5-string Instruments. Why/why not?


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I posted a query in the fingerboard about five-string instruments. I was wondering among other things, why we have decided on four Strings.

I’m wondering if there is an acoustic or structural reason that five strings don’t work? Do four strings sound inherently better? Does the reinforcement required for an extra 25% of tension damage the sound?

Edited by PhilipKT
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15 minutes ago, PhilipKT said:

 I was wondering among other things, why we have decided on four Strings.

my  theory/hypothesis is that when strings would break on the bigger instruments from the time before the violin was invented is that someone thought it best to make something useful that could use up these still good leftover segments of gut - hence the invention of the violin.

i don't believe composers, or at the least fiddlers, were that evolved yet intellect wise meaning that the fifths of spacing for different tunings of supposed violin strings wouldn't of come into play yet..

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3 minutes ago, deans said:

There are plenty being made and played. I think most classical players feel the tonal compromise just isnt worth the extra string.

In amplified situations where you can manipulate sound, you see much more use.

One of the things I asked was Whether the extra string causes a problem with sound, your comment implies that it does. Can you go into a little bit more detail?

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On 12/31/2020 at 12:06 PM, PhilipKT said:

One of the things I asked was Whether the extra string causes a problem with sound, your comment implies that it does. Can you go into a little bit more detail?

I have had the privilege on a few occasions to play one of the first ones ever made (1926). I have played others, but none compare to this one. it has a HUGE sound and equal tone in all the strings... I think that most of it depends on the violin, just the same as 4 string, and how competent the maker is in making the adjustments necessary to accommodate a 5th string.

also there's the fact that the 5 strings are confusing at first (pressing and bowing the wrong string), and the neck is considerably wider (if made with 5 strings in mind. some are converts). I am looking for one, but I am a fiddler. I don't know where the disadvantages would be as an orchestral instrument, but as for soloist it might not meet up with many of the more expensive violins in tone.

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Note that the 4 strings by fifths and the 6 strings by fourths both cover about 2 octavs,  And the low pitched string starts to be rather heavy and stiff (without modern materials),  Stiff strings are intrinsically out of tune.   Using a variable scale length (to permit a thinner more flexible string) on a fingered string would be awkward!  I think that this practical problem explains the choice.  

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12 hours ago, MANFIO said:

It is already very difficult to get a good C string in a viola....  imagine getting that in a violin....    

1st position fundamentals on a C string aren't happening, as the lowest resonance of the body (A0) is around B on the viola or C# on the violin, nearly an octave higher.  And then the 1st overtone is in trouble as well on the viola, as A0 is now too low to help much.  On the violin, the A0 will help on the open C overtone and slightly above.  That is the thought behind my small viola, where I use large F-holes and short ribs to get A0 a little higher so there's some meat on the open C.

When you go from 4 to 5 strings, a number of things happen that are all not particularly helpful:

  1. Bow angles... if you keep the angle between strings the same, then the total angle becomes larger, with cascading consequences
    1. The bridge has to be higher to clear C-bout edges (and/or higher arching)
    2. Higher bridge = more mass and other changes to vibration forces
  2. The extra string adds effective mass to the top of the bridge
  3. More total string load => need to make the structure stronger/heavier
  4. More mass in fingerboard, pegs, neck... maybe not a big tonal issue, but also not something you really want.
  5. If you are used to 4 strings, it's amazingly difficult to adapt right away to having the extra string (I tried it once)

It looks like a fun challenge to make a good one of these.  I'd like to do it if I ever run out of orders for conventional instruments (or an order comes in for a 5-string...)

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I play a 5 string violin almost daily. It can be a bit awkward to switch between 4 and 5 string instruments. Even when well setup, the neck is wide. And as Don mentioned the string angle takes some finesse. Although it could said that playing bowed string instruments is all about fine motor skills. 

Tonally 5 string instruments are difficult to make sound especially on the C string. Higher ribs and a larger plate area can help. I have made some improvement with using light gauge strings to reduce the load on the bridge/top. Even with that, it is more like playing a viola than a violin. It has what I call a higher impedance. Meaning you need more bow pressure/energy to get the desired sound. For the amplified crowd, the above issues are not an issue.

