Exploring the artistic merits of electric violin
Read the main article here: Turning Up The Volume
©November 2015 – January 2018, Ben Heaney
The following contributions were made by the following violinists:
Tracy Silverman (TS); Spencer C Yeh (SCY); Lindsey Stirling via PA, Jennifer Fletcher (LS); Hugh Marsh (HM); Darryl Way (DW); Jean Luc Ponty (JLP); Dr. L Subramaniam (DLS); Julie Lyonn Liebermann (JLL); Joe Deninzon (JD); Christian Howes (CH); Matt Bell (MB)
Also included below are some further answers prompted by these initial responses.
– What’s the point of an electric violin?
TS: the reason there is a reason for the electric violin is exactly the same reason that there is an electric guitar. it’s a very different instrument from it’s acoustic counterpart and functions differently in ensembles and arrangements. a sound of an electric guitar is more a product of the amp, how the amp is set and what effects may be modifying it than of the instrument itself. this gives it an enormous range of tone and functionality which go far beyond the capability of an acoustic guitar. the same is true of the electric violin. this is not to say that it is a replacement for the acoustic violin or an improvement of the violin. it is simply different and can do many things which an acoustic cannot. for instance, adding distortion completely changes the stylistic profile of the instrument to rock. the use of a wah-wah pedal can define a funk style that would be impossible to achieve without it.
most importantly, the electric violin allows strings to participate more fully in our contemporary musical culture, to function as an electric guitar, rather than being the anachronistic “classical touch” added to popular music. the electric violin allows violin players to speak to our own generation in our native music language rather than in an 18th or 19th century european language.
SCY: I’ve only ever figured out a solution to amplify an acoustic violin, but I would say there’s many points –– to electroacoustically enhance aspects of the violin sound and body that aren’t its typical characteristics, to keep up with most other instruments as a solo, to just be louder. I prefer the amplified acoustic because those electrics which are just a string and a board – they pretty much force you to play just the strings, with nothing resembling a box of wood to knock on. I feel these types of electrics also assume you’re mostly interested in playing notes… Also if you want to knock out some Tony Conrad or Takehisa Kosugi covers, you’d be better off electric.
LS: The ability to project sound as well as the ability to change the quality of the sound. It is also very durable, especially considering the amount of sweating Lindsey does in one show and the number of shows she does in a year. The sweat/perspiration/water is particularly hard on wooden instruments and she noticed early on that performing with acoustic instruments and sweating on them night after night was very hard on them.
HM: At it’s core the response to this this question harkens back to what I stated previously. For me it is the gateway to creating new and unusual sounds, tones, textures and noize (sic)
This , using an organic instrument as the jumping off point.
For an example of what can be achieved may I humbly suggest checking out the following link. https://soundcloud.com/hugh-marsh/sets/183-dayz
I’m currently nearing the end of a self imposed 6 week experiment to improvise, write, record and then post to SoundCloud a vignette a day for 183 days. Every last sound and or noise originates with the Baritone violin. No other instruments or synths were harmed in the process. There was however a ridiculous amount of what I like to refer to as “Shhhhnaaaa” (signal processing of all descriptions) used.
DW: The point of an electric violin is quite simply to allow to compete with and fit in with a loud or amplified ensemble such as a rock band. It also allows the violinist to be able utilise all the sound processing effects that have been developed for the guitar.
JLP: First it started as a need to increase the volume so a violin could fit in a band with drums, or with an electric band, or any instrumentation which is overall louder than a traditional acoustic ensemble. Afro-American jazz violinist Stuff Smith started using amplification in the 50s, Stephane Grappelli as well when he played with a drummer in the early 60s, I used the same DeArmond pickup through an tube amplifier as they did when I started playing jazz in the early 60s. Then the technology evolved in the 70s to a point where in addition to volume a violinist could have access to the same electronic sound effects as electric guitarists and any other electric instrument.
DLS: I think an electric violin is useful primarily in non classical environments, where the acoustic tonality of the violin alone cannot be amplified using a microphone and cut through. On big stages, and places like rock concerts, you need an electronic instrument so that the violin can be heard.
