Viol on the Isenheimer Altar (1506-1515)


The Viols by RWC

Viol bows
Sound and technique
Popularity and repertoire
The viol today

RWC Viols
RWC Viol kits




The viols, vihuelas de arco, violas da gamba or simply, gambas are a family of musical instruments related to the vihuela, rebec, guitar, etc.

Many people call viols or gambas to all the members of the family and keep the name of viola da gamba exclusively for the bass viol.

There is an almost universal misconception that the viol is a much earlier instrument than the violin and that somehow the entire violin family developed from it.

The viol preceded and then remained contemporary with the violin which finally superseded it as concert halls grew larger, and the louder and more audible tone of the violin family became more popular

The status, technique, repertoire and construction of the viol is quite different to the violin.





The vihuela de arco (Spanish for "bowed vihuela") saw its beginnings in the late 15th century in Spain when local guitarists (or as they were called "vihuelists") began playing their instruments with a rabab bow (the rabab was an instrument from North Africa).

The instrument retained everything from its original family: the flat back, the frets, the tuning (the tenor viol has the shape, size, and tuning of the Spanish vihuela), the arched bridge and the playing position, but was bowed rather than plucked.

This new instrument was at first  held like a guitar, and was bowed vertically but later began to be held upright, either resting on the lap or held between the legs like a cello, giving it the name viola da gamba (Italian for "viol of the leg")

This differentiates it from the similar but only distantly related violin family, known earlier as the lira da braccio or viola da braccio (Italian for "viol of the arm") family. The violin and its family had entirely different origins and during the Renaissance it was thought to be a very inferior instrument to the viol.

The bass viola da gamba continued to be used (as a solo instrument and also to accompany the harpsichord in basso continuo) into the 18th century, by which time it had acquired associations of courtliness and antiquity.

However, the instrument fell out of use as concert halls grew larger, and the louder and more audible tone of the violin family became more popular. In the last century, the viol has been revived by early music enthusiasts.





The viols come in six sizes: "pardessus de viole" (which is relatively rare), treble, alto, tenor, bass, and double bass (also known as a violone).

The treble is about the size of a violin (but with a deeper body); the tenor viol is approximately equivalent to the modern viola; the bass is a bit smaller than a cello. The largest, deepest size, the double bass, is the only viol played in orchestras today.

The English made a lighter and smaller version of the standard bass viol appropriate for a rapid solo repertoire and became known as the division viols.

German consort basses were larger than the French instruments designed for continuo.

A closely related instrument is the viola d'amore, although the viola d'amore is played under the chin, viola-fashion.





The viol usually has six strings, although examples with only five strings do exist.

The bass viol has a long tail, fretted finger board, a flat back, sloping shoulders, and deep sides with reinforcing crossbars inside. A carved head often adorns the top of the instrument.

Although the most common bass viol has six strings, a low seventh string in the bass viol was supposedly added in France by the Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (c. 1640-c.1690), who taught many of the French gamba virtuosi of the 18th century. However, the picture "Saint Cecilia with an Angel" (1618) by Domenichino clearly shows a seven-string viol.

The viol is fretted like those of a lute by means of moveable, tied-on frets made of gut.

Historians, makers and players generally distinguish between renaissance and baroque viols. The latter are more heavily constructed and are fitted with a bass bar and sound post like modern stringed instruments.




Viol bows

The bow is generally convex as were violin bows of the period, rather than concave like a modern violin bow.

The "frog" (which holds the bow hair and adjusts its tension) is also different from that of modern bows: whereas a violin bow frog has a "slide" to hold the hair flat across the frog, viol bows have an open frog that allows more movement of the hair.

This is essential to allow the traditional playing technique in which the player tensions the bow hair with one or two fingers of the right hand whilst playing.







Unlike members of the violin family, which are tuned in fifths, the standard tuning of the viol is in 4ths, with a 3rd in the middle (like the standard Renaissance lute tuning and similar to that of the modern guitar).

