Guide to Viola Rosin

To my thinking and experience, there are several categories of rosin on the market, today. First, there are the cheap rosins that sell for under $10 that typically come with a student rental. If fresh, these rosins get the job done, though students rarely replace them as frequently as they should. We recommend an RDM rosin that comes with a solid holder, as kids aren't always careful and rosin is fragile.

Next come the wide assortment of rosin in the $10-$20 range. Some come with flecks of various precious metals embedded, some are bright colors, some even glow in the dark. In the upper half of this category, there are a handful that we recommend as great all-around rosins that yield a clean, but not sticky, articulation, and help the bow to produce a good tone. Here are our some of favorites . . .

Our Favorite Rosins

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Among our favorites, above, two require additional comment:

  • Cecilia Solo rosin, formerly Andrea Solo, is a variation on the once famous Tartini rosin. It imparts too brilliant a tone to most instruments, to be used exclusively. However, a stroke or two of Cecilia Solo, added over your regular rosin, yields a wonderful clarity of tone and sharpens your articulation. We consistently get a, "wow," from customers when they first try this, and we recommend keeping a cake on-hand, for when you need a little extra bite.
  • And, Leatherwood. The final category for me is rosin made the old-fashioned way, by boiling down tree sap. Most rosins are not made in this way, as it is extraordinarily time-consuming. But, oh, what a difference it makes. These rosins come with higher price tags, due to the labor involved. But, the performance is extraordinary. Leatherwood is one of the few rosins still made in this way. We usually recommend starting with the supple and switching to the crisp if you find you need more articulation. Or, you can blend the two to your liking. In passing, I'll also mention Baker's rosin, which is also made in this way and is excellent. However, to obtain Baker's rosin, you must order directly from Mr. Baker, via his online waiting list.

An important note on how rosin ages. It's incredible to me the amount of time and money some players put into finding just the right sound. No expense spared on strings, live stallion horse hair, etc. But, the same player that changes their strings every two weeks will often use the same cake of rosin for years! So, let me set the record straight.

The age and quality of your rosin have at least as much to do with the quality of your instrument's tone as the age and selection of your strings. As rosin ages, it dries out. And, the first thing to go is that wonderful tone you had when the cake was fresh. Long before it stops working, your rosin will have lost its vitality, and will eventually start to impart a scratchy, unpleasant tone.

I hear some of you thinking, "I've used my rosin for years and it still sounds great." Well, if you've only ever used cheap rosin, then aging may not be as noticeable. (Though, in passing, many customers rehair before they need to simply because their bow hair has become caked with old rosin. It really is a factor, even with cheaper rosin.) But, again, I compare rosin to strings. If using plain steel strings, you won't notice much of a change as the strings age. At 6 months they sound pretty much as they did at 1 week. A set of Peter Infeld strings will bring out much greater warmth, power, and beauty to your viola's voice. But, at 6 months you would certainly notice a fading of that beauty. (You don't notice it with the aging steel strings because you never had it to begin with.)

Similarly, a fine, fresh cake of Leatherwood rosin will enhance the character and beauty of both your articulations and your sustained tone. But, as the cake ages, you will notice more of a falling off of those desirable characteristics, because the difference was more pronounced to begin with.

For all rosin, fine or inexpensive, we strongly recommend replacing as often as you clean or replace your bow hair, which should be at least every 6-12 months.

Characteristics of Rosin

  • Soft vs. Hard - Softer rosins are stickier and offer more grab on the string. They also tend to produce a stronger, grittier tone. Harder rosins glide more smoothly over the strings, offer less bite and a smoother, more polished, feel and sound.
  • Early vs. Late Harvest Rosins - Generally speaking, dark colored rosins are softer than lighter ones. In rosins made from traditional recipes (from live trees), the color indicates the time of year that the resin was harvested. The light amber color of the winter and spring resin gradually gives way to the softer, darker, golden-red resin of summer and fall. However, many rosins are now made from chemical by-products of the paper and lumber industries, rather than from live trees. The color of these rosins is not as reliable an indicator of hardness. And, even with traditional rosins, the color and hardness are strongly effected by various additives, such as bees wax or abrasive metals. The color of the final product, therefore, is not always a reliable indicator of its hardness.
  • Dark Sound vs. Brilliant Sound (Tone Color) - Different rosins have distinctly different playing characteristics and tonal qualities. Players often describe the sound produced by different rosins as being brilliant (bright) or dark (warm). A rosin that accentuates the higher, treble frequencies is said to be brighter in tone than one that does not. Rosins that draw a more powerful sound out of the instrument are also sometimes said to sound brighter.
  • Bite/Attack - The best rosins allow the player to articulate notes in a clean, effortless manor. Such rosins are said to have a good bite or attack. The qualities of the attack vary widely among rosins, i.e. fast vs. slow, sharp vs. mellow, bright vs. dark, clean vs. scratchy. The bite of a rosin is tied closely with both its softness and its tone color, with softer rosins tending toward a stronger (though slower) attack, and brilliant sounding rosins tending toward a sharper, rougher attack.

Other Considerations

  • Application - Players often over-rosin their bows, which can have a deadening effect on the tone. Cheap or dried out rosins require more rosin to get the job done. But, a quality, fresh cake requires very little. We recommend 3-5 strokes, up and down, before each session. Depending on the rosin, and the length of the sessions, you may require slightly more or less. If you find that the bow is not grabbing the string properly, then apply a bit more. But, if you see clouds of rosin in the air and on the fiddle after playing, then you are using too much. Note: Rosin should be applied in long, slow strokes.
  • Abrasive Additives - Precious metals are sometimes added to rosin before it sets, in order to impart certain playing characteristics. Flecks of gold, for example, tend to yield a sharp, clean bite, and a warm tone; while silver brightens and focuses the sound. Please note, however, that abrasives can quickly dull or damage the surface of fine varnish.
  • Rosin for Violin vs. Viola - Generally speaking, the larger the diameter of the string, the softer the rosin should be. Fiddlers, who tend to use thin, steel strings, often prefer rosin which is quite hard. Violinists in general tend to prefer lighter, harder rosins, though this is not a hard-fast rule by any means. The thicker strings of the viola call for a softer, stickier rosin, though many violists still choose to use relatively light-colored rosins. Cello players almost invariably choose soft, dark rosins, while Bassists tend to select from among the few very soft rosins that are specially made for their instrument.
  • Solo Playing vs. Studio and Orchestral Work - Professional players often use different rosins for different settings. A bright, relatively hard rosin with a sharp bite may work best for the concert hall, where projection and clean articulation are desirable, while a softer, darker rosin may yield a more interesting tone in the studio.
  • Blending Rosins - Some players achieve desirable results by blending multiple rosins (applying one over top of the other). For example, we've had great success in mixing Leatherwood Rosin (or Baker's Rosin) with just a touch of Andrea Solo, resulting in a full, warm tone and a clean, sharp articulation.
  • Priming - For best results, new hair should always be primed with powdered rosin before applying regular rosin. Powdered rosin is simply regular rosin that has been crushed into a powder. Raw hair is primed by thoroughly rubbing the powdered rosin into the hair with a piece of leather or cloth. Priming allows the rosin to adhere more evenly to the hair, resulting in a more even, consistent response from the bow.