Viola strings on a violin?

Viola strings on a violin?

I wonder if anyone can help out? I recently bought a second hand modern Strad cheaply. It’s well made and sounded dreadful with violin strings. So, having heard that newer violins can take the weight of viola strings, I restrung it. It sounds great (to me as I have little viola experience) but good enough to add some depth while others are leading in a session.

Two questions really. Does anyone know if the violin might suddenly disintegrate!? And where can I find some tune settings for ITM on viola? I’ve looked, but can’t readily find anything.

PS NO I can’t get a viola ‘cos my hands are only just big enough to get around the violin!

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Susie, are you tuning the viola-strung fiddle with viola tuning (CGDA?). I tried that once as an experiment (before I got into ITM) because my fiddle has a particularly deep tone on the G and D, so I used a viola C with the fiddle G, D and A (I was using Dominants at the time, and I think I’ve still got that viola C). The general result was a lot of deep, deep resonance, but the C felt very "floppy" because the vibrating length on the fiddle was too short, and this caused it to go out of tune very quickly. So I reverted to standard tuning and put the fiddle away for a couple of years - being an orchestral cellist I wasn’t particularly interested in playing violin in an orchestra (although the viola was, and still is, a possibility). Then a couple of years later I discovered ITM and realised what the fiddle was really for, and I haven’t looked back since!

If you’re using GDAE tuning, I wonder if you had the correct choice of violin strings. Even the best instrument can sound and feel dreadful if the strings aren’t suitable. It’s always worth having the instrument looked over properly by a skilled technician to make sure everything is set up to spec - things like positioning of bridge, soundpost, correct distance of tailpiece from the bridge, pegs that behave themselves, correctly positioned and surfaced grooves in the nut and bridge over which the strings pass - they all matter. The technician should also be able to advise you on the most suitable strings for your fiddle and style of playing. I’d be reluctant to use viola strings in GDAE tuning on the fiddle without exploring first the use of good fiddle strings to do the job.

Fiddles can be set up as violas, as I tried out myself, but this is usually for children or other players with unusually small hands who can’t manage the viola stretch, but the sound can never be quite like that of the viola because of the different size ratios of the two instruments.

If you do go down the viola tuning route, whether on a fiddle or viola, you’ll have to be prepared to use the positions and to go up the A string in order to play the notes you’d normally play on the E, otherwise a lot of ITM will either be closed to you or you’ll have to do some rearranging of the higher register passages.

Some of the top players (Peoples and Hayes are examples) also play the viola, but often for slow airs which seem very suited to the lower instrument.

There are also available specially designed 5-string fiddles with a low C string, so you can get the best of both worlds, but I have no information about the tonal quality. I’ve also heard of 5-string violas with an E string. I would guess that may be more successful than the 5-string fiddle with the same tuning, but I stand to be corrected by anyone who has had hands-on experience of the 5-stringers. There’s also the octave violin, GDAE tuning but it uses special strings and sounds an octave lower. I’ve never heard one, so you’ll have ask around on that one.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Susie, I’m not a fiddler or violist, but if my logic is correct, assuming you are intending to use viola tuning, not violin tuning, viola strings would not necessarily put any more stress on your instrument than standard violin strings tuned GDAE. The tension required tpo bring them up to (CGDA) pitch would be considerably less than it would be on a viola, due to the shorter scale length. I don’t have exact statistics for violin and viola scale lengths, string gauges and tensions, but I am sure somebody here can enlighten us.

Last year I had the chance to try a fiddle strung and tuned as a viola. As I have said, I do not play fiddle, but I was able to stand and play this instrument for almost 10 minutes withot it sounding (to my ears, at least - and nobody threw anything at me) overly offensive. The man selling this fiddle said he had tried everything to get a good sound out of it, but to no avail. Then, as an experiment, he put viola strings on it and suddenly it came to life. It could have been a difference in string tension which made all the difference. Due to differences in the stiffness of soundboards, fiddles could differ somewhat in the downward force on the bridge (dependent on string tension) required for them to give their best acoustic performance. Consequently, some fiddles may be better suited to viola stringing and tuning than others.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Thanks trevor and David for your imput. I have used viola tuning on my fiddle C,G,D,A.
I did have it checked over by my ‘fiddle maintenance man’, but didn’t mention I intended to turn it into a viola. (I thought he might get upset!)

