Octave Violins, Octave Violas and Hybrids from Don Rickert Musical Instruments (Don Rickert Musician Shop)
Note: See the Don Rickert Musician Shop for current product offerings.
In 2006, one of the first things we at D. Rickert Musical Instruments set out to do is to design and build the best acoustic octave violin possible. The octave violin or octave fiddle is tuned an octave lower than a regular violin; therefore, it is a tenor range instrument between the viola (alto range) and the cello (baritone). Octave violins are often incorrectly called “baritone violins”. In our early days, octave violins and early versions of our travel fiddles were the only instruments that we made.
What Is an Octave Violin or Octave Fiddle?
When I use the phrase, “octave violin”, I am referring to a very specific type of modern instrument. An octave violin or octave fiddle, if you like, is a modified violin or at least a violin-sized instrument played under the chin. It is set up for and uses larger diameter strings and is tuned an octave lower than a violin in standard configuration. It is played like a regular violin, as it usually has the same critical ergonomic dimensions as a standard violin. The most significant of these dimensions are a body that is about 14 inches long and a playable string length of about 13 inches.
We call larger instruments by other names.
Specifically . . .
A larger instrument, generally with a body length in the 15-inch to 16.5-inch range, and tuned a perfect 5th lower than a violin, thus, making it an alto range instrument. The viola’s playable string length ranges from approximately 13.5 inches to 15 inches.
Tenor Viola (aka Tenor Violin):
Generally, a modern tenor viola is either a 15.5-inch or 16-inch viola that is set up with special larger diameter strings and is tuned exactly like an octave violin—that is, an octave lower than a violin.Tenor Viola by D. Rickert
The ancestor of the modern tenor viola, the Baroque tenor viola, was a much larger instrument (17.5-inch to 19-inch body!), usually with a disproportionately short neck. The best-known surviving Baroque tenor violin is the “Medici-Tuscan” tenor viola, made in 1690 by Antonio Stradivari. It has a body almost 19 inches long. There was a resurgence of interest in tenor violas in the 19th Century. These later tenor violas from the 19th Century are often fretted and intended to be played on the lap. It is my belief that the earlier Baroque tenor violas were, given their size, especially the 1690 Strad, also played on the lap or even da spalla (suspended from a strap draped on the player’s shoulders).
Octave Viola or Baritone Viola: A.K.A. "Chin Cello"
This is a modern development and is often called a “chin cello”. It is usually either a 16-inch or 16.5-inch viola that is set up with special larger diameter strings and is tuned exactly like a cello—that is, an octave lower than a viola in standard configuration. Often, but not always, such instruments have a wider body than a regular viola.
Octave-Tuned Viola Pomposa or 5-String Octave Viola:
A modern 5-String Octave Viola is usually either a 16-inch or 16.5-inch instrument that is often somewhat wider in girth than a regular viola. It is set up with special strings, allowing it to be tuned such that the four higher strings sound an octave lower than a violin (like a tenor viola) and the set of four lower strings sounds an octave than a viola (like an octave viola).
The ancestor of this instrument is the Baroque Viola Pomposa. One of oldest surviving examples is attributed to Johann Christian Hoffmann (1683-1750) and was made in 1724 or thereabouts. The instrument is quite large, its body measuring about 18 inches in length. The ribs appear to be in the range of 60mm to 70mm. Many experts agree that the instrument was probably made with higher ribs (about 80mm) and later cut down for the sake of playability. The heinous insults that cutting-edge luthiers have had to endure!
Interestingly, the viola pomposa made by J.C. Hoffman was commissioned by J.S. Bach. It is also considered by some to be the among first violoncellos da spalla. It is now fairly well established that the violoncello da spalla was intended to be suspended by a leather strap (more or less like a contemporary guitarist) when played.
We Definitely Still Make Octave Violins and Fiddles
Origins of Modern Octave Violins and Fiddles
The practice of setting up standard violins with large diameter strings in order to play an octave lower appears to have been around for quite some time, possibly a century or more. There is anecdotal evidence that more than a few early 20th Century jazz violinists/fiddlers created their own octave violins in such a manner. There was even a large viola-sized octave-tuned German instrument in the early 20th Century called an “Octavgeige”, which is simply German for “Octave Violin.” The luthier who produced these instruments was Johan Reiter (Mittenwald, Bavaria). The great jazz violinist and Professor at Berklee College of Music, Christian Howes, owns one of these rare instruments. It is my opinion that Reiter’s Oktavgeige was really just a 20th Century variant of the tenor viola (aka tenor violin), described earlier.
To the best of my knowledge, the first modern octave violin was a specially-strung electric violin used by Jean Luc Ponty on a 1975 recording. The instrument Ponty used was a Barcus-Berry Octave Violectra, introduced in the 1960s. The earliest known detailed description of the modern acoustic octave violin was a 1992 article in Strings Magazine by the famous Violist/Fiddler, Darol Anger. Darol Anger has been playing octave violin, which he refers to as the “baritone violin”, at least as far back as his earliest work with the Turtle Island Quartet in the 1980s. Darol was a significant supporter of us when we introduced our first “purpose-built” octave violins in 2006. I will get into what purpose-built means in this context forthwith.