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7 hours ago, scordatura said:

I play a 5 string violin almost daily. It can be a bit awkward to switch between 4 and 5 string instruments. Even when well setup, the neck is wide. And as Don mentioned the string angle takes some finesse. Although it could said that playing bowed string instruments is all about fine motor skills. 

Tonally 5 string instruments are difficult to make sound especially on the C string. Higher ribs and a larger plate area can help. I have made some improvement with using light gauge strings to reduce the load on the bridge/top. Even with that, it is more like playing a viola than a violin. It has what I call a higher impedance. Meaning you need more bow pressure/energy to get the desired sound. For the amplified crowd, the above issues are not an issue.

Yes that certainly seems to be what people are saying, and the five string cellos I have listened to on YouTube sound distinctly different from a four string instrument. I like the sound, and in someways I even prefer it, but it is definitely different.

 

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I made a 17.5 inch 5 string viola last summer and I just finished one that is nearly identical but with only 4 strings.  I thought they sounded quite similar.  A student has them now and he will be making a video of him playing each of them.

You can go the other way and take a string off of a violin or viola to see if the sound changes much on the remaining 3 strings.  You can extend this idea and take two strings off to see how the remaining two strings sound and so on. But I found that if I took off all four strings the results were disappointing.

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36 minutes ago, Marty Kasprzyk said:

I made a 17.5 inch 5 string viola last summer and I just finished one that is nearly identical but with only 4 strings.  I thought they sounded quite similar.  A student has them now and he will be making a video of him playing each of them.

You can go the other way and take a string off of a violin or viola to see if the sound changes much on the remaining 3 strings.  You can extend this idea and take two strings off to see how the remaining two strings sound and so on. But I found that if I took off all four strings the results were disappointing.

I’m not a violist, but I would imagine playing a 17.5 inch viola would be quite a stretch.

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15 hours ago, PhilipKT said:

I’m not a violist, but I would imagine playing a 17.5 inch viola would be quite a stretch.

The viola player student is 6' 3" .   

There are charts for young violin players which show the correct fractional size instruments for their height or arm reach.  But adult violin players all use the same size violins.

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On 1/3/2021 at 9:30 PM, Marty Kasprzyk said:

I made a 17.5 inch 5 string viola last summer and I just finished one that is nearly identical but with only 4 strings.  I thought they sounded quite similar.  A student has them now and he will be making a video of him playing each of them.

You can go the other way and take a string off of a violin or viola to see if the sound changes much on the remaining 3 strings.  You can extend this idea and take two strings off to see how the remaining two strings sound and so on. But I found that if I took off all four strings the results were disappointing.

I would bet that playing the 5 string feels different than the 4 string in terms of the response or playability.

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5 string double basses are extremely common and were the rule rather than the exception in french orchestras for quite some time. Five stringed violoncelli piccoli are also well attested in the relics of the baroque. Then there is the gamba family with it's many strings and frets.

To your question of why: because it opens up certain technical possibilities. Boccherini is believed to have played and written for a five stringed cello chiefly, for example.

As to why not: see Don's post.

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On 1/3/2021 at 10:08 PM, PhilipKT said:

I’m not a violist, but I would imagine playing a 17.5 inch viola would be quite a stretch.

 

14 hours ago, scordatura said:

I would bet that playing the 5 string feels different than the 4 string in terms of the response or playability.

I've found that tall players with long arms can easily play my 17.5 inch violas and I've noticed these players also usually have large hands and long fingers.  I may have made a mistake by putting a standard width fingerboard and neck on my large 4 string 17.5 inch viola.

My 5 string17.5 inch viola was made with a wider fingerboard in order to have the normal spacing between the strings.  A very good viola player (Masters at Juilliard) with rather big hands liked the feel of my 5 string viola neck much better than my large 4 string viola or his own modern Italian viola (Romeo Antoniazzi).

I have read that viola necks shouldn't be any thicker than violin necks but this might not be a good practice for large violas.  I also suspect that the string spacings should also be made a little wider.  Maybe this is a custom fitting vs. standard size debate.

