5-string violin

5-string violin

After reading some of the recent threads here on the 5-string violin, I was wondering what players thought of it.

Is there any advantage in having one, if you are playing Irish traditional music (or any fiddle music)?

I was thinking it would enable you to play in more keys. What about the neck width and string spacing? It is still comfortable to play?

Does it sound significantly different from a 4-string violin?

Any feedback is welcome! Thank you.

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I’ve never played one and I just don’t see the need.

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They often have slightly larger bodies. When last I played one, I didn’t find string spacing or the arc of the bridge to be a challenge. I have kind of big hands, though, and have found my standard full size small at times.

Definitely a less bright tone for the ones that are slightly larger, but it’s kind of cool having a C string.

I wish I had one, but I don’t think I’d trade in my current violin for one.

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Alex, ….Just wondering why it’s cool to have a C string? (I mean for ITM). If I wanted a C string I’d just play a viola.

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[* If I wanted a C string I’d just play a viola.*]

But you would lose your E string.

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So is the 5 string violin really a viola with an E string?

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No, it’s a fiddle with a C string!

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Different ways to chord, different/additional drones, the option to play in a lower octave. Additional options for harmony and counter melody. I wish there were a little viola in my local session, honestly.

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I decided to buy an electric fiddle when I was playing in pubs & hotel lounges. I reckoned I could plug it into the FX board the guitar was routed through, and make use of all the effects. (Which worked well.) Seeing as I was spending about £400 (about 25 years ago) I decided to go large and buy one with 5 strings. Four would have been enough. I found the instrument to be heavy. It was also uncomfortable to play (for me) and I found the neck to be just a bit too wide. If I looked at the neck while playing, I was screwed! Too many strings to look at, instead of listening and getting on with playing it. The fifth string was of little or no use to me, because it was a beast to keep in tune. I used to wonder if a cello string chopped down (or something of that ilk) would have been better.
Something which might not immediately come to mind - I bought a radio mic for it (another £160) so that I could head off out among the tables in the bar while playing. I was accused of miming to my backing tracks. When I denied this, the accuser jumped up and grabbed the neck of the instrument, when of course, the music over the PA stopped. I said "Well, are ye satisfied now?" The accuser sat down, without a word of apology. Ugly fat f***er. At least my playing must have sounded OK if he/she/it thought I was miming.
Through the FX board it was great. I used to do 3 sets a night on it. One Country, one Bluegrassy and finish off with an Irish set — The Rattlin’ Bog, Muirsheen Durkin and Whiskey in the Jar. When I got to the final set I played (over backing tracks) I did Whiskey in the Jar as one verse vocal, next verse instrumental, and so on to the end of the song. When an encore was called for, I repeated Whiskey in the Jar, all instrumental, first verse or two straight, next couple with delay, and the last couple with WahWah - loud and the delay going as well. Total Mad House stuff. People up on tables & suchlike! Howling and screaming! Oh I miss those sessions!

My electric 5 string was eventually bought by an accomplished musician friend, a fine guitarist and vocalist who plays in a bluegrass band. He’s getting on great with it, very much into "fiddling patterns" of which I know nothing, but he"ll make it sing in the band. The make by the way is Ashbury, and I’ve seen the same instrument labelled Ozark. Both made in Korea of course.
If I was going to buy another electric fiddle, I’d stick to 4 strings, and I’d buy an electro-acoustic, so that if I was wandering about through the tables, the instrument under my chin could be heard and I wouldn’t be accused of miming. Must have been 20 or more years ago and I still can’t forget that ignorant sow.

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How come it’s not a viola with an e-string? It’s bigger than a standard fiddle isn’t it? So why? Anyhow, I can understand why Jim would have one because he plays lots of different stuff, but why would I want a C string to play ITM?

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Because the scale length and body size are much more closely aligned with violin than with viola. The body is only slightly larger than standard fiddle. The design is based off a violin body, not off a viola body. Also, a 14 inch viola just doesn’t work for serious musicians. It is nowhere near as loud as the usual 16-18 inchers.

"Why would I want a C string to play ITM?
There is no need for those low notes unless you’re playing harmonies (which are obviously not very traditional).

