An Amazing Gift! – My New 5-String Viola …

On Sept. 4th, 2008 just in time for my 42nd birthday, I received an amazing gift of a new instrument: a 5-String Viola built by Luthier, Jacobus van Soelen of Capetown, South Africa. It is the acoustic equivalent to my Ned Steinberger Electric Violin.

Back in August of 2007 when I was recording the “Glory and Peace” project, I was introduced (over the internet) to Jacob via Terry Maurice, my violin repair friend who sells and repairs stringed instruments in his Guelph home studio. I was privileged to borrow a beautiful 4-String van Soelen Viola on the live “Peace” project recordings. At that time, I mentioned to Terry that I would be interested in purchasing a 5-String Viola some day (a viola with an additional higher E String). Jacob made me a no obligation offer to design a 5-String viola … and that was the beginning of an exciting collaboration to design the viola I now play today!


Performing “Peace” in the 2007 Glory and Peace Tour with dancer, Hannah Briggs on the loaned Jacobus van Soelen viola.

Here are a few excerpts of some of the many detailed emails we sent back and forth while deciding on the design of the new 5-String …

Jacob wrote:

“Hi Team, I happen to have a 16 1/4” (standard classical Italian size) Brescian back and head already completed (for a previously cancelled commission), so I only need to make the top and finish the neck and fingerboard. Therefore, from here to completion might be as short as 3 weeks, plus another 3 weeks for varnishing. It is a “generic” Brescian model, with influences from both Gasparo da Salo and Zanetto. It has single purfling like a “normal” viola, not the customary double Brescian purfling, with the long, narrow head having a single fluting a-la Zanetto instead of the normal double fluting – quite funky. The ribs are of moderate height (38mm-36mm) which should assist a quicker response. The body is fairly wide, but lightly-proportioned, with a moderate but strong arching … ”

“… Attached you will find illustrations of my proposals for nut and bridge string spacing … As far as I can ascertain, the bridge top radius for viola is pretty much the same as for violin: 42 degrees. Because the strings are spaced further apart on a viola bridge (about 12.5mm) , the string clearance is increased: it is about 2mm. I normally prefer a viola bridge with a feet spread of 46mm, but in this case I think one will have to go with 48mm. If the string spacing is decreased to about 11.6mm, the radius has to be tightened to 38 degrees to maintain a 2mm string clearance. Although the illustration isn’t exactly to scale, one can see that the difference isn’t that big – big enough to provide the required string clearance, but not big enough to affect bowing negatively … “


Jacob’s diagram of proposed nut and bridge string spacings

” … The varnishing process is starting tomorrow. I have lost track of how far I am behind my projected schedule at this stage – Trevor, you might like to ask Terry why he calls me ‘Luigi’ …

“At this stage I’m pretty sure I understand, after some enquiries, reading and thinking, why a regular-type violin e-string won’t work on that length. I will try a long violin e-string, but I think an interim solution will be either banjo wire or a guitar string. Nevertheless, I think I may be able to prevail on two of my suppliers (Lenzner and Warchal) to make me e-strings with a vibrating length of 375mm, with the appropriate characteristics to make them work. That is the key in this case – an e-string with the appropriate tension and mass for that length. I am convinced that it can be done, and that such an e-string will make a 5-string VIOLA (as opposed to VIOLIN) a pretty straight-forward proposition as far as that aspect of the puzzle is concerned … “


Jacobus van Soelen building a violin in his shop in Capetown, South Africa

” … Well, I’ve done a preliminary setup (the tailpiece needs to be finished and stained and the bridge needs more trimming), and low and behold, we have a 5-string viola. I’m so surprised I don’t know what to say. There are no tonal issues at all – all the strings respond perfectly. Somewhere up the A-string and onto the E-string there is an almost imperceptible tonal shift from viola to a dark kind of violin sound. The e-string responds well all the way. In general I think this one has a bit of an easier response than the one Trevor used for the recording … There are setup issues for me to solve still. I don’t know if one will ever be able to compare a 5-string to a 4-string in terms of playing comfort. There are a lot of compromises to make. At present the e and C are very close to the edge of the fingerboard. The alternative would have been a wider neck, and a commensurate loss of comfort. The distance between the strings approach that of a 3/4 violin setup, but Helicore strings are quite thin compared to most other viola strings … ”

” … I’m a bit dazed – the setup was very hard (I had to make a second tailpiece today because I got the string spacings wrong on #1), and I was so scared that the whole thing would be a tonal disaster. That it works so well is almost an anti-climax after all the planning, theorising and agonizing …”

” I opted for boxwood fittings. I therefore had to make the tailpiece from light-coloured wood. The first one had the string spacing all wrong. The second one was too long – I couldn’t tune the after-length correctly. The third – and best – was of Bosnian maple. At that point I discovered that the banjo wire on the uncovered (no end-windings) e-string had already started to chew into the boxwood peg. Also, I don’t have either a boxwood side-mounted chinrest which works on this viola, nor an over-the-tailpiece chin-rest which fits … So, I’m now busy exchanging the pegs for ebony ones, and making tailpiece #4 in ebony … However, I’m still hoping to send off the monster this week”


With Terry Maurice in his string shop after purchasing the new 5-String Viola

My email to Jacob after playing his 5-String Viola for the first time on Dec. 6, 2007:

Hi Jacob,

I had the chance this afternoon to try your new 5-String Viola. It is beautiful! – very nice rich tone throughout – and the E sounds excellent as well – did not get sacrificed at all. A very good call going with a banjo string. Terry has agreed to let me give it a good work out on the remainder of my Christmas “Glory and Peace” tour so I am really looking forward to this. He is doing a final little set up on it as I write. Thanks again for partnering with us on this.


Jacob’s response …

Hi Trevor,

Thanks for your comments! It was a very interesting experience for me to try and work out the challenges posed by that instrument. I think tonally the key is the banjo string – without the correct gauge I don’t think one will be able to make an E on a viola work. If you didn’t forward me those websites the instrument might never have worked. It’s great that you will taking it through its paces on your tour.

Thanks also for the photos. You really are tall, the viola looks like a violin in your hands … Best J

Just today, Jacob wrote the following …

Your viola has been a “special project” for me in many ways, and I am just very happy with the eventual outcome. To have had the viola eventually sold to somebody else would simply not have felt right to me …

So … 9 months later, after all the hours of research and Jacob’s amazing attention to detail, perseverance and craftsmanship (as shown in these emails and photos) I have been blessed with this new instrument. The Flyingbow Board, who gifted this instrument to me, feel it will be an excellent tool to keep me moving forward in this ministry God has called me to. I pray He will use this new instrument for His glory and honour. I know it will inspire a whole new album of material. I have had a chance thus far to perform two concerts on it to very receptive audiences. It is truly a beautiful instrument with a rich, responsive tone that will be an integral part of my concerts and recordings for years to come … Until next time … TD


My “5-String Pair” of instruments nestled in a new custom double violin/viola case supplied by Terry Maurice …