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A lot of people think of the viola as a slightly bigger version of the violin, but it is much more than that. The larger size brings a warm tone, and the viola itself is a stunning musical instrument that can be played as a solo instrument or as a part of a string section.
In this guide, we dive into some of the top viola brands, and the best violas for you no matter what your price range. Whether you are a newbie looking for a student viola or you’re an experienced player who wants a unique, high-quality instrument, there’s something for you on our list.
Buying Guide – Choosing the Ideal Viola
There is a lot to keep in mind when buying any instrument, especially if you’ve never bought one before. Our buying guide will help you to understand all those key considerations before you part with your money.
Viola Size Guide
A lot of people refer to the “full size” of a viola. There is some variation in the size, but the scale of the instruments is usually around 15.5-16.5”. Beyond that, manufacturers have experimented somewhat with dimensions as they’ve looked to get the right level of resonance, portability, and also make it easy to play. Don’t forget that the way a viola rests means that it is hard to play a particularly heavy model.
Within the 16” scale of most of these violas, there are some different dimensions, and definitely some different weights. Consider how much smaller and more lightweight the Yamaha Silent Series SVV200 is. When making your decision, think about what sort of size and weight will suit your own frame.
Materials Used for Violas
The materials used to make a viola are not just about the instrument being sturdy and lasting for a long time. With any instrument like this, the materials used strongly influence the sound.
Just like a guitar, a viola has “tonewood’ which goes a long way to dictating the tone and projection. Some of the most popular woods include spruce and maple. Spruce is known for projecting fantastically.
At the lower or mid-tier of the market, woods like spruce and maple are going to be the most popular, and ebony is also regularly used for things like the fingerboard of the instrument.
Pricing is something that can be extremely difficult to understand when it comes to pretty much any instrument. One viola, the MacDonald Stradivarius Viola, was once put up for sale for $45 million. Don’t worry, you don’t have to spend millions to get a good instrument.
While you can find beginner options under $100 if you are on a shoestring budget, spending between $100 and $400 will buy you a better quality of student viola, and the sort of instrument you can rely on while you learn. To reach a more professional level, you may have to spend more than $400.
The Yamaha Silent Series SVV200 is the most expensive model on our list, but this is mainly because it comes with a full set of pickups and electronics to carry the sound, much like an electric guitar. You also need to buy additional products to amplify this viola.
Accessories for Violas
A lot of the best violas on the market come with a number of accessories. If you’re a beginner, this can be invaluable. Of course, things like spare strings and a bow are big bonuses for anyone. Most come with rosin, a resin to create friction between the bow and the strings and make it easier to play your viola.
On top of that, the most valuable accessories included cases to protect the instrument, and shoulder rests. Getting these items bundled with your instrument definitely helps you to save some money.
Where to Buy a Viola
Some people swear by testing a viola before buying. Well, if you are going to buy an antique instrument and part with $10,000 or even more, this is definitely a good idea. However, if you’re looking to buy a student viola, or something that is more on the affordable end of the market, testing might not be essential.
On top of that, buying a viola in person means you may have a very limited choice. Stores often only stock a few different types of viola, and may not carry every brand. Additionally, you might not get the most competitive pricing.
The viola is quite a specialized instrument, and this means that buying online is probably the best way to get your
Mendini 16-Inch MA250 – Best Overall
Mendini is a viola brand that has grown massively in recent years, and if you are looking for something that generates a great sound quality, but also has a price tag that won’t scare off beginners, Mendini could be the brand for you.
This viola is available in the 16” size as well as some slightly smaller options, and in spite of the price not being too scary (as violas go) it also has a fantastic build quality.
Hand-carved spruce make up the top of this instrument while quality maple makes up the back and sides. Maple is also the wood for the fingerboard, tuning pegs, and chin rest. The four fine tuners are integrated and easy to use.
This model doesn’t just come as a standalone instrument, it has a Mongolian horsehair bow made of Brazilwood, and even a hard case to protect the instrument. It’s hard to argue with that value.
While it doesn’t carry the uniqueness of some handmade violas, this is a great intermediate player instrument.
- Comes with accessories including a case
- Great tone when you consider the price
- One-year warranty
- Falls slightly short of a professional level
Yamaha Silent Series SVV200 – Premium Choice
Virtually all viola players, professional and otherwise, will know about Yamaha. This is mainly because they are one of the biggest musical instrument manufacturers in the world. Is a silent instrument really worth the money?
It’s called silent because of the fact that it doesn’t amplify within the instrument using a soundhole. Instead, it uses a dual piezo pickup system, like an electric guitar might. It has an exceptional preamp and even an onboard EQ so you get clean, professional-quality audio. It’s also incredibly easy to use with headphones or a chromatic tuner for great results.
The instrument has a really interesting, hollow look to it, but it is the standard 16” scale of a viola, and has an ebony chin rest and a sturdy frame. Transitioning from an acoustic viola to this is actually surprisingly easy. It’s the same dimensions.
This instrument has a beautiful, rich tone when amplified correctly, but obviously the fact that it needs amplification can be seen as a downside.
- Easy to tune and connect to amplifiers and effects
- Exceptional build-quality
- Portable and lightweight
- Needs to be amplified for use
- Some purists don’t like the ‘electric’ sound
Cecilio CVA-500 Solidwood Ebony Fitted Viola – Editor’s Choice
Cecilio manufactures both mid-range instruments and student violas, and the CVA-500 is one of the strongest violas in their range. Plus, it’s a great package deal, and it comes with everything but a music stand to get you started.
The full-size, 16-inch scale viola has a spruce top as well as flamed maple back and sides, it has stunning inlaid purfling and the satin finish makes this look like a far more extravagant, even antique instrument.
