How to make a five-string viola

The five-stringed viola represents a creative and technical challenge for both players and luthiers. Ariane Todes talks to some of the people who are exploring its exciting possibilities

five string

There’s something thrilling about the current rise of the five-stringed viola. In a world where violin makers work to regular specifications, often trying to recreate classic forms, five-stringed instruments represent a new frontier for players, composers and makers. Freed from the shackles of form, more and more luthiers are innovating, experimenting and refining their own take on this hybrid instrument, which, as neither violin nor viola, offers unique challenges. This development is largely driven by players – whether it’s classical violinists and violists who want to tackle the standard canon with a different tool; contemporary music players extending the repertoire; or jazz, world and folk players wanting the best of both violin and viola worlds without having to bring two instruments to a gig.

Paradoxically, all this innovation isn’t actually new. Luthier Jonathan Cooper, who has specialised in five-strings, sees it as a return to a time when instrument form was more fluid and experimental: ‘There were people making five- and six-strings back in the 18th century. It was the point at which we went to four-strings and eliminated a lot of the other instruments that we cut off those roots and possible evolutions for the instrument.’

Now, as then, luthiers are responding to players’ demands, he explains: ‘Historically, violin making has been a collaboration between makers and musicians. We don’t exist in separate worlds and we have to respond to what musicians seek. People have been venturing into different areas with the violin in the last 30 years.’ Fiddler Darol Anger, who has played various five-strings and made his own, sees this diversity in its historical context: ‘As working string musicians gradually move away from Western European symphonic jobs to other contemporary and traditional musics, standardisation is again becoming less and less important, and soloists and small group players look for instruments to fit their more diverse needs.’

Classical players are also driving demand, though. Luthier Luc Deneys was inspired by violinist Jenny Spanoghe: ‘One day we were in a restaurant and she was saying that her husband, Jan Van Landeghem, was writing her music that goes lower than normal on the violin. She asked, “Is it possible to have a C string? Will you try?”’ Deneys’s explorations with getting the right size hark back to a time when instrument development went hand in hand with composers’ demands: he started with a 15½-inch length to make it easy to play the high E-string notes in Van Landeghem’s compositions, although he then also made Spanoghe a 16-inch model, of which he says, ‘It has a round sound, but it’s too big to play this modern music.’

Violist Pierre Henri Xuereb commissioned maker Friedrich Alber for an instrument on which to play Paganini’s Sonata for Grand Viola, which was originally written for a five-stringed viola. He says, ‘Paganini called it a “grand viola” but it was a viola with an E string and I read that he played the piece only once, in London, He got a bad review, which is probably why he withdrew the idea – the only bad review he ever received.’ Xuereb has also used it for Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite and the transcribed Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F minor, but hopes that more composers will take on the challenge: ‘Composers don’t know the instrument so they don’t write for it. We need them to be interested in its possibilities: for example, you can make triple-stops easily and combinations going from very high to very low. Composers are afraid that their pieces will only be played once because there aren’t that many of these instruments.’

Alber sums up the issues of making a five-string: ‘The challenge is to make an instrument as easy as possible to play for the left hand, with a bridge curve, string spacing at the bridge and width of bouts adapted for easy bowing; all this with a full, warm viola sound and a brilliant “violin” E string.’ Playability is key for players, and size is an important area of compromise. Anger says, ‘Some of these instruments are fairly big and for a small person it can become a wrestling match. Conversely, necks can be too narrow, and the strings too close together. I like a bright-enough C string, a solid, powerful E string, and a relatively mellow tone. Most five-strings sound a little muted compared with a standard instrument, although something about the fifth string tends to even out the volume between the strings.’

For those who balk at the size of a viola, five-strings do come in violin form, but according to luthier Martin Brunkalla, who makes both, this inevitably compromises the sound: ‘Just adding a C string to an instrument designed for four strings is unlikely to satisfy a discerning player. Aside from the mechanical issues, the body of the violin was never intended to respond to frequencies lower than those produced by the open G string. Typically, the C string on a converted four-string will take more effort to get moving, and sound flabby once it does respond.’

