A closer look at electric violins

April 24, 2009, 10:44 PM ·

Lately, my world is all abuzz over electric violins.

First, several of my students decided to buy electrics. Then, I met Mark Wood, inventor of the Viper violin, at the ASTA convention last month. And just this week, I saw Yamaha's Day of Jazz Violin, which impressed me with the various expressive capabilities of electrics.

Add to that another event that took place earlier this month, when Tom Metzler and Barbara Don held a demonstration of several kinds of electric stringed instruments at their store, Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif., where I'd recently seen their Cremonese violin exhibition.

This demonstration, called "Electrify Your Music!" brought together representatives and makers of electric fiddles (and I include cellos), including Jordan Electric Instruments; Yamaha Electric Instruments; Wood Violins; NS Design instruments by Ned Steinberger; Realist Electric Violins and Pickups by David Gage; VIVO2 Electric Violins by Ted Brewer; Zeta, Coda bows and more.

"More and more, people are asking us about these kinds of instruments," said Tom Metzler, to the 50-some people gathered in his violin shop for the demonstrations.

First up was John Jordan, creator of Jordan Electric Violins.

"Nobody can beat the beauty of his workmanship and the materials he uses," Metzler said.

Jordan uses a combination of various woods in his electrics, as well as various pickup systems.

"I don't believe there is any one definitive electric sound we should be looking for," Jordan said. "I'm really a woodworker; I'm trained as a violin maker. To me, when I pick it up, I want it to feel like a violin."

He said that his electric instruments have evolved over the years from the requests of his clients who have played them.

"Really picky people are really useful," Jordan said. The design for the violins "evolves over time because of really gifted players who want it a certain way."

(Violinmaker John Jordan holds one of his works: an nine-string electric made of Lace Redwood Burl over mahogony.

Helping him demonstrate was violinist Ysanne Spevack, who owns the first electric Jordan built and has played in bands such as the Smashing Pumpkins and Elton John. Today she was demonstrating on an instrument that was to go to Boyd Tinsley of the Dave Matthews Band. To me it sounded a lot like an acoustic violin, just amplified.

Next up was Heather Mansell of Yamaha Electric Instruments.

Though many think of an electric instrument as a conduit for rock 'n' roll and amplified music, Yamaha's first electric violin, released in 1997, was actually called the "Silent Violin" (or "SV") It was conceived as an instrument for personal use in Japan, where dense living conditions can make practice difficult without disturbing neighbors. Practicing with earphones was one solution, and Yamaha sought to tap that market.

"It was not for professional playing," Mansell said, "It was for practicing."

The North American market had another demand: pump up the volume. So when Yamaha introduced its electric strings in North America, it re-designed the Silent Violin for amplification, adding models with a single pickup (SV130) or dual pickup (SV200) that sits under a removable bridge. Yamaha later created its "EV" (Electric Violin) series, with pickups that are individual for each string, creating a powerful signal that can be adjusted with on-board EQ, Mansell said.

"The EV series just took it another step further creating a fatter, edgier tone that some players prefer," Mansell said.

Yamaha continues to offer both "silent" and "electric" violins.

Yamaha's latest silent violin is the SV150 Silent Practice Plus, an instrument which comes with a control box that has a digital tuner, digital metronome and more than 20 digital sound effects, as well as a memory card for playing recordings.

"It's super light," Mansell said, because the electronics are in the control box instead of in the instrument. She demonstrated how it can sound like a large hall.

The memory card, with its recordings of accompaniments allows the practicer to play along with orchestra, or play with the band, right in his own living room, sort of like the Music Minus One recordings, but with a few advantages.

"You can slow it down and speed it up, and it won't change the pitch," Mansell said of the accompaniment recordings.

The card comes pre-loaded with tunes from a book, such as "Amazing Grace" and "Ave Maria." Yamaha's website also offers additional downloads, such as Suzuki Book 1 done in Calypso style, with solo parts taken out so that you can play along.

Later in the day, I tried the SV150, and though it felt a little heavy to me, it was indeed easy to play, with a nice quality to the tone. Mansell cued up "Amazing Grace" on the control box, and I played a little by ear, with a few attempts at improv. Somehow it's funner having it all come through one amp – having your sound go straight into the midst of all the accompaniment – than it is to play to a recording on the stereo or computer. I could see how this would make Suzuki review a bit more fun!

Unfortunately, none of the electric violin makers represented at the event makes fractional-sized electrics – the smaller-sized instruments that kids would use.

"It's very rare that anyone does," Mansell said. "Maybe that will change, but at this time, not many fractional electrics are being made."

Tom Metzler next introduced Wood Violins: "The first thing you notice about Mark is that he's got this long hair and he looks like a Rock 'n' Roller," Metzler said, "But he has a lot of interesting sides to him, and he's passionate about music education in the schools."

A Juilliard-educated violist, Wood created electric violins with names like the "Viper," the "Stingray" and the "Cobra," with a whole new kind of geometry – let's call it an electric aesthetic.

Mark Wood couldn't make it to the event himself, so violinist Alyson Montez showed us the instruments. Montez met Wood when she was 15 years old and debating whether she really wanted to walk the path of a symphony musician.

"Mark had the weirdest violin – it sounded just like a guitar," Montez said of her first impressions. She fell in love with the electrics and taken her career more in that direction.

"His instruments have such a broad range – plus they look really cool!" Montez said. " I especially love the low tones on the Vipers." She said that when you play one of these instruments, you can take any role in the band: rhythm, lead, guitar, bass. "I actually once joined a band, and the guitarist quit!" she said, and everyone laughed.

