I had wanted to test some different strings on my smaller violas. The string company D’Addario makes several types of string for small violas, and they generously sent me some sample sets to try. The viola player Lucy Nolan kindly agreed to play the violas with the different strings. Lucy teaches at the RNCM in both junior and senior departments alongside her busy professional performance career, so was well placed to assess the different qualities of the strings.
We tried the strings on two of my own-design cornerless violas, a 13 ¼ inch (equivalent to a three-quarter size violin) and a 14 ¼ inch (equivalent to a full size violin).
For small-size instruments, and violas in particular, It’s important to use strings designed for the size of instrument – full-size strings won’t be under enough tension and the sound will be flabby and unresponsive, particularly in the lower registers.
We were testing D’Addario strings against Pirastro Tonica, my usual choice for violas of this size. The sizing is different between the brands. Pirastro sells the Tonica for what is described as ½ – ¾ size viola, and this size fits both the models of viola we tested. D’Addario strings are available in extra-short, suitable for the 13 ¼ inch size, or short, suitable for both 14 ¼ and 15 inch violas.
Strings for 13 ¼ inch viola
We started with Pirastro Tonica ½ – ¾ size, recommended retail price around £100 for the set. The sound was excellent; no cracking with pressure from the bow, quick response, even all over the viola, a clear, warm sound. Lucy’s comment was that apart from the tiny size, this was a viola she could use!
I did a quick changeover to the D’Addario Prelude extra-short. This is a steel string with a solid steel core, medium tension, RRP £38. The sound was nowhere near as good as for the Tonica; muddy, less responsive to fast articulation, and particularly on the lower strings, the pitch fluctuated with variation in bow pressure and speed.
Strings for 14 ¼ inch viola
D’Addario had sent two different types of strings for this size.
First up was Zyex short scale, synthetic core, medium tension, RRP £75. The positive was that the sound was very resonant, quite bright and powerful, the negative that the resonance was at the cost of a degree of focus and the strings were not always responsive in very fast passages.
Next we tried Kaplan Forza short scale, a steel string with solid/stranded steel core, medium tension, RRP £132. The sound was duller than the Zyex and also warmer, quite a forgiving sound. Again the response in fast passages was not completely immediate.
Finally we went back to the benchmark Pirastro Tonica ½ – ¾ size, RRP £100. These were slightly less resonant than the Zyex but more focussed, transition between strings was seamless as was response in fast passages, and they could take pressure close to the bridge.
All the strings worked well, with the exception of the Prelude, where the pitch fluctuation was a major drawback. The Tonica were the clear favourite for their quality of sound and responsiveness. But as a less expensive purchase, the Zyex worked well and the resonant, bright sound quality was attractive. For those who prefer a more veiled and dark sound, the Kaplan could be a good choice, though as the most expensive strings we trialled, less good value for money. Incidentally, all the makes of strings are available online at less than the RRP.