Some electric violins like the solid body Zeta which I used for my Indian Express album are also midi compatible, so you can trigger different sounds using the violin and a synthesiser.
Zeta also subsequently had specific models with pre programmed tonalities of instruments. These worked fairly well provided you weren’t playing very fast or using slides or ornamentation, which made them restrictive in a way.
JLL: I will address this question as a player and as a visiting guest artist in hundreds of schools: While we tend to think of the electric as providing volume without feedback as well as a tool through which we can access electronic effects and the looper, there are many other options worth considering from an educational standpoint.
- If injured or working with a student who plays with excessive tension, an amplified instrument can be used as a tool to support a lighter touch in both hands. This, in turn, will provide access to improved speed and vibrato as well as an opportunity to easily adjust intonation.
- String directors can pass an amplified instrument through each orchestra session to expose technical problems that can otherwise be hidden behind stronger players. Anticipation of this technique will also serve as an “inspirational” tool for more careful preparation before rehearsal on the part of the students.
- Unfortunately, since weaker players are often placed in the back of each section, they can’t benefit from the aural learning process as readily as a strong player seated next to an even stronger player. Therefore, an electric in the hands of a more advanced player in an orchestra section will provide excellent support to the entire section, enabling them to quickly master the music with greater ease.
I discuss this in greater detail in my book for Hal Leonard, “How To Play Contemporary Strings: A Step-by-Step Guide for Violin, Viola, and Cello”
JD: An electric violin, especially one with an extended range, allows violinists to be part of the conversation of modern music and truly contribute to music that has been invented in the past 70 years: rock, hip hop, electronica, heavy metal, jazz fusion, and more. Solid body instruments sound better when put through effects, and the extended ranges allow you more flexibility and unleashes your creativity. Also, they look great on stage and the design possibilities are endless!
CH:To amplify and be heard. To use effects and get different colors of sound. To have the ability to create loops.
MB: In modern music – small ensembles playing to large and noisy crowds – acoustic instruments simply aren’t loud enough. Acoustic guitars have given way to electric guitars. Acoustic basses have given way to electric basses. Drums have to be mic’d or triggered. Pianos have given way to electronic keyboards.
So we can try to mic a violin, but the realities of volume levels on a rock stage simply make that hard to work with. The extreme dynamic range of a violin simply isn’t suited to microphone usage on a loud stage. So we can try putting a pickup on an acoustic violin. This works in a lot of scenarios, but they still tend to be highly prone to feedback. So, like every other instrument on a rock stage, a fully electric solution has been devised.
Also, like all other instruments on the rock stage, violinists have sought to expand the sound palate that’s available to them using electronic effects. Distortion, reverb, delay, looping, filters, modulators, and others tend to work better with fully electric instruments. Electric violinists can now create a far wider array of sounds and textures than their acoustic counterparts.
So what’s the point? To allow violinists to participate in the musical revolution that has been happening since the 1950s with the advent of rock and roll. There aren’t any electric french horns. That’s why there aren’t any french horns in the revolution.
– What do you think the impact of electric violin has had, if any, on the profession of violinist?
TS: i think it had made many classical string players aware that there are great possibilities, not only for electric instruments, but for their own acoustic violins. it has shown string players that they are only an effect pedal away from playing very differently, and some of that experimenting with different styles is hopefully going on in practice rooms all over the world. it also seems that any good professional freelance string player now needs to own an electric and have at least a rudimentary vocabulary in many non-classical styles and some improvisational skills in order to stay busy.
SCY: Besides looking a bit silly (if you have one of those fancy-looking electrics)? Picking up on the previous comments about being louder, and being able to stand on your own, it’s allowed me an ability to be a soloist not playing notes. I also remember some popular pop punk band that had a violinist in its group (yikes)…
LS: Lindsey is able to use pedals to record “rounds” of herself like she did with “Song of the Caged Bird” in her last show. It has more of a “rock and roll” or “pop” look and is created for the purpose of projection, so there are a lot of technical equipment that is catered to these models for this purpose. Acoustics can be amplified as well with different equipment. It allows the violinist more versatility and style in terms of both look and sound.
