Beginning Electric Violin – A Review of Equipment

Learning to play electric violin shares many similarities with studying acoustic violin, with a few important differences. The first is that almost every acoustic violin is shaped and tuned the same way. Electric violins, however, can come in many shapes and varieties, including 4-string, 5-string, 7-string, fretted, and some with the upper bout removed entirely to allow easier playing in the higher positions. And, in fact, your acoustic violin can be “converted” into an electric by attaching either a microphone or a piezo pickup to the body. Most other electric violins use a solid body, just like most electric guitars (such as the ubiquitous fender stratocaster). What follows is a review of electric violins and a discussion of some of the additional equipment you will likely require.

While there are many electric violins on the market by large volume manufacturers, most of these just don’t sound very good. Some of the better (and mostly handmade) electric violins are reviewed below. I made my selection from instruments that I have either played or owned.

In general, I am not a fan of mass produced instruments. But Yamaha makes some of the best. Part of the Yamaha silent series, the model SV-200 features a dual piezo pickup. This is supposed to improve the sensitivity of the instrument to the subtleties of your playing, especially dynamic (volume) range. Coming in at around $1000, this instrument is cheaper than the others I will review below. On playing the instrument, I thought it was indeed responsive, certainly more so than previous Yamaha instruments. The on-board pre-amp allows for some sound manipulation on the instrument itself rather than in a separate, detached unit. The down-side of this is that it increases the weight of the violin.

Another popular model is made by NS Designs. This company uses a proprietary piezo pickup that is designed to be very clean and sound more like an acoustic professional cello price in its unprocessed state. I sampled a a 5-string model, and I thought that the neck was overly thick and the instrument rather heavy. Still, if you are looking for a clean sound, this might be a good choice.

Zeta has earned itself a lot of hype in part because Boyd Tinseley, of Dave Matthews Band, uses a Zeta instrument called (what else) the “Boyd Tinsley.” Zeta also uses a proprietary piezo pick-up that has a very characteristic sound. If you have ever heard Santana play guitar, then you probably recognize his distinctive sound that comes from the combination of his Paul Reed Smith guitar coupled with a Mesa Boogie amp. Most of the sound coming out of that amp, no matter how the sound is EQ’d sounds “Boogified” to me. Similarly, I felt playing on this instrument that my sound would get “Zeta’d” by the pick-up. And you either like this sound or you don’t. A big downside to this zeta model is that it is quite heavy.

Mark Wood, Another “boutique” maker of electric violins, recognized that trying to hold a 7-string fretted violin under the neck is quite difficult, due to the weight. Thus, he designed and patented a “flying v-shape” with a strap that fits around your torso and holds the violin up in a playing position. Though it can take some time to get used to, this design really does support the weight of the fiddle well. Make no mistake — adding frets to the violin is a big adjustment for the classical player. In fact, if you have ever played a mandolin, you probably realize how much the frets can change things. Sliding and vibrato techniques are very difficult on a fretted instrument. In my opinion, the frets are best for allowing guitar players and others familiar with fretted instruments to circumvent the usual requirement of pinpoint accuracy with finger placement which is necessary for playing in tune on the an acoustic violin. The 7-string fretted model, which is the flagship instrument in his line of electric violins, is priced at $3500. Mark Wood does not use proprietary piezo pickups. Rather, he uses either Barbera or Schatten pickups, which are mass produced piezo pickeps that are used in many different electric violins.

A former Zeta employee, John Jordan makes custom electric violins in almost every combination of material, strings and frets that you can imagine. Jordan started his own design studio when he became disillusioned by Zeta’s increasingly commercial attitude. Jordan handcrafts each instrument using his patented shape, which eliminates the peg-box and puts machined tuners near the bridge. This is designed to make the instrument lighter. Jordan is very much the true luthier of electric instruments. Many of his models, particularly the ones made of wood, are very attractive. Jordan uses a variety of pickups, including Zeta’s proprietary model. In addition, he likes the Barbera piezo pickup for a more “Stradivarius-like” sound, and recommends this pick-up for classical musicians. For rock, jazz and pop, he suggests using the darker, more “Guarneri-like” Ashworth piezo pick-up. Like most other electric violin makers, his 5-string unfretted is his most popular model. It seems to have a thinner neck than other electrics, which allows the classical 4-string acoustic player to make an easier transition to electric.

