With any instrument, the most important thing influencing the way I make a viola is the sound. The instrument must speak easily and to be interesting to listen to. It must have a free and rich sound in the middle, the C string must remain a strong and focussed and A string should blend with the D, yet project without shrillness. The models I choose must have these characteristics as well as suiting my style of working.
After starting out only making middle sized violas, [with a back length of about 16 ¼”. 41.2cm] over the last twenty years I have also made a considerable number of small violas. [ 15 ¼ to 15 ¾”. 38.8 – 40cm]
Medium Sized Violas
I have been making middle sized violas from the start of my career, as they are small enough to be comfortable for many viola players, whilst being large enough to work easily and comfortably produce a deep viola sound. This is why most soloists play on this size of viola.
The model I use most frequently is based on an Andrea Guarneri viola of 1676. The original instrument has a pegbox with shoulders, like a cello, but I make a smaller scroll without shoulders, which makes the viola easier to play in 1/2 position, and it reduces the weight at the far end of the viola where it is most noticeable. This is great sounding viola with plenty of power, but refinement too.
I also make Maggini model violas, with the same length of back as the Andrea Guarneri. These are broader and more reedy in tone, with a slightly more robust sound. Personally, I prefer the sound of the Andrea Guarneri viola, but viola sound being so variable between players and instruments, some prefer the Maggini type of sound, most viola players having a definite preference for one or the other. There is also a significant difference in the geometry between the Maggini and the Andrea Guarneri, which is an important consideration when thinking about the size and feel of the instrument. To find out more on viola size click here
Having made medium sized violas for a number of years, following repeated requests, I started making small violas, and I am now one of the very few violin makers who ‘bothers’ to make small violas. In fact, I probably make more small violas than middle sized ones. My smaller violas have been particularly well received by people who had been struggling with violas which were too large for them, often causing pain in the back, neck, shoulder or arm. Some have gone to violinists who also play the viola, whilst there are a significant number are played by smaller young professional violists, who sensibly appreciate the folly of having a larger instrument, but still need a viola which is powerful and has a proper rich viola sound.
I have four small viola models ranging from 15 ¼” to 15 3/4”. Three of them are my own models, though stylistically rooted in classical examples, developed largely because there are so few good old instruments to use as a model.
My usual model for a 15 ½” viola is basically an enlarged violin, based on an instrument by Pietro Guarneri of Venice. The original instrument was quite wide across the middle, though I have widened it to make it a better shape for a small viola, but the archings are worked completely differently in order to produce a good viola sound. Like all my other violas, I keep the scroll small to help make the instrument feel comfortable.
The 15 ¼” Bellosio model I measured in Austria, and it is a cracking small viola, with a small scroll and interesting arching shapes that are ideal for producing a good sound on this size instrument. Nowadays I make this model slightly wider than the original, which has improved its performance, especially of the C string. In many ways I like it as much as the 15 ½” viola, and because the stop is so small it is ideal for violinists who also play the viola.
1. 16 1/8″ Viola based on Andrea Guarneri
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