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Thanks Aaron.

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I played a Tucker Barrett electric 5-string in a country band for a while. No problem with the size, since it’s electric (of course, you need a monitor close by to be able to hear.) No problem with the extra string or the flatter neck - that was easy to get used to. But I just didn’t use the C string much. I didn’t need it, and when I did go there it was like, Uh, OK, so there’s a few extra notes, but so what? I wasn’t entranced by having the extra notes. I realized that there’s plenty to do on the regular four strings.

Like Alexander said above, if I were going to buy another electric, I’d go for a four string.

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Interesting to hear how players describe these instruments ….Violin / Viola. I have always gone with it’s a 5 string violin if it is up to 14 1/2" … from 15" upwards I would describe it as a viola. That is based purely on the fact that generally fiddle players start feeling uncomfortable at 15".

The high E string for Viola is only reliable up to about 16 1/2" beyond that they tend to break unless the after-length is shortened.

The C string can be tuned any way you wish, (obvious statement), a popular choice is a low D.

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Answering the OP question :

"Neck width and string spacing? It is still comfortable to play?"

It should be. The neck and nut will need to be slightly wider to accommodate the extra string, and the strings will be slightly closer together. The luthier can adjust these if need be.

"Does it sound significantly different from a 4-string violin?"

No, not at all. Apart from the C string, obviously. That gives it a pitch range covering both violin and viola.

As for comfort, some models have a slightly wider and deeper body to allow the C string to breathe, so it makes the instrument a little bit heavier, but not uncomfortably so. Most makers try to keep the same scale length as a standard 4-string.

As for playing it - a few things I’ve noticed over the years. The bowing plane is slightly different, but you get used to that pretty soon. You’ve got less room to play hard on the G string because of the adjacent C string. Also, as the strings are a little bit closer together, you need to be tighter/smarter with your fingering, so as not to snag an adjacent open string.

Some double stops are easier, owing to closer string spacing - eg a G+D, 3rd finger, on D-string + A-string. Double-stops on the lower strings sound lovely too.

It depends what you want to play. If you are composing, and need the extra lower notes, then that’s one good reason to consider a 5-string. For some, just having the low string suits them.

If you are playing Irish trad, then there’s not really a need for a low C. Even the G isn’t used that much.

Here’s what I’ve found with people I’ve spoken to over the years who bought a 5-string, based on this thinking :

"A low C string is nice to have …"

"I can play in the tonal range of both a violin and viola! How cool ! …"

"That means I can play all my tunes down a fifth if I want to! Brilliant ! …That settles it. I’m getting one!"

Now here’s what actually happens :

They still play pretty much the same stuff they always did, eg Irish trad, Amercan old-time or English folk. They hardly ever need to use the low C, except for maybe as the last (harmony) note to finish off a tune in D or C.

Playing in sessions has no advantage either - not many tunes are played in C (so you won’t be using your standard G fingering, down a fifth). Few people are interested in playing sets down a fifth (eg a set in A played in D, using the same fingerings). They like A because it’s loud and bright, so why drop down to D, where all the other 750,000 tunes are?

So, we’re pretty much back to using 4 strings again. And, ho-hum, the old story repeats itself - only ever playing 4 strings on a 5-string has its disadvantages. You can’t hit hard on your low G with the freedom you have on your 4-string - it’s easy to hit the low C by mistake. If you’ve decided to play some of your tunes a fifth down, you don’t have the same freedom of bowing a hard open A, without accidently hitting the open E. You’d be surprised just how few tunes suit being dropped down a fifth …

So, they sell the 5-string and go back to their original instrument (if they haven’t already sold it).

There are thousands of standard fiddles out there, but relatively few 5-ers, some of which are truly excellent instruments, although I have to say there are more than a few dogs around too, which doesn’t help its reputation.

One last point - the C string. If you don’t have one, you won’t miss it 🙂

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the C string is useless for ITM as played in sessions
and is very useful for singer’s backing in a performance context

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Sorry, violists/cellists! I guess Irish trad music isn’t for you!

