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What Is Rock Viola?

Rock viola is the vibrant fusion of classical stringed elegance with the raw energy of rock music, creating a sound that's both sophisticated and electrifying. It's where the viola's deep, resonant tones meet the pulsating rhythms of rock, offering a unique auditory experience. Ready to explore how the rock viola is redefining musical boundaries? Join us on this sonic journey.
Erik J.J. Goserud
Erik J.J. Goserud

Rock viola is a style of playing employed primarily in the rock genre but also in other subgenres, such as alternative music. This style uses techniques from the classical method but ultimately employs a modified, faster attack style of playing. Rock bands like Yellowcard, The Velvet Underground, and 10,000 Maniacs have utilized the viola in their sound.

The viola is more commonly known as a classical stringed instrument used in orchestras. It is part of the violin family, though it is larger than a violin and strung with heavier strings. A musician who plays the viola is known as a violist.

A rock viola may have its strings tapped or picked.
A rock viola may have its strings tapped or picked.

There are a few basic techniques used by rock violists. Throwing or tapping is a way of hitting the strings quickly and aggressively with the bow that can produce rapid-fire sounds with quick rests in between each note. The tapping that comes with striking the strings produces a percussive sound as well. This pulse is the sound of the strings themselves colliding with the fret board. This technique in rock viola can also be used to imitate the sound of a slap bass guitar.

The viola is a string instrument most often played in classical orchestras.
The viola is a string instrument most often played in classical orchestras.

Finger picking is sometimes used for an old-timey, medieval sound, though it is a quieter method of playing and used less in rock. The Decembrists and Gogol Bordello are rock bands that have used this technique with their stringed instruments. This technique in rock viola gives the music gypsy-swing undertones or a ragtime folk sound. Rock viola is also a staple in Celtic rock bands, such as The Dropkick Murphys.

Pedals and effects are often added by rock violists to enhance and thicken the sound. Putting distortion on a viola gives the instrument a stronger sound similar to a rhythm guitar playing short power chords. Rock viola is often best used as a lead instrument due to its assertive striking sound but can be played as a rhythm tool as well. Yellowcard, an American rock band, has used this technique in several of their songs. Many of U2's guitar pedals use effects to imitate this rock viola sound, sometimes giving the illusion the band is backed by an orchestra.

While widely underutilized by modern rock groups, the viola can add tremendous uniqueness to a band’s sound. While it is still known as a proper orchestra instrument used in classical music performances, it is indeed much more versatile. Contrary to popular belief, the viola can give off a rollicking rock-and-roll presence, especially when combined with distortion, amplification, and other tools.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a rock viola and how does it differ from a classical viola?

A rock viola is an adaptation of the traditional viola, designed to fit within the context of rock music. Unlike classical violas, which are acoustically designed for orchestral or chamber music, rock violas often incorporate electric pickups and are played through amplifiers, allowing for a more powerful sound that can compete with electric guitars and drums. They may also feature effects like distortion or wah-wah, further distinguishing their sound from classical viola tones.

Can you use a regular viola to play rock music, or do you need a special instrument?

While you can use a regular viola to play rock music, many musicians prefer a specially designed electric viola for its ability to produce a sound that blends better with other rock instruments. Electric violas are equipped with pickups that capture the string vibrations and convert them into an electrical signal, which can then be amplified and modified with effects to suit the style of rock music.

What are some techniques used when playing rock viola?

Rock viola players often employ techniques that are not typically found in classical viola playing. These include the use of electric effects like distortion, reverb, and delay to create a unique sound. Players might also use a more aggressive bowing style, plucking (pizzicato), and even tapping on the strings with fingers or a pick. Sliding between notes (glissando) and using vibrato can also add to the expressive quality of rock viola playing.

Who are some well-known rock viola players or bands that feature the viola?

While the viola may not be as common as the guitar in rock music, there are notable musicians and bands that have featured the viola. John Cale of The Velvet Underground is known for incorporating viola into their early work. More recently, bands like Kansas and Dave Matthews Band have included the viola, played by musicians like Robby Steinhardt and Boyd Tinsley, respectively, showcasing the instrument's versatility in rock music.

How has the role of the viola in rock music evolved over time?

The viola's role in rock music has evolved from a background string instrument to a more prominent feature in many bands. Initially, it was used to add orchestral textures to rock songs. Over time, as artists sought new sounds and the electric viola was developed, the instrument began to take on a more central role. Today, violists in rock genres experiment with a range of sounds and techniques, pushing the boundaries of what the viola can do in a rock setting.

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    • A rock viola may have its strings tapped or picked.
      By: schankz
      A rock viola may have its strings tapped or picked.
    • The viola is a string instrument most often played in classical orchestras.
      By: yang yu
      The viola is a string instrument most often played in classical orchestras.