The violin is traditionally built as an acoustic instrument. The shape of the body is designed purely to produce and amplify the sound created by the vibrations of the strings. However, since the American jazz clubs of the 1920s, modern popular music genres have created the need for violins that can be amplified beyond the normal capabilities of the instrument.
There are various different ways to create an electronically amplified sound for the violin. Some musicians argue that the best tone is produced with an acoustic violin and a specialised microphone, but this can sometimes create feedback and amplify unwanted sounds, as noise from a loud room will resonate inside the body of the violin and pass back into the microphone.
Another way to amplify the violin is with an electric piezo pickup, which is a small transducer in contact with the body or bridge of the violin, designed to amplify only the sound created by the violin. A violin modified with a pickup is referred to as an electro-acoustic violin.
Electro-acoustic violins are often custom built, as most violinists are nervous of applying a contact pickup to the varnish or bridge of their best instrument. They can still be played as acoustic instruments, although the extra weight of the pickup can make them less comfortable to use, and the pickup itself on the body of the violin can mute the sound slightly by dampening the vibrations.
The first use of electronically amplified violins was in jazz music. The jazz violinist Stuff Smith (1909 -1967) who is featured in several trio numbers on Nat King Cole’s album After Midnight, is thought to have been the first violinist to experiment with adapting the violin with pickups. His better-known counterpart, Stephane Grappelli (1908 – 1997) apparently struggled to find a solution to the need for amplification.
There is a gap of fifteen years between 1956 and 1971 in Grappelli’s discography; a time when he barely recorded anything. This is thought to be due to the technical developments in jazz music at the time. Electric guitars, improved microphones and bigger brass sections made it hard for the violin to compete, and Grappelli was dissatisfied with the results of his experiments with amplification as they had a destructive effect on the unique, gentle timbres of the violin. He tried out lots of different things, one of which was an early electric violin.
In an interview with Max Jones of the London Melody Maker in November of 1952, Grappelli declares of the electric violin, "Now the Violin Can Find a Real Place in Jazz . . ." It possible he was either testing or endorsing the instrument as his enthusiasm is not followed up with any noted performances or recordings on the violin. The article continues:
"In his Variety act with pianist Yorke de Sousa, Grappelly [he often used this misspelling as it was preferable to the alternative mispronunciation] still uses his standard violin. But for dances and jazz sessions his improvisations are now amplified directly he puts bow to steel strings. He is an enthusiastic exponent of the electric violin - an American instrument that radio listeners heard for the first time in World of Jazz on November 1.
'Of course the instrument's full value cannot be realized from a record or broadcast, because the amplifier isn't really needed then. The tone sounds different, yes; but you must hear this violin in a hall to get the whole effect. It is wonderful.'
The wonder instrument is a curious sawn-off looking thing, visually unimpressive and extraordinarily heavy. We wanted to know if it demanded a special technique.
'The fingerboard is the same, but it has to have metal strings. For me, the finger- pressure is about the same as I normally use, but the bowing is different. This needs great control. You must have very steady bowing, for every little sound is enlarged through the loudspeaker. Each time I am going to use the electric fiddle I must get used to it again; I must play all day. It isn't easy to play well at first, but once you have mastered this fiddle it is fantastic. This fiddle is definitely better than the normal one for jazz playing; there is no comparison. For solos it is powerful and exciting. It means that the violin can take a full part in the jazz orchestra at last. It's no longer a little voice; it's more like four fiddles. I mean, I may play louder than four fiddles, but, of course, the sound is not the same. In fact, it is an entirely new sound, and eventually it will add new tone colour to jazz recordings, too.’”
Melody Maker November 15th 1952
The instrument Grappelli was talking about was made by the American company Vega, who were manufacturing electric violins from as early as 1939.
The American company, Fender, which is famous for its electric guitars, also produced some of the early electric violins, with the first model appearing in 1958.
As we can see from this interview with Grappelli, and from the Vega advert, even by 1939, the electric violin was a very heavily modified version of the violin.
The modern electric violin, most accurately described, is an instrument almost entirely distinct from the violin, with built-in pickups and a solid body.
The body of the electric violin is solid for three reasons:
The shape of the electric violin is modified to be as minimalistic as possible, to keep the weight of the body from becoming too great. Materials used to build the body include carbon fibre, Kevlar and glass, although performers increasingly customise and embellish their instruments, as demonstrated by these two Swarovski Crystal encrusted instruments belonging to electric violin duo Fuse. For more information please visit www.fuseofficial.com or www.electricstringquartet.com"
Fuse also commissioned two 24 carat gold plated violins, which are each insured for £1.35 million.
The electric violin is still seen as a somewhat experimental instrument. It is much less established than the electric guitar or bass, and produces very different results from the best acoustic violins. There are many variations on the standard design. Some instruments have frets, extra strings, guitar heads instead of violin pegs and sympathetic strings.
It is also not unusual for an electric violin to have five, six, seven or more strings. Dutch violinmaker Yuri Landman built a 12 string electric violin for the Belgian band DAAU. The strings on this instrument are clustered in four groups of three strings tuned unison creating a chorus.
The extra strings on these multiple-stringed violins are usually a low C string on a five-string, which gives an instrument which can serve simultaneously as a violin and viola, a low C and low F on a six-string, and a low C, F and B♭ for strings.
The amplification signals for the electric violin pass through electronic processing in the same way for the electric guitar. The audio output is transferred through an audio cable into an amp or PA. Most electric violinists use a standard guitar amp, which will be reliable but may not give the best tone for the violin. Few amps exist specifically for the electric violin. Effects pedals that create delay, reverb, chorus and distortion can be used to create variations on the traditional sound. Electric violins may use magnetic, piezoelectric, or electrodynamic pickups, the most common and inexpensive of which are the piezoelectric pickups. Piezo elements detect physical vibrations directly. They are placed in or on the body of the violin, or more commonly they take their output from the vibrations of the bridge. These pickups have a high output impedance, which means they must be plugged into a high impedance input stage in the amplifier, or go through a powered preamp. This matches the signal to avoid any problems with low frequency loss and microphone noise pickup.
There are increasing numbers of electric violins to choose from, and various companies that produce their own version of the instruments. They are ideal for pop and rock music. With the correct pedals and equipment they produce a huge range of sounds and effects, and they also create a modern image, which fits better than a traditional violin in certain settings. The sound is not as sophisticated as the acoustic violin, and levels of expression and nuance are more electronic than imitative of the human voice. However, the electric violin particularly gives the opportunity to experiment with multiple combinations of strings and instrumentation, which is not possible on an acoustic instrument. It is also great for silent practice.
For those purists who love the sound of the violin, the electric violin is a long way from replacing the violin’s sheer beauty of sound, but there is an increasing market for electric violin music, and several popular artists and groups have based their careers entirely around the versatilities of the instruments, as well as many musicians who have integrated the range of the electric violin into their repertoire. In fact, electric violin makers often work with violinists to produce newer and better solutions to the musician’s needs. Instruments can be really personalised.
The electric violin is still an instrument in the developmental stages, but the demands of musicians wanting the perfect combination of versatility and sound quality will continue to improve its status and desirability. It will never replace the violin, but the electric violin is gaining its own place in music.