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Electric Viola: Amplifying Violas in Modern Music

While the viola may appear to be simply a larger version of a violin, there are actually substantial variations. It’s in a lower register (with each string a fifth beneath that of a violin), reads another clef, and serves a different role in most chamber groups and orchestras.

Because of its greater size (about 15 percent to 20 percent larger than a violin), a viola has a deeper and richer tone, even when playing the same notes as a violin. Electric violas provide that depth as well.

Types of Electric Violas

Acoustic-Electric Viola
The simplest -- and generally least expensive -- way to get an electric viola is to equip an existing traditional instrument with electronics. These pickups can mount inside the viola with soft clamps on the body, on the bridge, or to the body of the instrument using special putty that won’t damage the wood.

Advantages to this method include maintaining the feel and playability of your original instrument, and the ability to play acoustically or electronically. Even when amplified, this configuration delivers the sound most like the original acoustic tone. However, you may have an issue with feedback, which is more likely on an instrument -- like a viola -- on which a large resonating chamber enhances the “loop” between amplifier and instrument.

Modern Electric Violas
For those who want to explore a completely unique instrument, the NS Design electric violas are ideal. Created by the company that introduced “headless” guitars and basses in the ‘70s, these are radically different from a classic viola.

The traditional body shape is replaced by a solid, elongated block of maple, the typical headstock with scroll and pegs is missing (tuning is done at the bridge), and all electronics are built-in to the instrument itself. However, the adjustable chin rest, shoulder rest, and upper body segment provide the feel that players are used to.

In addition, the sonic possibilities are stunning. Sophisticated onboard electronics offer a wide variety of tonal possibilities -- all controllable right from the instrument itself -- with virtually no feedback.

Silent Violas
Yamaha electric violas offer a compromise between a dedicated electric viola and the familiar acoustic instrument. They are composed of the usual headstock configuration, and a partial outlined body shape that provides a more familiar look and feel.

However, built-in electronics also allow control over the amplified sound, with onboard EQ that can be switched in and out of the circuit. Even when amplified, these violas create a sound that closely approximates the original acoustic tone.

Amplifying Your Electric Viola

Many performance venues will provide a P.A. (sound system) through which the viola can be run. For situations where a P..A.. is not available (or where the monitor system is inadequate), you’ll need an amplifier.

Even more than an electric violin, an electric viola requires an amplifier with a wide frequency range, especially in the low end. This may mean larger speakers, a greater watts rating (it takes more power to deliver lower frequencies than high ones), and additional EQ adjustments.

Additional Resources

Carriage House Violins

Located in Newton, Massachusetts, Carriage House Violins is the instrument sales division of Johnson String Instrument.

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Whether searching for a job, learning about the "Mozart Effect," looking for a summer music camp, or choosing the right instrument string, you need look no further.

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Johnson String Project

A charitable foundation whose goal is to provide high-quality instruments to children who live in under-served communities and who are participating in El-Sistema-inspired programs in Massachusetts.

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Helpful "how to" videos and useful information about JSI and the products and services we offer.

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