For treble and bass viols (treble is one octave higher) the notes would be d',a,e,c,G,D. For the tenor viol the tuning is g,d,A,F,C,G'.

Alternate tunings (called scordatura) were often employed, particularly in the solo lyra viol style of playing, which also made use of many techniques such as chords and pizzicato (i.e. plucking rather than bowing the strings), which were not generally used in consort playing. An unusual style of pizzicato was known as a thump.



Sound and technique

All viols are played while seated, with the instrument held on or between the knees (there is no support on which to rest the instrument as is the case with the modern cello).

The viola da gamba retained the underhand bow technique of the rabab, as well as the left hand guitar technique. The bow is held like a pencil or chopsticks in an underhanded position with the finger controlling the tension of the horse hair.

This led to virtuoso playing of solo music in chordal fashion, known in England as "lyra-viol" technique, or virtuoso linear playing known as divisions.

The sound of the viol is sweet, resonant and shimmering, quieter than that of violins, violas, or cellos. Viols smaller than double basses are, in fact, too quiet to be effective in large orchestras or big concert halls, which is why they are no longer very common.

But many people today love the particular timbre of viols and the Renaissance and Baroque music written for them. Concerts are usually given in small halls or churches, which suit viols well.




Popularity and repertoire

The instrument found a large following in amateur circles, being relatively easy for a beginner. It was the ideal instrument to play "in family," children playing the smallest instruments, and adults the larger ones. Many homes would have a so-called chest of viols which would contain one or more instruments of each size.

At the same time serious musicians became virtuosi on the sadly neglected viol.

Many European courts had viola da gamba players in the 17th and 18th centuries. Charles I, King of England was reputed to be proficient enough on the bass viol to contribute a strong voice when playing with his favorite musicians.

In France the viola da gamba was a favorite among Parisian intellectuals, and was one of Louis XIV's favorite instruments.

The repertoire for the viola da gamba is vast, at least 9000 or so solo pieces, and even more repertoire for ensembles (called consorts).

Gamba consorts, were common in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they performed vocal music (consort songs or verse anthems) as well as that written specifically for instruments. Only the treble, tenor, and bass sizes were regular members of the viol consort, which consisted of three, four, five, or six instruments.

Music for consorts was very popular. The last music for viol consorts before their modern revival was probably that written in the early 1680s by Henry Purcell.

There are several important treatises concerning the viol. The first was by Silvestro Ganassi: Regola Rubertina & Lettione Seconda (1542/3). Diego Ortiz published Trattado de Glosas (Rome 1553), an important book of music for the viol with both examples of ornamentation and pieces called Recercadas. In England, Christopher Simpson wrote the most important treatise, with the second edition being published in 1667 in parallel text (English and Latin). This has divisions at the back which are very worthwhile repertoire. After this the French treatises by Rousseau, Danoville (1685) and Loulie (1700) show further developments in playing technique.

Composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Karl Friedrich Abel wrote music for the bass viol.

Lyra viol music was commonly written in tablature, and there is a vast repertoire of this music, some by well-known composers, and much anonymous.


Viol on the Isenheimer Altar (1506-1515)


The viol today

Today, the viol is attracting ever more interest, particularly amongst amateur players all over the world who have taken up this wonderful instrument anew.

This may be due to the increased availability of reasonably-priced instruments coupled with the greater accessibility of music editions. Also, the viol is regarded as a suitable instrument for adult learners as the viol repertoire demands musicianship more than virtuosity.

There are now many societies for people with an interest in the viol. The first was The Viola da Gamba Society, which was established in the United Kingdom in 1948 but has a worldwide membership. Since then, similar societies have been organized in several other nations.

The 1991 French film Tous les Matins du Monde by Alain Corneau, based on the life of of two famous French violists (the Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais), prominently featured these composers' music for the viola da gamba and brought viol music to new audiences helping to rediscover the mystery of the "monarch of instruments". The soundtrack performed by Jordi Savall has sold more than a million copies worldwide.