It’s strung with fantastic medium gauge D’Addario Prelude Strings which give a beautiful tone, and the rest of the instrument is made of an ebony fingerboard, chin rest, and a tailpiece with detachable fine tuners.
Within this kit you also get a fantastic bow made out of Brazilwood, a case, and even a chromatic tuner. Cecilio also has a one-year manufacturer warranty to protect your purchase.
- Beautiful antique look
- Excellent accessories included free with the viola
- Great value-for-money
- Doesn’t come with an extra set of strings as some Cecilio models do
- Shoulder rest is a little uncomfortable and lower quality
Cecilio CVA-400 Solidwood Viola – Best 16.5” Scale Viola
Not all violas are created in the same sizing, and this model has an extra 0.5” of scale when compared to the rest of this list. That bigger size impacts playability and tone, and this is a very rich viola sound with a lot of mid-range frequencies.
It’s similar in many other ways to the CVA-500, but it doesn’t have the same ‘antique’ look to it. It does share most of the same design features including the hand-carved spruce top, flamed maple back and sides, plus inlaid purfling.
It has a maple fingerboard rather than the ebony featured in some other Cecilio violas.
As we’ve grown to expect from the brand, it comes with plenty of accessories including the tuner, and a Mongolian horsehair bow so that beginners can get started as soon as this instrument arrives. You also get a bridge, rosin cake, and a lightweight case.
The instrument is hard to fault if you want a slightly thicker sound, and if you are looking for value rather than shelling out thousands on a one-of-a-kind viola.
- Rich tone with strong mid-range
- Great features and value for the money
- Includes a number of accessories
- Can be hard to adjust if you’re used to 16” scale
D Z Strad Viola Model 101 – Great Viola With Case
D Z Strad is a big brand when it comes to manufacturing, selling, and repairing violas. The Model 101 is a great example of a product available somewhere in the mid-range when it comes to price, but offering great quality to a beginner viola player or even a more advanced, principal violist.
The manufacturers describe this viola as ‘dependable’ which is definitely a fair way to describe it. The exceptional quality means that you can rely on the instrument for years to come.
It’s made with a spruce top as well as maple back and sides for excellent projection, and a comfortable ebony fingerboard. The 16” scale viola also has a Wittner-inspired tailpiece with inbuilt fine tuners. The tone is well-rounded and has a classic viola feel.
On top of this, there are some great accessories including the viola bow, made out of Brazilwood. There’s also rosin and a shoulder rest, plus a quality case with a velcro strap to keep your instrument secure.
One criticism is that this instrument initially seems to struggle to stay in tune. You might find yourself regularly tweaking to get it sounding perfect.
- Comes with a variety of accessories
- Excellent projection and high-quality materials
- May struggle to stay in tune
- More expensive than some similarly-made instruments
Back to School Basswood Acoustic Viola – Affordable Option
A lot of instruments can be prohibitively expensive. If you wanted to, you could spend tens of thousands of dollars on a viola. Even the mid-range products are far from cheap, so it is good that there are some brands making affordable options such as this, the Back to School Basswood viola.
Basswood is not really a traditional tonewood for violas but this one does a surprisingly good job of generating a good tone, and if you are just getting started out playing your instrument then the cheaper model can be very appealing. The standard model is 16” in scale, though there is also a 15” model in the range.
The wood may not be traditional but it is sturdy and does a good job of projecting the sound. The rear panel conducts sound well, and as this is meant to be a starter viola it is relatively easy to transition to a more expensive and professional model in the future. In spite of cheaper materials, it certainly still feels like a viola, and plays like one, too.
The accessories are pretty good, too. You get the viola itself, plus a case, a bow, and rosin, all for a fraction of the price of some other violas.
You won’t see this model in use in any globally-renowned concert halls soon, but it gives a cheap way for youngsters and beginners to get started. It’s very much a beginner model, but we need some of those on the market, after all.
- Very affordable
- Comes with a number of accessories
- Standard size and plays like a viola so easy to transition to other models
- Not an amazing tone
- Can struggle to stay in tune
What is the difference between a viola and violin?
If you pick up a viola and pick up a violin you’ll notice that there is a size difference. This is the main differentiating factor between them, and impacts not only playability but tone. Violas tend to be 15.5-16.5 inches, whereas a violin has a scale of 13-14 inches. That’s quite a difference.
Is a viola harder to play than a violin?
The difference in difficulty is negligible. However, if you’re of a smaller build, you might struggle with the larger size of the viola and find a violin more agreeable. It can impact the way you use the fingerboard, for instance. If you’re transitioning between the two, you’ll definitely notice that they play differently, but that doesn’t necessarily mean one is harder than the other.
Can I teach myself viola?
We live in an age where you can teach yourself virtually any instrument, but viola is undeniably harder than a lot of others to self-teach. The technique is nuanced, and you won’t be able to learn from a book as you will not have the right appreciation of pitch.
Although you can pick up a huge amount of knowledge online, using YouTube, tutorials, and even online courses, you should work with a tutor to at least pick up the basic elements of playing the viola. Plenty of time spent practicing means you can build your skills alone, but self-teaching is not as simple as it would be for piano or guitar.
How much do violas cost?
The cost of violas varies an incredible amount. In the modern age, if you aren’t too worried about materials, you can pick up a viola for around $100, like the Back to School Basswood Acoustic Viola. As a guideline, a student or beginner model tends to cost $200-400, and if you want the most professional violas out there you could be looking to spend $10,000 or more. $400 upwards will get you a good intermediate model. While violas aren’t as cheap as some other instruments, there are some affordable instruments available for beginners.
The six models on this list provide options from the very lowest end of the price range to the more expensive and professional violas, there is something for every level of musician. Be sure to do your research before buying to ensure you get a product that suits your build, ability level, and style.