My large 5 string weighs 588g total with a chin rest and its deep bent back plate shape eliminates the need for separate shoulder which saves some weight. The top plate weighed about 85g. Nobody has yet complained about its response.

 

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39 minutes ago, Marty Kasprzyk said:

 

I've found that tall players with long arms can easily play my 17.5 inch violas and I've noticed these players also usually have large hands and long fingers.  I may have made a mistake by putting a standard width fingerboard and neck on my large 4 string 17.5 inch viola.

My 5 string17.5 inch viola was made with a wider fingerboard in order to have the normal spacing between the strings.  A very good viola player (Masters at Juilliard) with rather big hands liked the feel of my 5 string viola neck much better than my large 4 string viola or his own modern Italian viola (Romeo Antoniazzi).

I have read that viola necks shouldn't be any thicker than violin necks but this might not be a good practice for large violas.  I also suspect that the string spacings should also be made a little wider.  Maybe this is a custom fitting vs. standard size debate.

My large 5 string weighs 588g total with a chin rest and its deep bent back plate shape eliminates the need for separate shoulder which saves some weight. The top plate weighed about 85g. Nobody has yet complained about its response.

 

Can you post some pics of your violas?

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41 minutes ago, Marty Kasprzyk said:

 

I've found that tall players with long arms can easily play my 17.5 inch violas and I've noticed these players also usually have large hands and long fingers.  I may have made a mistake by putting a standard width fingerboard and neck on my large 4 string 17.5 inch viola.

My 5 string17.5 inch viola was made with a wider fingerboard in order to have the normal spacing between the strings.  A very good viola player (Masters at Juilliard) with rather big hands liked the feel of my 5 string viola neck much better than my large 4 string viola or his own modern Italian viola (Romeo Antoniazzi).

I have read that viola necks shouldn't be any thicker than violin necks but this might not be a good practice for large violas.  I also suspect that the string spacings should also be made a little wider.  Maybe this is a custom fitting vs. standard size debate.

My large 5 string weighs 588g total with a chin rest and its deep bent back plate shape eliminates the need for separate shoulder which saves some weight. The top plate weighed about 85g. Nobody has yet complained about its response.

 

Please don’t misunderstand. I was not finding fault, I’m a cellist, so I can’t judge, but I remember talking to Paul Silverthorne about his viola, which was eNORmous, he said it was 17 3/4s. Never seen a bigger one. He played it easily but he seems to have extra large arms.

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17 hours ago, scordatura said:

Can you post some pics of your violas?

Attached is a description of these ergonomic violas which includes some photos.

Some of these violas and similar violins have had narrow strips of thin nonslip rubber padding glued to their back plates as shown in the below photo.  

I had a real difficult time finding a source for this rubber padding material.  I did a lot of searching for producers and suppliers on the internet but I couldn't find anyone who would sell just the little bit that I needed.

One manufacturer listed many different applications that it was used for and computer mouse pads was one of the things mentioned.  So I turned my mouse pad over and discovered I had enough right there in front of me all along. 

But a player recently suggested that these pads should be adjustable in heights so now I glue on strips of Velcro to the back to which various thickness pads can be stuck to.  

 

IMG_2083small.jpg

Viola_Goals_for_Matt.pdf

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35 minutes ago, Marty Kasprzyk said:

Attached is a description of these ergonomic violas which includes some photos.

Some of these violas and similar violins have had narrow strips of thin nonslip rubber padding glued to their back plates as shown in the below photo.  

I had a real difficult time finding a source for this rubber padding material.  I did a lot of searching for producers and suppliers on the internet but I couldn't find anyone who would sell just the little bit that I needed.

One manufacturer listed many different applications that it was used for and computer mouse pads was one of the things mentioned.  So I turned my mouse pad over and discovered I had enough right there in front of me all along. 

But a player recently suggested that these pads should be adjustable in heights so now I glue on strips of Velcro to the back to which various thickness pads can be stuck to.  

 

IMG_2083small.jpg

Viola_Goals_for_Matt.pdf 7.95 MB · 0 downloads

Keep us posted on this, I'm always looking for better solutions for a viola d'amore along these lines

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