Our Tips for Choosing the Right Viola

By Steve George

April 22, 2024Audio & Video

Buying a viola is never a one-size-fits-all solution. Unlike the violin, which comes in a standard size, violas are available in different sizes. Even violas of the same size might sound differently due to various factors, such as strings, wood materials, etc. Although that sounds challenging, it shouldn’t be if you have the correct information. Whether it’s your first viola shopping or you’ve done it before, here are our helpful tips for buying an instrument you’ll love.

How Do I Choose a Good Viola?

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When you browse the wide range of violas in Australia available online and in-store, you’ll come across various sizes, prices and materials used. These are the main factors to consider when choosing the perfect viola for you or your child. Before making the final decision, you also need to check if the store offers a professional set-up by a trained luthier and if it offers after-sale servicing or warranty. That’s why buying from a specialised string instrument store is your best bet for getting a high-quality viola.

Choose the Correct Wood for the Body

Maple and spruce are excellent tone woods, and because of that, violin and viola makers have been using them for centuries. Quality beginner violas usually have their neck, back and sides made from maple, while the top is spruce. Ebony, a very dense, strong and hard-wearing wood, usually makes the fingerboard, nut and pegs.

Avoid instruments made of laminated wood listed on selling platforms by people who want to take advantage of people who don’t know much about string instruments. These violas may be cheaper, but they sound awful and are very difficult to tune.

Pick High-quality Strings for the Best Sound

High-quality strings help the player produce a warm sound that’ll encourage them to continue to practice. Opt for violas in Australia with strings from European countries like Austria, Germany, France, Denmark or from the USA. 

Although a high-quality set of student strings might run you anywhere from $50 to $100, the investment is well worth it. Even good-quality instruments often come with factory strings cheaply made in China and provided by the viola workshop. Avoid these, as they produce a sound that will undoubtedly scare you off playing.

Select the Correct Size

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Playing on a viola with the correct size is essential for a player to develop an adequate playing style. Selecting the right-size viola also affects your learning ability and having fun while playing. Here’s a rough breakdown of the nine standard viola sizes available in Australia so you understand what to look for for you or your child.

Players aged 7 to 14 should use the 11″, 12″, 13″, and 14″ sizes. A youngster will typically use one size for 12 to 18 months, and we measure them similarly to how we measure them for violins. A child mustn’t play on anything too big while still developing.

Sizes 15″, 15.5″, 16″, 16.5″, and 17″ are meant for adults (or completely developed teenagers). The viola has several “full sizes” to pick from based on your arm length, neck height, hand size, and general build, unlike the violin, which only has one “full size” (4/4) or typical adult size.

It’s also crucial to remember that even though 15″ is the smallest “normal adult size,” 14″ may fit you better if you’re a beginner and have small hands. To determine the ideal size, visit a brick-and-mortar store and have your measurements taken against a real viola. The next best thing is checking a store’s sizing guide if you’re buying online or getting a rental viola.

Set a Budget

Your ability level as a viola player should determine how much you’ll spend on the instrument. For your convenience, some sellers have put their products in four categories: beginner, intermediate, advanced and professional violas. Aligning an instrument’s capabilities with your goals can help you set a clear budget and buy the right option.

Beginner violas, typically suitable for the first few years of playing, are designed with functionality and ease of playing in mind to help you get started. They’re available for approximately $625-$1500. Intermediate violas are suitable for players who have been playing and progressing consistently and require more dynamic diversity and tone colours to express themselves musically. They’re available for approximately $1500-$4000.

Advanced violas, available at a price range of $4,000-$10,000, are an excellent option for players of many years looking to do AMEB grade 8 and above. These fine instruments often go hand-in-hand with quality bows and are a purchase for a lifetime unless the player starts to play professionally or at a tertiary level.

Professional violas, also called fine violas, are the best choice for players progressing above and beyond a diploma level and are playing at a high standard in the final years of high school with plans to play professionally after school. Often constructed by one maker at a time or by a small collective of makers, professional violas come with a price tag of +$10.000.

Ensure a Professional Setup by an Experienced Luthier

A skilled luthier will tune a viola’s bridge, nut, fingerboard, pegs, and sound post, among other parts that impact the instrument’s playability, use, and sound quality. It can be incredibly discouraging for beginners when a viola hasn’t been correctly set up because it will be hard to play, problematic to tune and sound horrible. Factory viola instruments don’t include a proper setup by a skilled luthier (maker/repairer of string instruments). That’s why you need to turn to a specialised store.

Check for After-sales Servicing or Warranty

Another reason to shop for a viola in a specialised string centre is that string instruments are particularly temperamental and, thus, require regular servicing to remain in good playing condition. Temperature and humidity changes, knocks and bumps can all affect their performance, meaning you need knowledgeable staff to address any issue and fix minor issues before they become more considerable problems.