Sacrifices must be made, according to Alber: ‘Either you want a violin with an extra lower string, which usually has a slightly weak C string, like a ¾ viola; or you want a viola with really low viola sound with a nice E string on top. In this case you need a bigger sound case, and longer string length, but it will always be a bit more difficult to play.’

Cooper’s solution to this dilemma is to use a Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ model: ‘These instruments start out with a strong core to the sound and have the potential to translate to modern playing. So I took that model and altered it. You have to make a number of physical adaptations, and not just stick another peg on it. You have to go back and look at all the parts because they work differently.’

Brunkalla bases his instruments on the 16¾-inch ‘Tertis’ model that the viola player devised with luthier Arthur Richardson from his own Montagnana. Brunkalla says, ‘My own “Tertis” model five-string viola is smaller at 15¼ inches, but retains the basic proportions of the original. I chose this design primarily because the ratio of body length to internal volume was the highest among the models of which I was aware.’

Wendy and Peter Moes made their first five-string for jazz violinist Frank Wunderer. Wendy Moes explains what he was looking for: ‘He wanted to have everything – the C string and the E string.’ Like Cooper, she recommends going back to basics: ‘Once you start thinking about what you have to change for the fifth string it turns out to be everything, except for the ribs – for starters, the outline. You have five strings, which make for a rounder bridge. You can’t be too wide in the middle bouts so you don’t have bow clearance. There’s also much more pressure on the back and the top and there’s no way to calculate this because every piece of wood is different, so you have to make sure it’s strong enough.’

Strength is a key factor for luthier John Silakowski, who says, ‘Many builders want to get the wood too thin. It is better to build a five-string heavy enough that it will be structurally sound and continue to get better and better with time. An instrument that is too thin will often sound great immediately, but then quickly lose its good qualities, whereas an instrument built with proper calibrations will never stop getting better.’ He also uses a ‘del Gesù’ model – the ‘Cannon’ – and says, ‘Finding the right-sized pattern helped me get the E string to sound solid enough to match the G and C strings. When I slightly expanded my pattern I found the right combination. Mostly they differ from instrument to instrument in wood and the amount of arching. Those two things have probably made the most difference in terms of tone between different instruments.’

Cooper explains the importance of the arching: ‘You’re trying to provide enough air volume in the body of the instrument by making the instrument larger, bringing the arching up a bit to expand that. The ribs can come up a little, but that’s not necessary. It’s largely about how you lay out that central section, and then the thicknesses are adjusted a little, as is the bass-bar, because of the five strings. You have to figure it all out. Some of it’s by trial and error.’

Alber used a 16¼-inch Brothers Amati model for Xuereb’s five-string, the same as for his viola, but also experimented with the thicknessing: ‘I left slightly more wood on the front, on average 0.3mm more in the centre area. The first one I made, in 2000, was played a lot but the table doesn’t have any distortion, and the arching didn’t move under the extra pressure, and since then I have made several more, all on the same shape.’

Moes has found ways to make the instrument more comfortable to play. ‘We always had a small viola model with a lira da braccio-style heart-shaped bottom, for violinists who want to play viola, or small violists. It means that when you put your chin down you’re very close to the bridge, so for a violinist you don’t have such a change: everything is close. We took that but we had to make sure the middle bout was small enough to have clearance. We also had to change the outline a little, to make sure the back was strong enough.’

Bridge design will also have an impact on playability. Anger explains: ‘The standard bridge shape is not so good for a five-string: you don’t have to make a huge arch, but you must make sure that the A-string area is not too flat. A higher arch with a slightly high bridge also seems to help the power of the instrument.’ Moes widens the bridge: ‘It’s a wide viola bridge to accommodate the five strings. The player has to be able to get on all strings so that’s what the curvature is designed to do.’ Alber has a different approach: ‘Personally, I do not believe in very large bridges. The string spacing on the bridge is very slightly smaller than on a violin bridge, and the bridge curve slightly more rounded.’