I have to say that it does sound so much better than when it had violin strings on it. I don’t particularly want to play viola, but wanted to improve the tinny sound the fiddle made. Having small hands means that I couldn’t manage the stretches involved on a proper viola anyway.

I did try a five string once and again the stretch over to the C string was painful.

I’m relieved to hear that it’s been tried before and that it should take the stress.

Anyone know of any tunes suitable in ITM for this set up?

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

David, I think you’re right about the string tension. I once tuned my cello down a half tone (to A415) to accompany some baroque on a cd, and I was surprised at the increased sonority. Haven’t tried it on my fiddle but I should get a similar effect. This is probably one reason why baroque ensembles at A415 have such a wonderful sound.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?


One question: Have you tried to play a 3/4 or 1/2 sized viola? They make tiny instruments for tiny hands and you can find some that sound really great … I know it is a stretch to imagine a viola sounding "great" but use your imagination … =)

Posted by .

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Is it possable to tune a viola to GDAE? My teacher is always going on about my hands being big-which they are not, and playing viola instead. but is it possible?

Re: Viola strings on a violin?


Before tuning a viola to GDAE please get some really good advice from an expert maker. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing and the effects on the instrument I think you could run the danger of ruining a good instrument. I don’t mean it will collapse necessarily (although that is a possibility), I mean that the increased load can distort the belly slightly and ruin the tone and response, as well as making it harder physically to play. The increased tension caused by taking away the C and adding a E will put an increased load on the belly and bridge. Perhaps some instruments will take it, perhaps some won’t …

There will probably be a problem in finding an E (a fiddle E, that is) that would be strong enough to take that pitch at that increased length.

What is also of equally great concern to me is the effect this will have on the tonal quality of the instrument. My guess is that it will sound tight and shrill, with little resonance, and the increased tension will be tough on the left hand and fingers.

I suggest about the only way you’re going get anywhere near succeeding with this enterprise is to use the lowest tension viola strings you can lay your hands on, and this means fairly expensive gut-cored G, D and A. This I think will minimise the increased load on the instrument, but there will still be the problem of the E, which will alter the loading balance on the bridge.

But do you really need to convert a viola? I don’t think what your teacher thinks are large hands are a problem. There are many professional classical violinists and trad fiddle players with bigger hands and fingers than mine, and I’ve been playing the cello since my early teens. I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to play a standard violin - no need to adapt a viola to GDAE with all the problems you’re going to get from that adaptation. Have a read of the discussion thread titled
"fiddle fingering question from the compleat idiot" (the person who asked that is anything but a compleat idiot!) on, in particular the chat between Tove and myself on the question of large hands and thick fingers.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

hi,Susie-Lee,i don’t know of any printed settings for irish trad viola and i would be very surprised if there were.
i’ve heard a few Tommy People’s tracks where he plays tunes on the viola and as far as i remember,you hear the tunes a fifth down from,for my money,even this great master has difficulty selling those settings to’s a different kettle of fish with the slow airs,i would imagine.
please don’t even consider playing the tunes at pitch on the viola - assuming you have the dexterity,the sound is going to be very different up on the A string,you just won’t get any of the resonances or string crossing features etc that are a part of a tune’s character on the fiddle.i suppose you could play an octave down but that’s the best compromise i can think of.
i think the best thing you can do is to try different sets of fiddle strings and use your instrument as intended.

