What Makes a Good Beginner Viola?

What should you look for in a beginner student viola?

The viola’s sound is deeper than the sound of a violin, between the pitch of a cello and violin. A viola player’s role is to enrich the middle ground in an orchestra or string quartet, intermediating between the extremes in an an orchestra. The sound is seductive and warm. Dietrich says “The viola sound goes under the skin.”

Purchasing a good first viola will make playing much more enjoyable and can last you well into your musical endeavours. Luckily, these days it is not necessary to fork out a fortune in order to find a good viola.

As with other string-instruments, there are a few basic aspects to keep in mind when selecting your first viola:

  • Appearance: the quality of wood, the carving, as well as the method and style of varnish.
  • Tone: the most vital aspect for every musician: the quality of sound.
  • Performance: how well the viola projects – meaning how much volume (decibels) it produces
  • Condition: the health of the instrument and the quality of it’s workmanship and set up.

Second hand violas?

A second-hand viola as a first instrument can be tempting, but frequently, when bought from private sellers, these violas are in an unsatisfactory condition with often an unknown history. When sold privately, violas do not have any warranty, and the bow and case may be worn out with strings that have never been replaced.

Specialist String Stores?

String instrument specialists have the knowledge and experience vital to choosing a viola to match your needs and budget. A badly conditioned first viola can result in unexpected costs along with discomfort.  Therefore we recommend purchasing a brand new viola outfit in most cases, or, if available, a second-hand one, from a specialist. Additionally, buying a student viola from a reputable specialist means that you have at least a full year warranty on the instrument.

A good specialist store will be happy to answer any queries you may have about the instrument. At Animato Strings you can even trade in a viola when the student is due to go up in size bigger size.

How do you check the condition of a viola?

If you are checking the condition of a viola yourself it is important to first familiarise yourself with the components that make up the instrument.

These include the:

Body and varnish

Wood, workmanship of assembly and adjustment all play a role on impacting the resonance and unique sound of each instrument. The varnish is less important in a beginner student viola, compared to the quality of workmanship, setting up and the quality of the tone woods.

Sound post

The sound post must be positioned correctly to allow the viola to perform fully, and to support the arch of the viola’s body.


The bridge has to have the optimal hight, curve, thickness. The grooves must be correctly placed in terms of distance and depth. If the bridge is too high or the curve is incorrect, playing the viola will be difficult and unpleasant for the student.


The pegs are ‘friction pegs’ and keep the tension of the strings. Pegs made of soft wood and ill-fitted pegs can be slippery or sometimes too tight, which results in difficulty tuning the instrument. Pegs should be made of a hardwood like ebony or rosewood.


The shape and material of the fingerboard alters is also important for playablility and logevity of the viola. The finger board should be made of real ebony, shaped correctly, with soft edges.  The hardness of the ebony provides strength to the neck.


The nut’s string grooves must have the correct distance from each other, they must have the right width and depth, and they should be rounded towards the peg box, so that the string doesn’t break prematurely where it changes direction. A well fitted nut makes it easy for the viola players to press down strings accurately and comfortably, and it prevents the buzzing caused by the string vibrating against the fingerboard.


If you plan on reselling your instrument when the student has grown out of it, a label from a specialist store will help to achieve a better resale price. The trade-in value is also higher if the instrument has a trustworthy label.

Tail piece

A light tailpiece also contributes to the tonal qualities in the viola. It is important that the tailpiece of a student viola is fitted correctly by professionals, so that the distance betweeen bridge and tail piece is about 1/6 (one sixth) of the vibrating string length (between bridge and nut). This adds to the volume of the instrument’s sound. At Animato Strings, good quality carbon fiber tail pieces are used as they have proven to be durable whilst being light-weight.

What size viola is right?

The choice of size of the viola is also important. If it is too big, it will be unnecessarily difficult to play. A correctly fitting instrument from the start ensures that correct technique is developed with the least amount of strain, and playing does not become a burden to the beginner and discourage further progress.

Younger and smaller players have a choice between stringing a violin as a viola or purchasing a ‘real’ small viola which means that the ribs (sides) are wider to provide a bigger resonance body.

For most individuals of average size for their height we recommend using the following guidelines:
(top is age in ascending order and bottom is corresponding viola size)

5-6 7-9 9-11 11-13 14+ Adult
11″ viola or (1/4 violin) 12″ viola (1/2 vln) 13″ viola (3/4 vln) 14″ viola (4/4 vln) 15″+ 15″, 15.5″, 16″, 16.5″
Play Video

What do we recommend?

The Arco viola (available from 12″ upwards) is Animato

Strings’ entry level viola, but this is surprising considering its remarkable quality of sound.

The instrument has a solid timber spruce top with a maple back and sides and is set up by the professionals in Australia at the Animato Strings’ workshop. The maple bridge and spruce sound post are expertly adjusted, with the grooves in the nut are fitted to have the correct distance from each other and the right depth and width for each string.

In this way, the Arco violas are assembled professionally to produce beautiful tonal qualities while maintaining a low cost, with prices starting at $330 for a full outfit.

The Arco viola outfit includes: the Arco violin, rosin, upgraded strings, a reliable and sturdy bow, plus a standard case.

As with all Animato Strings’ instruments, the Arco viola comes with a full year warranty.

Each viola has its own tonal personality and has been hand selected and adjusted for maximum tonal performance and playability for players at any stage of musical competency.

Click here to see a demonstration of the Arco viola. (It was uploaded in 2007, so the aspect ration of the video is distorted.)

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