Wood's instruments range from four to seven strings, and they can be purchased with frets – either raised or flat.

"In rock bands, it's pretty useful to have frets," Montez said. Often the volume gets so high, it's hard to hear your own playing. "When you don't hear anything, you can't tell what your pitch is."

Also, "with the frets, you are forced to have a lighter touch," Montez said. "So if you have a death grip, you won't have it long."

One feature of the Viper is that it straps on, allowing the neck and back to be free. Montez said that when she was younger, she had carpal tunnel syndrome, "I couldn't hold a pencil," she said, and practicing on the Viper helped her get back. The electric cellos also strap on – yes, you could play in the marching band with this instrument!

(Alexandra Levatter, 10, of North Hollywood, tries the Viper by Mark Wood. She played some Led Zeppelin rifs.)

Cellist MaryAnne Steinberger demonstrated cellos by Ned Steinberger by NS Design. (And they are not related, the name is a coincidence). A musician who plays mostly classical and Baroque music, MaryAnne became interested in having a five-string cello after babysitting a vacationing friend's violoncello piccolo, a Baroque-era instrument with five strings.

"This was a versatile alternative," she said of the five-string electric cello by NS Design. She has used it mostly for Baroque playing, "I don't have any rock 'n' roller in me to discover," she said. "It's a very good practice instrument. I live the sound, and I've enjoyed plugging it in and recording for composers." She said that she has found she needed a bow with a lighter touch for the electric cello.

There were a few other violins – the Vivo2 Electric Violin by Ted Brewer, which is the same kind of violin Vanessa Mae plays. It has a headphone jack and was made of purple plastic and "if we get the right combination of buttons, it will flash while you play," Metzler said.

Metzler also talked about bows, adding that, "You can use any bow you want on an electric violin." One of the bows that some electric players have gravitated toward is the "Joule" model by Coda Bows, which has a longer hair length (even though the bow itself is standard-length).

Not much was said about Zeta electrics, though that did prompt a conversation about Midi systems, as Zeta was the first to adapt the technology.

One of the problems with Midi systems has been that the lower the pitch, the slower the Midi response, said cellist MaryAnne Steinberger, who also plays on a Zeta. Jordan said that the converter is the same as it was in 1984, and it takes two full wave cycles for the response. Now, the technology exists to do the same thing in just a quarter of a wave, and a system with that kind of technology may be available as early as next year's NAMM convention.


April 25, 2009 at 08:58 AM ·

I have not kept up with all the new electrics because of my own lack of interest. Back in 1979, I bought a Barcus Berry Violectra on Saint Patrick's Day in New York. All of a sudden there was an IRA demonstration and some bricks were being tossed. As I was next to Manny's...in I went; wound up buying "Patrick".  The crowding of 5 strings on a violin fingerboard drove me nuts. I never played it and several years ago sold it. I guess it must be a collector's item now, because I got nearly three times what I had paid...That was fine by me. I bought one of the newer Barcus 4-string  electric/acoustics which is basically a Roumanian fiddle with the transducer bridge. Nice enough violin for the money but I had no avenue to really use the electics so sold that too, at break-even. The one that I have kept is the Yamaha silent violin (SV-100), which I bought when it was first introduced. The newer models have improved pick-ups thus the differnet model numbers, but the basic construction is the same. I rarely use this one but will hang onto it.

The problem as I see it with these instruments is all too often with the "rocker mentality" of the buyers...often young and expect to learn it without learning the basics. I declined a few students who wanted to learn "electric violin". Unfortunately, they desire instant gratification without any of the work. I expect before long the "Violin Hero" will hit the market.

nopity.gif No Pity image by TGrosjean

April 25, 2009 at 12:08 PM ·

Sam's post recalled something Jimmy Page of Led Zepplin once said and I think he was quoting someone else, "An accoustic guitar will teach you more about an electric guitar than an electric can teach you about an accoustic." Learn the violin first and a little later aproach an electric.  I look forwards to owning a newer electric and think that it's exciting that the violin is going towards electric also.  It's long over due!


April 26, 2009 at 01:16 AM ·

I own a 5 string NS design violin - It's a wonderful instrument, gives a really nice tone and is extremely versatile.

April 28, 2009 at 01:24 AM ·

I've been touring the US playing electric violin since 2000 and I've played many different instrument makes and models and personally I don't think anything compares to the Zeta Strados.  Its 2 pickups for each string and I've been able to do a ton with it. 

Great discussion though...but I think the REAL discussion needs to ask the question, what can be done with effects?  After all, if you're used to playing a great acoustic, why go electric?  Just to amplify it?  If that's the case, you're only using a fraction of the electric possibility.

What can be done with delay pedals, overdrives and distortions, phasers, choruses, wah, etc expands the horizon almost infinately. 

If that's a road you'd like to embark down, just holler and I can put together a quick presentation for the site.

Hope that adds to the discussion!

-Ross Christopher

April 29, 2009 at 01:29 AM ·

Regarding learning the violin with an electric...

Many years ago, I started learning the violin and I enjoyed the playing and the sound the instrument made.  However, when my family moved to Thailand the music teacher at the school was troll and I couldn't find a private tutor.  I became very shy about the bad sounds of my practicing and eventually I stopped entirely.

Fast forward a decade.  Now I've left home and found the urge again - I really want to pick up where i left off but I'm living in an apartment now and still very self concious about the screeching sounds of my practicing!  When I heard about 'silent' violins, it seemed like a godsend.  From what I've read, though, most people don't recommend learning on one.  Is there a reason why they're harder or less good for beginners?

I'm stuck to buy a new violin now, anyway, since my old fractional is too small - the question is, electric or acoustic?

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