Very large volume (> 1000 km3 of magma) crystal-rich dacitic ignimbrites that lack pronounced evidence of fractional crystallization or vertical zonation erupt in some continental magmatic arcs (e.g. the Lund Tuff of the Great Basin and the Fish Canyon Tuff of Colorado in western USA). Apparently, their magma chambers were only modestly heterogeneous and not systematically zoned from top to bottom. These ignimbrites have 40 to 50 % phenocrysts set in a high-silica rhyolite glass. Mineral assemblages and mineral compositions suggest pre-eruption temperatures were 730 to 820 °C and water and oxygen fugacities were relatively high. We have speculated that these very large volume ignimbrites are unzoned because crystallization and convection in slab-shaped magma chambers inhibited separation of crystals from liquids and resulted in a chamber filled with compositionally heterogeneous magma that lacked systematic chemical zonation or strong fractionation. However, many other very large volume silicic ignimbrites are strongly fractionated and may be vertically zoned (e.g. tuffs related to the Yellowstone hotspot). These rhyolitic tuffs typically have few phenocrysts, anhydrous mineral assemblages, low oxygen fugacities, crystallization temperatures of 830 to 1050 °C, and a strong imprint of fractional crystallization. Yet these Yellowstone-type rhyolites are derived from chambers 40 to 70 km across which have sill-like shapes (depth/diameter ratios much less than 1). Thus, factors other than chamber shape must be important for establishing the degree of evolution and nature of zonation in silicic magma chambers. Here, the role of crystallinity-dependent viscosity on the evolution of these two types of contrasting magmas is explored. Calculated magma viscosities for the hot, dry, crystal-poor rhyolites are significantly lower than for the cooler, wetter, crystal-rich dacites. Perhaps these hot rhyolites had low enough crystal contents and viscosities to allow efficient crystal–liquid separation, probably by a combination of unhindered crystal-settling, floor crystallization (including compaction), and crystallization on the walls of large chambers. Clean separation of melt from residual solids at their sources may have been promoted by their high temperatures and low viscosities (< 104.5 Pa s). In contrast, monotonous dacitic magmas may never have been crystal-free near-liquidus magmas. Their large magma chambers may have developed by progressive growth at a shallow level with repeated input of intermediate to silicic magma. Crystallization of the water-enriched dacitic magmas occurred at lower temperatures (< 800 °C) where crystallinity and hence magma viscosity (> 106.5 Pa s) were significantly higher. These characteristics inhibited all forms of crystal–liquid separation, hindered development of systematic vertical zonation, and promoted quasi-equilibrium crystallization in small domains within large heterogeneous magma chambers. Eruptions of these crystal-rich dacites may only occur if the roof fails over a growing magma chamber that is becoming increasingly molten.