Re-Purposed Standard Violins
As Darol Anger and others have shown, it is possible to simply replace the strings on your violin any of the available brands (Super-Sensitive, Thomastik-Infeld or Helicore) of octave strings and, voila, you have an octave violin. In reality, you will have to have at least some moderate luthiery work done, such as widening the nut and bridge grooves. Yes, this is only reversible by replacing the nut and bridge! Furthermore, unless your string height is quite high already (that would rule out most fiddlers I know, including myself), you will probably need a higher bridge. No matter what, the converted instrument is going to be rather weak (i.e. disappointing), the predictable result of stringing a regular violin to play a range well below that for which it was designed. There was a reason that the such great masters as Gasparo da Salò (1542 - 1609) and Antonio Stradivari made such a large octave-tuned instrument as the tenor viola (aka tenor violin).
I remember the first time I restrung a regular fiddle with octave strings. I was feeling confident after having read and studied Darol Anger’s seminal article, Another Voice: The Baritone Violin, Sept/Oct.1992, STRINGS Magazine (currently available online at http://www.standingstones.com/barifidd.html).
This is before I knew any better. The result was so discouraging that I put off for several years any further experimentation with octave violins.
In general, acoustic octave violins that are simply reconfigured regular violins are meek and non-sonorous instruments, which require some kind of amplification when played in an ensemble of instruments. For many designers of innovative musical instruments, development of an acoustic octave violin with good projection volume and powerful deep timbre has been a Holy Grail of sorts. Indeed, this quest once seemed a bit like overcoming the known laws of physics.
Purpose-Built Octave Violins: What We Have Become Known For
Instruments in this category are those that are built solely for the purpose of playing an octave lower than a regular violin.
While we will do the occasional octave violin conversion on a suitable 14” viola, our main focus is, as it has always been, on octave violins that are designed from the ground up as octave violins. We call these instruments “purpose-built” octave violins. To be crystal clear, our octave violins are different instruments than regular violins. They have very special scientifically-derived bass bars, higher ribs and, in some case, different graduations than regular violins.
In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, innovations in string technology are the “icing on the cake” that make our powerful and sonorous octave violins possible. There are currently three manufacturers of octave violin strings: Thomastik-Infeld, SuperSensitive and D’Addario. The strings from each of these manufacturers have their own distinct “character.” They all work well as the final ingredient for the magic necessary to produce a great violin-sized octave instrument.
Who Plays Acoustic Octave Violins and Fiddles?
In some cases, beginner fiddlers who cannot stand the high pitch of a violin or the large size of a full-size viola will start their musical journey on an octave violin; however, the most prevalent players are serious advanced amateur and professional musicians, many of whom are recording artists. Many of these advanced amateurs and professionals are, indeed, classically trained violinists.
Most makers of acoustic octave violins target their instruments to skilled “alternative” violinists and fiddlers looking for a new lower voice, allowing him or her to play low pitched musical parts almost as low as a ‘cello, without learning a completely new instrument, as the notes are in the same places on the fingerboard as a regular violin. The only new skill to learn is the proper use of a heavier viola bow. Some (a minority, I believe) octave violin players prefer a regular violin bow to a viola bow. These players are generally highly-skilled musicians who use the lighter violin bow to accommodate a unique playing style.
Classical string players—not so much. Unless the classical violinist, violist or cellist is also involved in playing folk, traditional, rock, jazz or other “alternative” musical genre, he or she is likely to have little exposure to, nor interest in, “non-orchestral” musical instruments. The octave violin, like, say, the accordion, mandolin, guitar or penny whistle, is not used in the modern orchestra and is, therefore, a non-orchestral instrument. Our experience has been that musicians who only play classical music tend to have little, if any, curiosity about musical instruments not used in a contemporary orchestra.
Octave Fiddles are the Ultimate Second Fiddles
A good second fiddler, of which there are far too few, will often mix chordal accompaniment with playing of the primary melody in unison with the primary melody an octave lower (especially when playing an octave fiddle) or a harmony melody. Different regional styles will emphasize different techniques for the second fiddler; for example, in certain regions of Ireland, simply playing the tune in various combinations of unison and an octave lower is favored. In other styles, the second fiddler plays primarily chords; which works particularly well with an octave fiddle. A viola or tenor viola (i.e. larger-bodied variant of an octave violin) is sometimes used as well for the same purpose.
I will conclude this post with a great demonstrating a regular fiddle and a viola, which seems to be in tenor (i.e. octave violin) tuning alternating the first and second fiddle roles. This one you have got to hear! The treble/soprano range (i.e. the fiddle) and alto/tenor range (i.e. the low-tuned viola) instruments just blend together in a magical way.
video from groundhogbrains