Jordi Savall (born 1941 in Igualada, Spain) is perhaps the best-known modern viola da gamba player. He has made more than 80 recordings, is conductor of a touring and recording Early Music ensemble named "Hespèrion XXI" and he is also a two-time Grammy nominee.


Finished Viol


RWC Viols

The Renaissance Workshop Company Ltd. (RWC) is the world’s largest specialist manufacturer of early music instruments, all based on existing originals or relevant iconography and are handmade by a small team of dedicated craftsmen who have many years experience.

RWC designs and manufacture, for historical performance, a wide range of faithful reproductions of mediaeval, renaissance and baroque musical instruments from keyboards (clavichords, harpsichords, spinets…) and stringed instruments (fiddles, lutes, viols, hurdy-gurdies, psalteries…) to windcaps (crumhorns, cornamusen, shawms...)

RWC is not only an Early Music workshop making musical Instruments to the highest standards, the company has saved many rare and some relatively unknown instruments from extinction.

The RWC viols are available in four sizes and make particularly good consort instruments.

The Treble Viol is based on an instrument by Henry Jaye in a private collection and is a 'small' treble.

The Tenor Viol is based on an instrument by John Rose in a private collection and is a full size tenor.

The 6-string Bass Viol is based on an instrument by Henry Jaye dated 1624 in a private collection and is a 'large' division viol measuring 1205mm overall length with a vibrating string length of 682mm and ribs 120mm deep.

The 7 String Bass Viol is based on an instrument in a private collection and is a 'small' bass viol.

Each instrument is hand built to special order in the RWC workshops in Toledo (Spain) and comes with 12 months warranty.

What makes the Renaissance Workshop Company Ltd. unique however is that the same range of Early Music instruments are offered to customers either complete or in kit form for home assembly. Each kit provides all the parts for you to build the instrument and has been designed for ease of assembly. Most do not assume any prior knowledge or experience of instrument making.

Although many kits are sold to aficionados, the company supplies to connoisseurs of mediaeval, renaissance and baroque music throughout the world. RWC has really contributed to the take off of the sales of early music instruments world-wide.


RWC Finished and Kit Viol


RWC Viol Kits

The same range of Viols are offered in kit form for home assembly.

An important feature of the RWC viol kits is the inclusion of a mould to ensure success, even for the first time builder, so assembly of the body can begin immediately.

The selected maple back is centre jointed, sanded to thickness and with the fold guide pre-cut.

The fingerboard and tailpiece are supplied as tapered blanks to be shaped before applying the matching rosewood veneer.

The ribs are pre-bent. Pegs, maple bridge, purfling, veneer, fretting gut and a set of good quality strings are all included.

A fully dimensioned plan and instruction manual take the builder through the construction of the instrument in a clear and concise manner, with 'step by step' photographs further illustrating each stage.

All the kits Include free access to the customer 'Helpline' should you need any advice on construction, setting-up or playing.

The 6 string Treble Viol kit has the centre jointed front made from top quality Swiss pine with the arching profiled, leaving only the final thicknessing and sanding for the builder.
The neck has a solid scroll and a shaped peg box with taper reamed holes to which solid rosewood pegs are already fitted.

The 6 string Tenor Viol kit has centre jointed front made from top quality Swiss pine with the arching profiled, leaving only the final thicknessing and sanding for the builder.
The neck has a solid scroll and a shaped peg box with taper reamed holes to which solid rosewood pegs are already fitted.

The 6 string Bass Viol kit has the centre jointed front made from top quality Swiss pine with the arching profiled, leaving only the final thicknessing and sanding for the builder.
The neck has a pierced scroll and a shaped peg box with taper reamed holes to which solid rosewood pegs are already fitted.

In the 7 string Bass Viol kit, the top quality Swiss pine front is supplied centre jointed only, leaving the shaping and profiling to the builder.
The neck is cut to outline shape leaving the finishing and fitting of the rosewood pegs to the builder.
This kit requires some previous experience of instrument making and a reasonably well equipped workshop.


The Renaissance Workshop Company Ltd. (RWC)