Violin in Popular Music

April 17, 2009 at 05:59 AM ·

I saw Andrew Bird last week here in Pittsburgh.  He received a bachelor's degree in violin performance from Northwestern but did not want to pursue a career in classical music.  Quite an impressive show, catchy, quirky songs, interesting musically and thoroughly fun.  And a good size crowd of maybe 1000-1500 mostly young fans.  Watch him here and you can get a good idea of how he uses his violin:

He loops pizzicato segments on top of each other, then will bow live over the pizzicato rhythyms.  At times all this gets quite complicated and but stays very engaging.

I started thinking about how many acts now have violins as lead instruments.  Just in the past few years I have seen many such acts.  Alejandro Escovedo regularly tours with a quintet of two acoustic guitars, two cellos and Susan Voelz playing a rocking violin:

David Byrne has toured with a string section in recent years that does not just play behind the music but is what is happening:

Of course, the Dave Matthews Band has an electric violin as lead instrument and a newer band like Cloud Cult is another example:

I cannot think of any good examples of this from the sixties/seventies/eighties other than a brief incarnation of King Crimson and some of the jazz/rock fusion bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  There were bands/artists that occasionally performed with string sections (like Rod Stewart for one example) but that always seemed rather lame to me.

I am happy with these recent developments as I like the violin in many contexts in addition to traditional classical performance.  Anyone have other good examples of this today or better recollections from the past?

Replies (18)

April 17, 2009 at 09:22 AM ·

I just bought Paul Dateh's album. He plays with a DJ. Look for him on YouTube under his name. Thats where I found him. (I'm at work, so I can't acess the site.)

April 17, 2009 at 11:11 AM ·

Glad to see another Andrew Bird fan around here!  He's my violin hero.  I may never get the chance to see him live, unless he chooses to swing by Alaska on his next tour.  But I've played his albums like an addict over the past few years.  The man possesses a bit I genius, I think. 

The particular link you shared, Anonanimal, is my favorite on his latest album.  It stopped me in my tracks when I got to the part where he said "hold on just a second, don't tell me this one you know, I know this one, I know this song, I know this one, I love this song..."  mmm, that part reminds me of a bittersweet romance, many years ago. 

I took long bitter walks this winter and felt comforted listening to that song.

April 17, 2009 at 02:40 PM ·

I love string players like Bird.  To carry the violin into different realms is so cool!  If you are really bold there's Zoe Keating, Rasputina, etc. Not for everyone's tastes but it's great that the string family is so versitile!


April 17, 2009 at 01:40 PM ·

If you like violins in popular music groups, search for Barrage on YouTube and enjoy!

April 17, 2009 at 04:44 PM ·

I'm not even sure what popular music is these days.  If you go out to hear some real kids play what they play, it'll likely be an acoustic guitar or two, some kind of drums other than a regular drum set, maybe an accordian, violin, trombone, what have you. 

April 17, 2009 at 04:50 PM ·

I followed the suggestion above and looked up Barrage.  High octane and loaded with sex appeal, for sure.  But the Youtube comments, where the kids keep saying "My orchestra played with them" and "they are playing at my friend's school" got me onto their site.  Can you imagine how cool that makes the fiddle when these guys pour into a high school?

April 17, 2009 at 05:00 PM ·

I have noticed the same trend in many Christian contemporary groups as well.  My question is if anyone knows of a good source for pop violin sheet music.  Most of the music I see is for the violin to play the main theme (i.e. vocal part) instead of the part the violin is truly playing.  I have found one book with Dave Matthews' music, but other than that, I haven't had any luck.  Any ideas?

April 17, 2009 at 07:09 PM ·


fire extinguisher GIF AnimationHE IS ON FIRE

April 17, 2009 at 08:58 PM ·

There are many classically trianed musicians like Oriol Sana who plays a jazzy flamenco thing that is very cool or Casey Dreissen who plays a bluesy Americana style, Tania Elizabeth and on...

Many of them are playing 5 string acoustic violins to give them maore range to improvise.

The young musicians are always pushing forward and opening new doors!!!


April 18, 2009 at 01:39 PM ·

Barrage group:  I saw them at a local high school, and they were terrific, both musically and terms of a showmanship.  They succeed in making the violin look sexy to young people.

On pop/rock violin in the 60s/70s:  Papa John Creach played on a number of Jefferson Starship albums.  David LaFlamme led the group "It's a Beautiful Day", which had a number of popular albums.  Sugar Cane Harris played an amazing 20-min.solo on Frank Zappa's "Burnt Weanie Sandwich."

April 19, 2009 at 12:27 PM ·

Check out Nuttin' But Stringz, which is a hiphop duo. I first seen them on Jack's Big Music Show, which is a kids' show that my son loves (and really is a pretty good show!), and then again on America's Got Talent.


One of my favorites is a group called Flobots. Also hiphop/rap, but with a very good classically trained violist playing a major part in a good deal of their songs. My favorite by them is Stand Up.

April 19, 2009 at 07:40 PM ·

The Beatles used lots of instruments when they gave up performing live and only made studio recordings.  They pioneered a lot of techniques that are now used routinely in recording studios.  George Martin, sometimes called "the fifth Beatle," was a classically trained musician who contributed immensely to their studio recordings, particularly those with orchestras, ensembles, and instrumental solos.  A striking example of his contribution is the song "Eleanor Rigby (," which features a double string quartet.  Martin had the string players record the song twice, once with and once without vibrato.   The final issue is the take without vibrato.  You can hear the contributions of the violins clearly in this song.  In other songs, including "A Day in the Life" ( and "All you Need Is Love" ( violins were used in large instrumental ensembles.  Incidentally, in "Love Is All You Need," the violins use vibrato.

April 20, 2009 at 02:12 AM ·

this is what i do for a living.  i tour 100+ dates each year playing clubs, colleges, festivals all over the US.  check out my stuff:   &

here's a recent clip from tour:

if you want any suggestions for good electric violin gear and processing, just holler.


April 20, 2009 at 02:16 AM ·

My daughter has recently discovered the Vitamin Quartet.  New and fun...

April 20, 2009 at 10:00 AM · Re: bands from the 60s-70s: Don't forget Kansas had violinist who was very prominent in their music. ELO was another.

April 20, 2009 at 10:04 AM ·

Rush also!

April 20, 2009 at 09:25 PM ·

How about last summer's Dr Who prom?

Check out the daleks flying across the London skyline from 2:30. One of the scariest things I've seen in my life.

April 20, 2009 at 10:01 PM ·

Rush used aviolinist on one song on the Signals album, his name was Eddie Jobson and he played with a Canadian prog rock group FM where the violin was featured as much as the guitar. I think Jobson may have also gone on to play with the British prog rock group UK after Alan Holdsworth left.

Currently the rock band Yellowcard has a violinist as a full time member, very high energy and melodic rock.

On the jazz side Chris Botti has been featuring a violinist on his current tour. If you can catch his PBS special she is featured on a couple of numbers, very entertaining.

But, to me the number one featured violinist on a POP Tune has to be Charlie Daniels on "The Devil went Down to Georgia", I can't imagine any bigger Pop Song featuring a violinist, heck even the lyrics are about a violin.

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