What happens at the top can also be difficult, says Alber: ‘The neck was more of a problem. I finished the instrument completely and strung it up in the white so we could try it and do some final adjustments of the neck before varnishing. At the upper saddle I used a string distance slightly narrower than on a violin, to finish with a neck width of 26mm for five strings. This was the narrowest I could make it.’ This consideration also affects the resulting sound, explains Moes: ‘The neck has to be wider for the five strings, but you can’t make it too strong because it’ll put brakes on the machine. The pegbox has to be longer to accommodate the extra peg, and stronger, because it’s got a lot of tension. It’s a new beast that you have to create.’

The exciting thing about five-strings is that everything is open to experimentation, from the tailpiece right up to the scroll. The Moeses made their own tailpiece, as Wendy Moes describes: ‘This was a 16-inch instrument, so to give it a little more length on the C string we made the tailpiece swoop down, although we didn’t have more than 10mm difference between the C and the E strings.’ They were also forced to design their own fingerboards: ‘We weren’t able to find wider fingerboards so we took a regular ebony fingerboard and put a strip of pearwood on to the sides and the end, which worked out because the strings were on the ebony itself, so it was still durable.’ Luc Deneys customises his fingerboards by bringing the E string side up towards the bridge, to make high E-string playing easier for Jenny Spanoghe. He also created a special scroll to reflect what he considers the dual nature of the instrument: ‘I made a head of a hermaphrodite, because it’s not a violin and it’s not a viola – neither man nor woman.’

None of this would be possible without the strings to fit to the instruments, but it seems that string companies are responding to the challenges and even customising strings: Alber worked with Savarez, Spanoghe with Lenzner, and the Moeses with D’Addario. Brunkalla advises, ‘If one is to rely on commercially available strings to complete one’s instrument, the length of the instrument becomes a primary design consideration. Don’t design a 17-inch viola unless you are confident that the strings exist with which to string it. The length of an instrument and the pitches it is tuned to are governed by the strength of the string materials. When adding a high E to a viola, this is, most likely, the tensile strength of steel. Do the maths or find someone who can do it for you.’

How do players respond to all this thought and effort? There are particular technical challenges to playing a five-string, as Spanoghe explains: ‘The accuracy of playing on each string without extra noise demands very good bow control. Playing the right string with eyes closed is difficult, and so is fast détaché over five strings, up and down, and mixed legato passages over the five strings in unequal articulations. There is also the challenge in a solo recital of switching from violin to viola to five-strings.’ However, she feels that the challenges benefit her as a player: ‘The intense study of new pieces for five-strings offers me greater skill on the violin and the viola.’

Xuereb admits that it took time for him to get used to his instrument: ‘If you expect that it’ll be easy, it’s not: you need to work. It was like a new instrument, as if I’d started to play the cello. It took at least a year for it to feel really comfortable. It’s the string-crossings, as the strings are closer to each other: if you want to play really loudly it’s easy to hit the next string, so it loses a bit on the precision and power.’

It can help potential customers to try one before they commission one, as Silakowski suggests: ‘I have had many players order a five-string without ever playing one. Sometimes they aren’t sure they can adjust to playing it at first. Normally, three to five weeks later they are totally used to it and don’t pick up their four-string again. As soon as you put the time in practising and breaking through any of those small differences, anyone can play one. But you have to put that time in, and not expect it to be the same as your four-string.’

Deneys is excited about the work and offers this advice to a maker contemplating making a five-string: ‘Just do it. It’s a beautiful instrument, so you must make it and accept the difficulties as they come to you.’ For Cooper, the opportunities are unique: ‘In some ways it is a new instrument, but it has a historical precedent and it’s evolving. When we look back at violin making in the past, one of the good things is that people were able to be involved in the evolution of instruments. We’re getting that chance again with five-strings.’ 

This article was first published in a special viola-themed issue of The Strad in May 2013. Download the full digital magazine here or subscribe to the paper magazine here.