About Viols

Instruments of the Viola da Gamba family, often called viols, are made in very many shapes and sizes. The most common sizes of viols are the treble, which is about the size of a violin, the bass, which is about the size of a cello, and the tenor which is between the two. There are also larger and smaller viols. Some have a shape which resembles a violin, others have plainer corners or a much fancier outline. They are always held on the knees or between the legs and are usually played with a bow (which is held underhand). Most viols have C-shaped soundholes and a flat back. Strings are usually made of gut, like the frets which are tied around the neck and are partly responsible for viols' sound quality. The rich, clear sound of viols means they blend well with each other and with other instruments or voices. Most viols have six strings, but some have more and others fewer. Many tunings have been used but by far the most common has the following intervals between adjacent strings: 4th - 4th - 3rd - 4th - 4th, with the top string tuned to d, a or g.
What sort of music is played on viols?

The earliest viols commonly played vocal music but composers soon provided instrumental pieces in the current styles such as fantasies, variations and dances including pavans and galliards. Among the many composers who have written for viols are Taverner, Tye, Byrd, Dowland, Gibbons, Jenkins, Lawes, Locke, Purcell, Couperin, Marais, J.S.Bach and C.F.Abel.
When and where have viols been used?

Viols developed in Italy and Spain in the late fifteenth century, slightly before the violin family. Within 50 years they were well established in many countries and by the end of the sixteenth century they had been heard as far from their origin as South America, Africa and Japan. Viols were especially popular in England up to the middle of the seventeenth century, and in France and Germany around the beginning of the eighteenth century. During the nineteenth century they fell out of general use but never completely disappeared. Repeated attempts to revive interest in them finally succeeded in the twentieth century. They are now once more widely appreciated by both professional and amateur players. Societies for people with an interest in viols exist in many European countries and in the USA, Japan and Australia. The viola da Gamba Society was the first such society to be established - we have supported viols and their players for over 50 years
Would you like to try a Viol?


You can hire one through us (become a member first)
Or come to one of our Try-a-Viol days in Oxford (ask the administrator).
Or come and see us at the Early Music Exhibition in November and try one
Buying a viol can be a costly venture and needs some care and consideration. We have some instruments advertised for sale here