Best Violas

Updated August 2019
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
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How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

38 Models Considered
7 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
135 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.

Buying guide for best violas

Last Updated August 2019

Sonically, a viola lives between the bright tone of a violin and the dark resonance of a cello. It is an often-underappreciated instrument responsible for bringing unity to the string section of the orchestra. If you're looking to buy a viola but aren’t certain what qualities make one model stand out from another, don't worry. We can help.

You need a viola that is the proper size for your body. It should be made out of quality materials and feel comfortable in your hands and under your chin. It also needs to have that warm tone that makes it such a crucial instrument in the orchestra.

There are a few more considerations to ponder when shopping. If you carefully read through this guide, you'll learn all the secrets needed to find the best viola for you.

If you're moving from a violin to a viola, the most troublesome aspect can be the viola's responsiveness. It takes a viola slightly longer to produce a sound than a violin player might be used to.

Key considerations

The best violas are handcrafted works of art, so there will be some variance from model to model. However, there are a few key considerations you'll want to keep in mind when shopping for a viola.

Look for a handcrafted instrument.

To save money, lower-end violas are machine-made. These instruments will serve the viola player best after they are taken to an experienced luthier (a string instrument maker) to fine-tune and upgrade the instrument. As such, the better option may be to search for a handcrafted instrument. You will pay more for the viola upfront, but in exchange, you will have a more durable instrument with a warmer sound.

Choose the proper size.

An instrument that is not the proper size for a player will be harder — or in some cases, impossible — to play. In other words, do not purchase a larger instrument and hope your child will grow into it. To help guide you through this process, we've included a section to teach you about measuring so you can choose the proper size viola.

Look for quality materials

A viola is primarily made out of spruce, maple, and ebony. The better the quality of wood used in the construction of the viola, the warmer the sound will be and the less it will weigh. Both of these features are desired. A viola that uses inferior wood will sound brighter — a characteristic more desirable in a violin — and it may be heavier, which could lead to fatigue in some players.

Stay within your budget.

A handcrafted viola made out of high-quality wood could cost more than you were expecting to pay. It's easy (and natural) to be tempted to spend a little beyond your budget to get a slightly better instrument. Unfortunately, that decision could haunt you if the instrument is for a beginner who loses interest at the end of the school year.

EXPERT TIP

Viola players read music in the alto clef. It’s an easy clef to learn from scratch, but if you've played any other instrument before, it might create a slightly longer learning curve because it's different from the clefs for other instruments.


Staff  | BestReviews

Other necessities

Like most musical instruments, there are a few other essential items you will need to consider besides the instrument itself.

Case

Violas are fragile. Even a lower-end model needs to be protected. If a case doesn't come with the viola you’re interested in, get interested in a different viola.

Bow

For most playing, you need a bow. However, the bow your viola comes with might not be the best bow for your needs. Purchasing a high-quality bow is one of the easiest ways to upgrade your instrument.

Rosin

Instruments in the string section depend on rosin to create sound. If you've ever slid your bow across a string and it glided effortlessly but produced no sound, you likely needed to add some rosin to your bow. The rosin provides the friction that makes sound. If you find a bundle that includes rosin, great, but if not, don't worry; it only costs a few dollars when purchased separately.

Shoulder rest

A shoulder rest goes on the underside of the viola and helps keep the instrument from slipping. It can also add a little height so the viola meets your chin with less strain. Using a shoulder rest is advisable for beginning students. However, as you become more accomplished and comfortable with your instrument, you may opt to remove this accessory.

Strings

It's rare to break a string, but having a full set of backup strings with you at all times is still a wise move. Additionally, if you have a preference for a certain brand or want to perform an easy upgrade, it's not too difficult to swap out your strings. If you are uncomfortable changing them yourself, you could pay a professional for the service.

Music stand

In order to better see your music, you will need a music stand. Be sure to get one that is the right height for you.

Chromatic tuner

If you'd like to tune your own instrument or just double-check your finger placement, a chromatic tuner is an invaluable tool. Some bundles may include a chromatic tuner.

Metronome

A metronome is a handy practice tool to help you understand rhythm. Like the tuner, some bundles may include a metronome. Quite often, you can find a chromatic tuner with a metronome feature so you will only need to purchase one device.

