 5

string violas. Apart from my own viola, they were all by Tim

Phillips http://www.timsviolins.co.uk/ here in UK. Tim makes some

very interesting instruments, mostly for folk musicians. I prefer

the small 5 string violas as I think they have a more balanced

sound. He has a 'current stock' 5 string viola on the site with 2

corners instead of 4 (the red one) which plays very well and sounds

very nice. It has flattish arching, and sounds much like a very

large violin rather than a viola. Tim told me that once you get

above 16", E string breakage becomes more common, but otherwise E

strings last OK, even if theoretically they shouldn't. His wider

than standard fingerboard widths are comfortable with 5 strings,

whatever you do don't buy a 5 stringer of any size with a standard

width nut and fingerboard!

In regard to 'retrofitting', which Pandora mentions above - if

you're talking about turning a 4 string instrument into a 5 string,

bear in mind that you need a noticeably wider fingerboard on a 5

string instrument, or you'll cover more than one string when you

put a left hand finger down. My 5 string cello is half way to being

a viol in that respect. That makes playing up the neck on the lower

strings less comfortable, if you need to do that (I don't - I

bought it for playing and accompanying Scottish folk music) ,

because you have to reach across further. Some pegboxes won't take

5 pegs , or if they do it won't string up right. I'm told that

instruments designed for 5 strings should have the bass bar

designed differently, don't know how.

There is/was at least one violin business in USA whose

speciality is/was  importing Chinese made 5 string violins and

violas to their spec (that's where I got mine). I've heard from one

of the partners that the business I know of is filing for

bankruptcy. What's odd is that their business website is still up

as I write - send me a PM if you'd like to know who this is in case

you get caught up in their business crash. They say they'll be out

of business for a while, so maybe someone else would like to

contact a Chinese workshop and supply the market for affordable 5


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I was playing my 5 string violin at a gig once and a violin student came up to me and asked, "but what clef do you use for that?!".

Get out of the reading mindset, play by ear and improvise and you have a lot of use for a 5 string! Of course you can use treble, alto, bass or anything you like as far as clef is concerned but for somebody who purely reads music they are perplexed as to what repertoire they could possibly draw on to make the instrument useful. Well, there is a whole other world of music out there, just don't expect to read music for all of it!!!

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  • 2 years later...

Hi, I'm the owner. Here's what I had in mind when I bought it, new, from the builder. I've been playing string chamber music all my life, as a violist. This 5-string instrument has the body of a viola, therefore is not too hard for a violist to learn to play-- as opposed to a violin, which just feels tiny. I was looking forward to using it to play the same string chamber literature, but this time as second fiddle-- for a different perspective on the inside workings of the music. It was (and I think still is!) a noble project, but it hasn't materialized as I would have hoped, which is why I'm ready to sell the instrument.

Cheers, Ch.S.

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