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What Should I Know before I Buy a Viola?

By Alex Terris
Updated May 17, 2024
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There are many things to consider before you buy a viola. The instrument’s tone and volume, for example, are two of the most important factors. Other considerations include how much you’re willing to pay, which size to buy and whether the instrument will increase in value over time. The appearance of a viola is probably the least important consideration, because an unattractive instrument isn't necessarily poorly constructed.

The sound the instrument produces is probably the most important factor when trying to buy a viola. It’s important to check that the tone of each of the strings is consistent before you buy a viola. If the tone changes noticeably between strings, then it probably is a poor-quality instrument. The viola is a relatively quiet instrument compared to others, so a high-quality viola will also be loud.

Your budget will have a large effect on the quality of viola available. Italian violas, for example, are widely considered to be the best, because they are usually handmade. This means the instruments come at a premium, however, so a tight budget may restrict you to factory-produced violas. Older violas usually have a better sound, because the wood becomes harder with age, but these instruments cost more than new violas.

The appearance of an instrument is not the most important factor when you’re trying to buy a viola. It’s natural, however, for people to choose attractive instruments, even if the tone isn’t as good. In general, it’s important to try a variety of violas — even ones that may not appear as attractive — because each will have a distinctive tone.

There is no standardization in viola sizing, so it’s essential to choose one that is comfortable for you to play. The longer a viola is, the better the sound, but the more difficult it is to play. The most common viola size is 16.5 inches (around 42 cm), so this is probably a good place to start. It’s also important to choose a string size that suits the size of your hands, because a large viola doesn’t necessarily mean long strings.

Other factors to consider when trying to buy a viola include whether the instrument is a good investment and where to buy from. Higher-quality instruments may increase in value over time, especially if they are handmade. Specialist viola shops are much more likely to provide a high-quality viola that’s set up correctly.

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Discussion Comments
By jonrss — On Sep 27, 2011

I have a special viola that was made for children. It is about a third smaller than a normal viola. I like it because it is great to travel with. I can fit it easily in a car or even strap it to the back of a backpack.

I will admit that it does not sound as good as a nice full sized viola but the tone is pretty good. It is kind of fun to play too. The smaller fretboard means that you can make a lot of movements really easily.

By cardsfan27 — On Sep 27, 2011

@JimmyT - I would have to agree with jcraig. Another option you might have is to rent a slightly better viola from a music store near you. That way, you'll have access to a better instrument, but you won't be locked into the price if she decides later she doesn't want to keep playing. That's what I have done with a few instruments that I wasn't sure I would want to keep.

The article got me wondering about something. It says there are different sizes for a viola. How is that possible? I thought the viola had its tone based on its size and the length of the strings. How would you be able to make a longer or shorter instrument and still have it make the same tones?

By jcraig — On Sep 26, 2011

@JimmyT - I would say it all depends on whether or not you think your daughter will keep playing for a long time. If you expect her to keep with it, it would definitely be smarter to buy the best viola you can afford from the start. If there's a chance she won't like it or will want to switch to something else, obviously the best choice would be to buy a beginner version.

I wouldn't go with the absolute cheapest, though, because if the instrument is hard to play and doesn't have good tone, that might be the thing that makes her not want to keep playing it.

By JimmyT — On Sep 25, 2011

@TreeMan - I know for violins the bodies are usually made from spruce. That is because spruce is very light in terms of weight and is very good at reflecting sound. Harder woods will absorb more of the sound somehow. I would say the fingerboards are usually made from rosewood. I think that is just a given across all instruments.

For people who know more about violas, how much do beginner instruments usually cost? I think it would be a good instrument for my daughter to start with, but I don't know what type of price I should expect. Should I start with the mass produced beginner kind, or spend a little bit more on an instrument that is higher quality and will last a little bit longer?

By TreeMan — On Sep 25, 2011

What are the most common types of woods that are used in making a viola? I know for electric guitars maple is a common wood for the body, but I think acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments usually use pine or some softer type of wood.

Is there anything special that you should look for when you are buying a viola? How do you tell if it is a quality instrument if you haven't played one before? Do you just have to go by price and guess about the quality?

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