Violin/Pros and Cons of 5-string Violins
QUESTION: Hi Mr. Fisher. Could you please tell me the pros and cons of 5-string violins? I am trying to choose between viola and 5-string violins.
I got a 4-string violin. After hours of playing, the high pitches of the e-string gives me a very slight and temporary headache. That's why I considered getting a viola. And I love the lower pitch of the viola. But sometimes, I want add both low and high pitches in my songs. Makes things exciting for me and sounds beautiful. What do you recommend? Pros and cons of 5-string violins will probably be enough.
Thank you for all your help. Any help is appreciated.
ANSWER: Hi Ridwan,
Thanks for your question. Many players - particularly players of folk and Celtic music - love playing on 5-string violins or 5-string violas. Most classical players scoff at the idea of adding the 5th string, but it really just depends on what you want to do with your instrument. 5-string violins are usually weak on the C-string - compared to what you'd get with a viola. 5-string violas are usually weak on the E string, compared to the violin. The other adjustments to the bridge, bass-bar, and even the thickness of the belly that are necessary to add the 5th string also tend to detract from the overall quality of the instrument's tone.
So, if your music really calls for that 5th string, go for it. But, recognize that you'd be getting a better sound with just a violin or viola.
As for your e string . . . If it's giving you a headache, I'd guess that something is not well adjusted on your instrument. You could have a badly made violin. Or, more likely, your violin could be badly setup. Or, perhaps both. If you haven't already tried some different E strings, you might find that helpful. A gold-plated or aluminum-wound E would be less bright and/or harsh sounding than a plain steel E, for example. And, you might also want to have your instrument checked and adjusted by a professional. A bit of adjustment to the post, bridge, nut, tail-gut, and some string recommendations can make an amazing difference.
Best of luck to you!
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QUESTION: Hi Mr. Fisher. Thanks for your quick reply. I appreciate it. I will consider changing the e-string on the violin.
I just have one question about the con of 5-string violins. The c-string being weak, does that mean the c-string is not as loud or not as low pitched?
ANSWER: Hi Ridwan,
Good question. Sorry to be unclear. The viola is sized and designed to produce a full, round, projecting tone in a lower range of frequencies than the violin. Likewise, the violin is built to produce a full, strong tone in a higher frequency range. But, when you ask the violin to try to produce sounds in the lower frequency range of the viola, the sound becomes weaker, thinner, more hollow. Sorry that we don't have a better vocabulary for talking about these things that we hear. It is partly a matter of volume, but also a matter of timbre. A C string on a violin is not as loud, but also not as full and round and powerful sounding as it would be on a viola. Likewise, a 5-string viola would have a powerful C string, but would produce a weaker, thinner tone on the E than a violin would do.
Hope that helps.
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QUESTION: Hi Mr. Fisher. Thank you very much for assisting me. I have a few more follow up questions though.
I am seriously contemplating on buying an aluminum-wound steel E string. Listening to all kinds of players online, playing with the E-string, will sometimes give me headaches or irritate me. It may not be just my violin. However, I will talk to the local music store and ask them to switch my E string. My first question is this: what are the cons of getting an aluminum-wound steel E string? Is there whistling?
Secondly, could you please define full, round and hollow sound?
Thank you. :D
Hi again Ridwan,
I'm afraid that we don't have a very good vocabulary for describing the different nuances of what we, as musicians, hear. I'm not sure I can define what I mean by "full and round" vs "hollow" any better than that, though I'll do my best. Violin makers are always trying to improve their instruments - toying with different graduations of the plates, size and placement of the f-holes, resonance frequencies of the different parts and the air chamber itself, etc., etc. The goal being to produce a sound (in the range that the instrument traditional plays) that is most pleasing to the listener's ear. And, hundreds of years of experience has led us to where we are today. Words like, "warm", "round", "rich", "powerful" are often used to describe the sort of tone that people like. I suppose by "full and round" I'm trying to describe a sound that has a good articulation coupled with a powerful fundamental frequency and a rich and complex series of overtones that make the timbre of the note pleasing to the ear.
When one talks of adding a new string to a violin or viola, you're now adding to the range that the instrument has been designed for. The work of generations of makers, striving for the perfect sound, goes out the window, since none of them were trying to make a violin sound good on a low C. The violin is just not designed to produce that pitch well. So, you tend to get what I would call a weak or hollow tone. By this I mean a sound that has the articulation, and some of the overtone series, but lacks power in the fundamental frequency and slightly above. Think of an acoustic guitar (full, round) vs. an electric guitar that isn't plugged in (weak, thin). That's obviously an exaggeration, but the same principle applies. Anyway, I hope that helps a little.
Regarding the E string. There's not necessarily a con or down-side to using an aluminum-wound E. It depends on your instrument and tastes. Words commonly used to describe the sound of aluminum-wound E strings: warm, dark, mellow. Plain steel E strings are often talked of as being: bright, brilliant, edgy, clean, smooth. Gold-plated E strings are talked of as being: warm, rich, complex, smooth, mellow. Tin-plated E strings (like Evah Pirazzi's 'silvery steel' E) are talked of as being: silky, brilliant (but not as bright as plain steel), smooth, rich. There are even a few other options out there. Wound E strings are slower to respond than plain steel. (There's more mass to get vibrating, so it takes longer to speak. Though, this also makes them less prone to whistling and squeaking.) Since they're so inexpensive, I'd recommend that you order a gold-plated E, an aluminum-wound E, and a tin-plated E, just to see what suits your ear and instrument best. They're not hard to install yourself. Here's a link to our website where we describe the installation of violin strings . . .