if you want to go the viola route you should try a small viola-KP,i’ve never heard of 3/4 or 1/2 sized violas (unless for young children,in which case it won’t be a proper viola anyway) .
violas come in all shapes and sizes - there is no standard and some instruments are very small.but even an average viola should n’t present a real problem to small hands - the stop is n’t that much greater than a fiddle.Noboko Imai has some of the smallest hands i’ve ever seen and she whizzes around the instrument just fine!
Dafyyd,it is possible to tune a viola to GDAE as a mate of mine did exactly that a few years ago but i think he used a guitar string for the E. but if you’re happy with the fiddle,i would n’t bother.

because the viola is n’t in proportion to its sound register it’s that much harder to make it ‘speak’ which is why you can get away with murder on the violin but not the’s also why viola players are a MUCH superior breed to orchestral violinists who just put the bow on the string and,hey presto!- they can produce a sound.arf arf.
i’m just amazed your fiddle sounds ok with the viola strings,Susie-Lee! i’m not sure it would do for me,but then i’ve not heard yours.
hope that long spiel helped you a bit anyway,
best wishes,dave

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Susie, I know a professional lady cellist, who has played major concertos with one of my orchestras on a number of occasions, who is quite small, slightly less than 5ft I reckon, and plays an old English 3/4 cello with a most magnificent tone. So it may be possible with a viola.

I have a theory, based on a lifetime of orchestral playing, that violists are superior to fiddle players because they get given the most difficult music - the notes the composer finds he’s got left over and can’t fit in anywhere else so he drops them into the viola clef without any consideration whatsoever for the technical difficulties (or expletive-deleted impossibilities I gather from the mutterings I’ve heard from the viola section next to to me) thereby inflicted on the violists.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

O.K. I’ll keep on playing my beloved fiddle, no matter what my teacher thinks, I don’t know if violists are better musicians than violinists, I was watching a recording of the new years day concert from Austria, and the viola section didn’t move their fingers in 40 seconds, even though the cameras were doing a close-up of the viola section. What dose everyone else think?
As of folk cello Trevor, I’ve just discovered an english band called Magpie Lane, who have a brilliant cellist…..

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

As an additional thought - There is another way of setting up a dead fiddle … I’ve heard it called a baritone violin with a mix of Cello and fiddle strings. I’ve heard this twice at various concerts in the S.F Bay area and was knocked over. Not a cello, not a viola … something different in a deep alto voice. I’ve since set up one of my short scale Mandola’s to do approximately the same thing and am waiting for a 9 string Wald Zither which will have the same set up. Here’s the link

Maybe this will totally confuse the issue.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Thanks bigdave for the imput. It’s not just the small hands, but older small hands! Took this fiddle stuff up eight years ago and even with the cod liver oil, it’s hard!

I love the remarks about the viola/fiddle controversy. When I played flute in orchestra years ago, I was often given the 2nd fiddle part to play ‘cos hardly any violin players turned up! In fact, when you joined this orchestra it was almost obligatory to take up another instrument based on who turned up that evening. Our one regular violinist had to take up the viola, my flute partner tried the bassoon, the clarinetist took up the oboe. The back row were interesting too, one e flat horn, a trombone and three saxophones!! We had fun.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Another possibility. I’m not a fiddler so I don’t if anyone has considered this approach but I know it is used by banjo players.

Instead of using Irish tuning (GDAE/fiddle) some banjo players will use standard tenor banjo tuning (CGDA/viola) and then capo at the second fret, changing the tuning up one whole step to DAEB. Of course you loose your low G, A, B and C, but boy does it make the top string effort so much easier. You’ve effectively moved the tuning relationship over one string, but in the direction that makes the high A’s, B’s and C’s easier to play rather than harder (higher).