All of the violins described above are solid-body models. This means that the instrument has no hollow, resonating chamber and therefore produces little to no sound unless it is “plugged in.” However, another way to create an “electric violin” is to replace the bridge on an acoustic violin with a piezo pickup bridge-mount that can be plugged in just like a solid body. The downside to this is that these pickups can generate feedback. However, this option can sound quite nice and retains the customary shape and light weight of the acoustic violin. Common piezo models are the Fishman series and the L.R. Baggs. There are also several smaller “custom” companies that make these pickups, and it can be useful to try these if you don’t like the sound of the Fishman/Baggs. This setup shares all of the same disadvantages as any other violin fitted with a piezo pickup, as described below.

What all electric violins share is the need for an electronic pickup to transmit your playing to a unit capable of sound manipulation, such as a pre-amp or rack unit, and ultimately to another unit capable of sound production. The two major types of pick-ups in use in today’s plugged-in instruments are piezo and electromagnetic. Piezo pickups are used almost exclusively for electric violins. They have certain characteristics that some players find less than ideal. While a bow change on an acoustic violin can be completely silent to the listener, the piezo pickup will always transmit bow changes and bow noise. The reason for this is that they use sensitivity to pressure as their primary means of reproducing sound, and bow pressure is always variable. Also, piezo pick-ups have a tendency to sound fuzzy. Many different piezo pick-ups exist on the market, and some electric violin companies use their own proprietary models. The other type of pickup in use for electric violins is the electro-magnetic pickup. This is the pickup found in most guitars, and is considered the ideal form of sound transmission. While it is possible to build this type of pickup into an electric violin, it requires rather extensive modifications to the electric violin’s internal design and is rarely used. Perhaps in the future this type of pickup will become more available.

En route to reaching our ears, the electric violin’s signal usually is passed through a unit (or more often several units) capable of sound manipulation. Many of the same devices used by electric guitar players may also be used for the violin. For instance, reverb and delay units by Lexicon can provide warmth and depth of sound, while distortion boxes can allow the violin sound to approximate that of the guitar (a la Jimmy Hendrix playing America at Woodstock). There are literally hundreds of different devices, including foot pedals, that can manipulate the sound. Below is one of Lexicon’s top of the line reverb rack units. Computers are also increasingly used for sound manipulation and may eventually replace bulky sound manipulation boxes.

For electric violins employing a pickup, a pre-amp is necessary to intensify the signal from your violin, and to allow you to EQ the sound. One popular example of a pre-amp is the L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI. Some electric violins also have on-board pre-amps.

Further sound manipulation and signal intensification occurs when the signal is passed through an amplifier. Because most amps work best with mid and low frequency tones, it can be difficult to find a good amp for the electric violin, and even then it is usually necessary to spend a lot of time playing with the EQ. A popular amplifier for electric violin is the Fishman Loudbox 100. An important consideration when choosing an amplifier is that each leaves its own imprint on your sound. Thus, trying before buying is particularly important with amps.

For a more true reproduction of your sound, a PA system with speakers can also be used. The sound can still be EQ’d with a personal PA system and it is possible to preserve the acoustic sound.

Finally, the signal, after passing through the different sound manipulation devices, is broadcast to our ears by speakers. Often, these are built into the amp. You can also add additional speakers to create a stereo effect.

If you are looking to more or less duplicate your acoustic sound, playing electric violin may not be very satisfying to you. But for participating in a band, it allows the player to adjust their volume to match the other instruments, and to alter the sound to fit in better with a rock or pop style of music.

That being said, electric violin usually requires a potentially rather expensive foray into electronic equipment, which can be a lot of fun but also difficult since the sound you are searching for may take a lot of time to find, and may require testing a lot of different gear. Finding “your” sound can be a long journey. Some of the more interesting things you can do is to play on a 5-string, which adds a “c string,” below your “g-string,” or employ an octave pedal, which can drop your pitch an entire octave. Or you can play with distortion or a wah-wah pedal. And, while excellent technique is vital for classical music, electric violin can be more forgiving.

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