Dan Mccarthy Takes a Deep Dive Into Early Music Equipment

McCarthy believes the more musicians know about the equipment that existed during the time a composition was written, the better they can understand the music itself

By Leah Hollingsworth | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine

Dan McCarthy has served as section violist with the Trinity Wall Street Baroque Orchestra, concertmaster of the Austin Baroque Orchestra, and tenor gambist with Parthenia. He has also toured extensively throughout North America, East Asia, and Europe with artists and groups such as Jordi Savall, Masaaki Suzuki, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, and American Bach Soloists. On the east coast, he plays with a variety of ensembles, including Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity, Washington Bach Consort, New York State Baroque, Artek, and Tempesta Di Mare.

McCarthy’s initial exposure to the viol family was while he studied for his doctor of musical arts degree, which was in modern viola, at the University of Maryland. He started working with the Smithsonian’s Kenneth Slowik, who introduced him to the instrument and repertoire. Following his DMA, McCarthy was accepted into the Historical Performance program at the Juilliard School and started studying the viol more seriously. He has kept it up since then and declares himself a true “multi-instrumentalist,” as he plays many instruments, both modern and period. McCarthy is particularly excited by researching period practices and believes the more musicians know about the equipment that existed during the time a composition was written, the better they can understand the music itself. 

Dan McCarthy
Dan McCarthy. Photo: Tatiana Daubek

Tell me about your viola da gamba. 

The viola da gamba is part of the viol family of stringed instruments, which was born around the same time as the violin family and existed in parallel to violin family instruments in the Renaissance and Baroque time periods. During the 18th century, the viol family instruments were supplanted by the violin family, which was louder and more powerful, causing viols to mostly fall out of favor.

My instrument is a tenor viol da gamba, so its closest parallel in the violin family would be the viola. It is a bowed, fretted instrument, and played upright (like a cello)—the term “da gamba” translates to “for the leg,” as it is held upright primarily by the calves. The tenor viol has six strings tuned in fourths with a third between strings three and four, so from top to bottom they are: G, D, A, F, C, G.

My instrument was made by Michael Heale in England in 1980. It is a relatively modern “old” instrument because there aren’t actually a lot of original instruments that are playable. One of the big differences between the violin family and viol family is that the backs of viol family instruments are flat—which means they are not as structurally sound and don’t age so well; the backs often cave in.

A friend of mine pointed me to my instrument—there was an advertisement for it on the Viola da Gamba Society of America website. It was the fall of 2020, so I had a lot of free time and could pursue looking into the instrument. This is the first viola da gamba that I’ve owned.

What first drew you to your instrument and how did you know it was the right fit?

The sound of the viol family of instruments is completely different from violin-family instruments—it is not only softer, but has a more spoken quality and is much closer to the human voice in my opinion. This gives an intimacy and soulfulness to the instrument’s sound that isn’t there with violin family instruments.

My instrument is a smaller tenor, so it has a sweeter sound and favors the upper register; it has a really lovely amber sound. It was also being sold for about half of its value, so it was just a fantastic investment.


What is something your instrument has taught you?

Viol family instruments have at least six strings, so the bridge is not angled very steeply, which means I have to think a lot more about contact point and bow speed to get the kind of articulation and sound and volume that I want. I think you have to be much more in tune with the bow than on violin family instruments, and there’s much less room for error.

What gift does your instrument bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?

Because it is a fretted instrument, I can very slightly adjust the fret—even mid-concert—if the tuning is a little wonky. 

What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like? Does it remind you of anyone or anything?

My viol is very sweet and resonant; I almost get synesthesia sensations, like of a late evening sun—I think of that kind of warmth and light often when I play that instrument. Its sound is also very spoken, like a well-trained actor in a theater: articulate and clear. 

Does it perform better in certain situations?

My instrument can be a bit temperamental, which is more often the nature of the gut strings than of the instrument itself. I oil my strings with olive oil if I feel like they are getting a bit too brittle. After playing on gut strings for so long, I’ve gotten good at “microtuning” when I’m not playing—even during four measures of rest, I’ll adjust the peg and quietly pluck or tug the string to adjust the tuning.

There are times when the instrument feels more or less stable, and other times when it’s not. It’s kind of a roll of the dice. From the viewpoint of a modern musician, playing it is chaos. But it keeps me on my feet, keeps me sharp. In the beginning, it felt crazy to me, but I take it for granted now, and it doesn’t faze me at all. 

What are some of its limitations?