Of course, I’m not suggesting using a capo on your fiddle. Just tune your viola strings up one step to DAEB. You’re basically going to be able to play in standard fiddle tuning, just moved over one string. Am I making any sense??🙂

This works great on banjo. Any fiddle players have comments? Will, how about you . I know you’re also banjo player.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

The immediate problem with DAEB tuning that occurs to me is that many tunes have parts that drop below the D. On the GDAE fiddle they would be played on the G, likewise on the standard CGDA viola tuning. Such low parts would have to be rewritten for DAEB tuning. The next problem is the increased load on the instrument arising out of all the strings being pushed up one tone. The third problem would be a change in tonal quality - I reckon it wouldn’t sound good - and the increased string tension would make fingering just that much harder.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Oooops!! I realized that when banjo players tune to standard tenor banjo tuning they tune ‘UP’ to CGDA, capo at 2nd fret, then play normal fingerings one string over. If you tune your fiddle ‘down’ to DAEB (one whole step higher than viola) and play one string over you will be an octave lower than the fiddles.

As an instrument builder and repairman, I don’t think tuning up just one whole step from viola would be a problem. You already have a shorter scale length on your fiddle than the viola so tuning up one whole step would actually put the strings at about the intended tension. Extra tension might be noticable but you can certainly use lighter tension strings.

As for the notes below D, certainly there are lots of tunes that go lower, but I’d bet a pint that 90% of ITM tunes don’t go lower than D.

Anyway, the points are ‘moot’. I wouldn’t think you’d want to be an octave low. Get your fiddle to a good repairperson and see if you can get it ‘tuned up’ (proper bridge, soundpost set, proper gauge and type of strings, etc.). Fiddle is the way to go for ITM.

Forget about viola, especially since your instrument is not a viola🙂

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

I might try DAEB Tuneing on my electric fiddle, when I built it I put 1/4 inch steel rod right the way down the neck and most of the body, you can smash it against a tank and the tank would break. (only kidding) I’ll let you know how the higher tuneing goes.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Oh by the way, I was told that some Donegal fiddlers leave the top 3 strings as they are and drop the G to F or C, kind of like drop d guitar. Dose anyone know anything about this?

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Dropping the G string down to F or lower was shown being done on the recent BBC4 programme about the Donegal fiddle, the object apparently being to provide a drone.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

yep,Tusong200,i would say also say to forget about viola,especially in sessions.
Dafyyd:i think you misunderstood my rather cheeky comments re orchestral violinists and viola players.
no worries,tho’!

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

I’m really impressed with everyone’s imput on this thread. Some interesting thoughts and ideas.

Thanks everyone! I think I’ll stick to fiddling out and about in the usual tuning after all the advice, although I’d really like to know how people get on with the tuning up from CGDA to DAEB. In theory it sounds great, but I’d like someone with more technical know how than me to try it out first.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Dafydd, you’ve been a violist for too long. Assert yourslf, make everyone else tune down.

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

Don’t worry, I know as many rude violist jokes as the next VIOLINIST! *Snigger* Only kidding. I tried moveing all the strings on my electric fiddle up a fifth, I definately goes with the "Didely, Didely" Quality of Irish music. Oh and I don’t play a viola so I’m all for making violists tune up!

Re: who’s who hahoo…

hang on,David - who’s the viola player here???

besides,it’s well known that viola players rarely have to assert themselves due to their inherent good taste and all round modesty…

by the way,are you out and about on your bike now?

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

posting at the same time,Daffyd!
if you’re good,i’ll tell you a couple of my favourite violin player jokes!

by the way,i know more viola and so-called viola jokes than you’ve had hot and cold dinners…so there!

Re: Viola strings on a violin?

I bought a $100 17" viola on e-bay with the idea of converting into a 5-string. After it arrived I decided to keep it as a 4-string and tune it as low as possible. I now tune it to DADA. I use a cello C strung and a cello G, plus a viola C and G. I would like to tune it DAEB, but I haven’t found the right gauges yet. My "chincello" is especially good for playing harmony on waltzes and playing underneath singers. There is a noticable change in tone switching from the cello strings to the viola strings, however, so I stick to the cello strings most of the time.