DID YOU KNOW?

Viola players do not tend to get the melody line much of the time, but they are the lynchpin that holds the entire string section together. It takes a special dedication and understanding of music to be a violist.

How to measure for a viola

Since violas are size-specific, it’s imperative that you know how to properly measure in order to purchase the right one for you. It’s not a hard process. Follow these tips to make sure you get the best results.

  • Fully extend your left arm, and hold it parallel to the floor at shoulder height with your palm facing upward.

  • Measure the distance from where your left shoulder meets your neck to the middle of your palm.

  • Be sure the tape measure is taut to get the best measurement.

  • Alternatively, you may use a yardstick.

  • Reference the chart below to determine the size viola that is best for you.

    • An 18- to 20-inch arm measurement would need a 12-inch viola.

    • A 20- to 22-inch arm measurement would need a 13-inch viola.

    • A 22- to 23-inch arm measurement would need a 14-inch viola.

    • A 23- to 25-inch arm measurement would need a 15-inch viola.

    • A 26- to 27-inch arm measurement would need a 15.5-inch viola.

    • A 27- to 28-inch arm measurement would need a 16-inch viola.

    • A 28-inch (and up) arm measurement would need a 16.5-inch viola.

    • When you get your viola, place the instrument in proper playing position. If you've made the right choice, the fingers of your left hand should easily be able to wrap around the scroll of your viola.

CAUTION

Low-end violas are mass produced. This process drastically reduces the price, but the quality of the instrument can suffer greatly.

Viola prices

Violas can be costly instruments. The bulk of what the average player will pay is under $500. These are usually machine-made instruments manufactured to meet the needs of beginners (the largest market). You can definitely find some handcrafted gems in this range as well, but you need to do your research.

Between $500 and $2,000 is where the instruments for intermediate and advanced students reside. The best of these violas are handcrafted with ebony pegs and an ebony fingerboard. If you're ready for the finest handcrafted professional viola, be prepared to spend several thousand dollars.

Other products we considered

If you're looking for a quality instrument for a younger virtuoso, we don't want to neglect you. Here are three more choices that will work for your late elementary school or junior high school student.

The affordably priced Cecilio CVA-400 is a 14-inch solid wood viola that comes with everything you need to get started, including a tuner/metronome.

On the other hand, D'Luca's PD02-15 is a 15-inch handmade viola suitable for a serious student who is progressing nicely and is moving into a more advanced orchestra.

Lastly, D Z Strad's handmade 15-inch N2011 is a warm-sounding, dependable option for the burgeoning prodigy.

Viola making is not fully standardized. "Full-size" instruments come in a variety of lengths.

FAQ

Q. Even lower-end violas can be expensive. Are there any tips for saving money?

A. If the viola is for a beginning student, especially one who may soon outgrow the instrument, don't get the most expensive viola (don't get the least expensive viola, either, as that may be an unworkable option), but consider getting the most expensive bow. Often, a quality bow (and strings) can make the instrument sound better than its price range. Upgrading the instrument’s bridge may also be a cost-effective option to help squeeze a slightly better sound out of your lower-end viola.

Q. I have a spare violin bow. Can I just use that instead?

A. It could work for a child or someone who fatigues quickly when using a full size viola bow. Otherwise, it's important to use the proper bow. Viola bows are shorter and heavier than violin bows (and longer and lighter than cello bows) because the added weight and shorter length help the player get the most expression out of the instrument.

Q. When should I upgrade to an intermediate viola?

A. For an adult or older child, you can upgrade to an intermediate viola after a couple years of dedicated practice. If you are comfortable getting around on the instrument and you’re mastering the fundamentals but can't get the sounds and emotions from the instrument that you want, it might be time to look into stepping up. If it's a smaller or younger child, even though you can trade in an instrument as he or she steps up, it might be prudent to wait until they won't be experiencing any more growth spurts before you get that top-of-the-line viola.

The team that worked on this review
  • Allen
    Allen
    Writer
  • Devangana
    Devangana
    Web Producer
  • Eliza
    Eliza
    Production Manager
  • Enid
    Enid
    Editor
  • Katherine
    Katherine
    Editor
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer

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