Or ignore this thread, and come to my session. It’ll be great. 🙂

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I’ve been massively impressed by the recordings of Swedish players Mikael and Mia Marin and - he with a 5-string viola, she with a 5-string violin. The textures they get are wonderful: worth looking at some of their YouTube clips under the heading Marin/Marin.

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I used to play in a band with a guy who had an acoustic 5 string fiddle. Made by Tim Phillips. Jon, whose fiddle it was, said it was rare to find a 5 string fiddle that didn’t sound like an unsatisfactory compromise between fiddle and viola, but he played his 5 string for years and seemed to like it. He maybe still does, but I don’t see him much any more.

m.d.

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I use a Tim Phillips 5 string and love it. When I go back to the 4 string I feel a real loss of depth in the bottom register.

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I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it—bad case of Instrument Acquisition Syndrome, for a lot of years—but I have owned several 5-string fiddles: Barcus-Berry (blue), Barcus-Berry (natural), Zeta (electric solid-body, with midi controller), Jensen (another electric solid-body). All sold off, for various reasons, to good homes I hope. I now have a David Gage Realist 5-string, which is pretty good for an electrified acoustic factory fiddle. Only slightly heavier than usual. But compromises must be made, in the geometry. I can’t use a shoulder rest with it, because the usual tilt makes the E string un-bowable for lack of clearance. It has to be flat on my shoulder. And I think all 5-strings feel a bit cramped in the upper right corner of the fingerboard, if you know what I mean. Some phrases that hop around the A and E strings, with open and first finger, are hard to play cleanly (although simple "pilot error" may well be a factor, in my case).

Which—long story short—is why I recently switched back to my 4-string, to concentrate on trad tunes. But that’s just me.

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When I asked about this a gold medal violin maker in NY…firmly said that it does not work. Tone balance of the strings, and bass bar position. Something like that. Most 5 stringers I have come across are violas with an e string. Seems to work. Then you could find an old 14" viola, and have a choice of string tuning. My experiment is still down in the shed. If you want plenty of strings, get a hardanger.

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[*When I asked about this a gold medal violin maker in NY…firmly said that it does not work.*]

This person is simply wrong, and couldn’t be more so.

The fact that there are some excellent 5-string violins around prove this. Maybe it’s based on a misunderstanding of what a 5-string violin is - it’s a violin with a low C string. Nothing more, nothing less. Not a viola with an E string.

It’s quite a feat of violin making to build a good 5-string, where the low string can sound freely, and not adversely affect the overal sound of the insrument. Some can do it, some can’t and some wouldn’t even attempt it. As I said before, there are some real dogs around.

Anton Krutz, Bradley Higgins and John Silakowsky (all USA) make very good 5-strings, as do Colin Cross, Glyn C Jones (all UK). I’ve played 5-strings made by these people. Of course, there are other good makers too, whose instuments I haven’t played, but their reputation is very good.

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Thanks Bazza, I was just going to mention Mikael Marin (of Väsen fame) and his Swedish built 5-string viola, didn’t know about this partnership and combination of 5-stringed instruments.

To sum up:
Yes, there are 5-string violas = violas with an E string, as well as 5-string violins = fiddles with a C string, they are different in build. Also, both come with the fingerboard only slightly wider, so the strings are closer together, as well as keeping the distance between the strings, making for a wider finger board, so it might be a problem to reach.

As to why: to add colour. Try, for instance, tuning the C string up to D and you get a wonderful resonance. The main reason would be: If like me you get a bit tired of all this screeching on the upper end of the E string in a lot of B parts you can simply play an octave lower. But as opposed to a viola you don’t have to, that’s the point.

And why not? Think of bouzouki, mandola, mandolin, banjo, in different octaves and not traditionally "Irish" instruments but now widely used. The 5-string has an old pedigree, as before the standardization into classical symphony orchestra instruments you had fiddles with any number of strings! For instance the chrotta (! look it up), viola d’amores, viola da gambas and other viols.

However, my ultimate dream instrument is the 10-string Hardanger Fiddle as played by Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (for instance in The Gloaming), it’s a 5-string fiddle with 5 resonating strings. Beautiful instrument, fantastic sound. Had one in my hand once … sigh …