By Paul Riario | Photo by Massimo Gammacurta
In string quartet circles, humor abounds over how the modest viola plays second fiddle to the more glamorous violin. For example: “Why did the violist marry the guitarist?” “Upward mobility.”
While that kind of joke may produce plenty of smirks, I’m happy to say that a marriage between these two instruments has its advantages. For proof, look no further than the Montarado Custom Guitars Viola Model, a perfect and musically satisfying union of a viola and an archtop electric guitar.
Luthier Kelley Meyer handcrafts the Viola using classic violin construction techniques. His workshop is in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where high elevation and dry climate contribute to the sonorous voice of this exquisite instrument. The Viola features a tightly grained German spruce top with dual f-holes and a beautiful flame-maple arched back. What’s unique is how the edges of both the top and back protrude over the sides, similar to how bowed instruments are crafted for volume projection.
The sunburst finish is a light, thin varnish like that of a classical stringed instrument. Strings are top loaded into brass inserts on the suspended ebony tailpiece and guided over the custom-machined ebony bridge. The Viola’s three-piece flame-maple neck is reinforced with dual carbon-fiber rods for strength, and instead of a typical neck heel, the guitar has a conical neck pocket with a double-sliding dovetail joint that keeps it firmly in place. The ebony fingerboard features 22 jumbo frets, and—as a signature touch—a mountain design inlay at the guitar’s 12th fret reflects the guitar’s rugged Colorado origins.
The Viola appears delicate, but the guitar is designed to handle plenty of high volume and muscular playing styles. Despite its compact Tele-like proportions, its archtop hollowbody design is impressively loud and resonant. The guitar’s Benedetto Jazz humbuckers provide a rainbow of full-bodied electric tones, and built-in piezo electronics deliver natural acoustic tones that can be blended with the electric sound. The six-position toggle switch engages a surprising range of usable coil-split, series, and parallel tones. You can easily coax great midrange honk for blues or tame it down for jazzy bass-heavy tones.
In the vast world of custom guitars, the Montarado Viola is in a class by itself. It has all the sex appeal of a rock guitar but with the added elegance of an archtop design. While the Viola may not sit comfortably in a traditional string ensemble, its wide variety of alluring tones is like an orchestra all to itself.
LIST PRICE $6,500
Montarado Custom Guitars, montarado.com