Any viol is not going to be as loud as a violin-family instrument, so there’s a hard ceiling when it comes to the kind of power the instrument has. They are very resonant, round-sounding instruments, but not super projecting. And because my instrument is smaller, the lower register is not great to play on, similar to how a small viola doesn’t have the same power on the C string as a larger viola does. Mostly I play Renaissance polyphonic music and am often doubling the voice; in other words, I’m not using the extremes of the instrument and so its limitations are not truly limiting much of the time. The music I play is usually in a comfortable register, and the lower parts are fine but not great. Someday, I would like to purchase a larger tenor viol that favors the low register. 

Do you use any specialized gear with your gamba? 

I balance the viol da gamba on my calves, so the only time I might use something is if I’m wearing pants where there’s not a lot of friction—then I use a thin cloth between my calves and the viol.

I don’t know a lot about the case—it came with the instrument—and there aren’t a whole lot of choices. It’s bulky. I’d like to have something custom made for it. Because there’s not really a standard-size model for most early instruments, custom made cases are ideal.

In terms of the bow, one big difference with viola da gamba is that is has the opposite bow hold from violin-family instruments—I use an underhand bow hold, more similar to a Chinese erhu player. I don’t control pressure and weight through the stick but instead through the hair, and one or two fingers are actually gripped on or around the hair, which I can pull or loosen with my fingers to adjust the tension as I am playing. It’s a very different mindset.

I have multiple bows for each of my instruments, and one bow for my viol, called a “clip-in” bow. They don’t have turnscrews to adjust the hair like a modern bow; instead, I can unclip the frog and reposition it on the bow—so I have different sized frogs that I use. For example, if the hair is too tight, I put in a smaller frog. I can also adjust the tension by putting little leather bits around the hair by the frog. So there’s a high degree of flexibility and fine tuning. My bow in particular has a very convex, round shape so I can get a dense, articulated sound. I don’t have to use tons of bow to activate the string, which is ideal. I have it haired with black hair, which is much coarser and ideal for grabbing the thicker gut strings and activating them.

I use Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin. It’s the only company that I’ve been able to find that makes rosin specifically for playing on gut strings. It’s not super sticky but you get a crisp sound. I just discovered it this past year.


Gut Strings

I’ve always been fascinated by playing gut strings, specifically the really thick gut strings that I’ve seen in paintings and things like that. I own six instruments and use complete gut strings for four of them. I get a very different kind of sound and, of course, performance practice.

First as a student and also in the past decade as a professional, I’ve noticed there’s a serious discrepancy between the kind of equipment that’s being used by my colleagues and what I’ve read about or seen in paintings. So often for lower strings, even on period instruments, people will use more modern strings. To me, it’s a sound discrepancy to do this.

During the pandemic, I started checking out different string makers and doing research. I found two string makers in Europe, and their strings sound fantastic and were the most historically informed strings available on the market. So I sell strings in the United States and North America for these two makers now. One is Cordedrago, an Italian company based in Bologna, and I use all Cordedrago strings on my viol da gamba. What’s really different about these strings is that the gut itself is not bleached by peroxide, which means there’s a big visual difference, and they also feel different—they are so elastic and soft and really stretchy. If you read a lot of accounts of the strings from the 1700s and 1800s, the strings are often compared to pasta: they have that amount of elasticity. This is completely different from most of the strings being used in the U.S., which are quite resistant and hard. This stiffness and lack of flexibility is terrible for lower strings especially and makes them very hard to play, which is why people tend to use more modern strings for their lower strings.

I also sell strings made by a French maker named Atelier Boussoir—he makes historical metal-wound strings, which were used more commonly by the mid-18th century and up through the early 20th century. They have a similar kind of core to the gut, but he uses round metal wires instead of flat metal ribbons to wind them, so the strings are kind of ridged. They feel textured—not far off from playing gut in terms of texture. The advantage to using the metal wound is that metal is very dense so you can make a thinner string that responds more easily (especially helpful for the lower strings that become very thick with all gut).

There’s a big discrepancy between what’s commonly used now and what we know was used then. I feel that the most informative thing you can do to get to know early music is through the equipment itself, so I want to adhere as closely as possible to what we know was being used at the time. The bow and certainly the strings—I think these will teach you the most about the music itself.

We have to be honest with ourselves, whether we’re modern classical musicians or early music people. For the most part, we’re playing music that is dead, and there is a gulf of understanding between those of us who live today and the composers who wrote and people who originally played this music. There’s so much that needs to be taken into account. That’s why I think the best way to really get into that headspace is to start with the equipment—that’s the most informative place. 

I don’t believe music is a universal language. It’s a language, and you have to learn it: the grammar and vocabulary, the syntax, the letters. All these details about equipment have to be studied and learned and put into practice now if we want to truly understand the music of then. And that’s why I got into selling the strings. I’m trying to change my community. I’m trying to educate my colleagues, and I want them to sound even better, and also it makes my job so much more enjoyable.                            —Dan McCarthy