DW: The electric violin has opened up popular music to the violinist, along with other mediums such as jazz and experimental music.
JLP: Violinists in jazz, rock and pop bands are still very few, but again it’s thanks to the volume provided by an electric violin that they can fit in these types of bands. In the 60s and 70s the majority of fiddlers needing amplification were in Nashville playing country music, when country went electric. These fiddlers were -Berry’s biggest market. But sound and volume are not the only element, whether you play violin or any other instrument what is most important is to have a passion and an ability to play these modern styles.
DLS: There are two types of electric violins – electro acoustic violins, which are essentially acoustic instruments with inbuilt contact mics, and the solid body electric violins.
In terms of impact, it has unlocked midi possibilities, which many violinists have used in the studio, and to a lesser extent on stage. That is very useful to increase the possibilities for a violinist as a composer/arranger.
One major impact in my opinion is that a violinist can now perform on a stage of any size, and under almost under any conditions. In situations where there is a lot of sound on stage, that might ordinarily leak into a violin mic, or if it’s an open air show with a lot of breeze or a place where too much mic volume would cause feedback, an electric violin takes care of everything.
I also used electric violins while performing with symphony orchestras so that I can have my own small monitor looped by a DI box and which is then connected to the PA system.
JLL: Considering legendary jazz violinist Stuff Smith’s big opportunity to tour with the Jelly Roll Morton band was destroyed because no one could hear him, the ability to control volume and tone for bowed string players enables us to be viable in all musical environments. Pickups and electrics have also provided us with an opportunity to explore and make use of special effects and the looper. In my case, I work with student orchestras across the United States year-round and the moment I whip out my NS Design violin, the students become excited and can’t wait to hear it or to learn new techniques on their acoustic instruments that might someday lead to playing on an electric.
JD: I have witnessed this phenomenon in the past 20 years; As the general public becomes more aware of electric violins because of the Lindsey Sterlings and Boyd Tinsleys of the world, the more they want electric violinists to play at their private functions. Also, more and more band leaders are using electric violins in theirs bands and on their albums. This, in turn, creates more employment opportunities for us and makes it more advantageous for every string player to play both acoustic and electric to make a living.
CH: It’s helped violinists to join in other ensembles and play many styles of music and be more marketable.
MB: It has allowed far more violinists to be in the profession, for one. Without electric violins – or amplified acoustics, the only jobs for violinists would be in the classical world. There would be no place for Jean-Luc Ponty. How would he perform in front of tens of thousands of people?
It has also broadened the definition and appeal of being a “violinist”. How many kids are playing violin today because of Lindsey Stirling and her electric violin? How many kids are playing violin today because of Black Violin and their electric violins? How many kids are playing violin today because of Ezinma Ramsey and her acoustic-electric violin? How many kids are playing violin today because of Mark Wood and his electric violin? A lot.
– What’s the oldest electric violin you’ve played and how does it compare with other electric violins you have played?
SCY: I’ve only ever really amplified one violin, and that’s a rent-to-own I got almost twenty years ago. Nothing particularly stands out about it other than I can probably be blindfolded and still pick out which one it is, based on feel. And by “feel” surely I mean the layers of scum and rosin on it.
TS: the oldest one i’ve played was the first one i built in 1982 with mark wood. we made several together. they didn’t sound as good as the ones i’m using now. i’ve designed all my instruments and had most of them built by guitar makers. i’ve tried just about every variant you can imagine—different woods, solid vs. hollow, viola scale vs. violin scale, different kinds of tuners, pickups, shapes, weights, neck widths, strings, etc etc. my electric violins are semi-hollow. as far as i know, there are no electric violins available which are not solid. (i’m not including acoustic instruments with pickups, even if they are blue.) it’s my opinion that solid electric instruments don’t sound good for anything but extreme distortion.
LS: Electric violins have made incredible improvements over the years. Lindsey has said that her first electric violin had significantly inferior sound and quality compared to the models they have available today. Lindsey is sponsored by Yamaha and loves their models.
HM: I have 3 early 1970’s Barcus Berry electrics on of which is strung with octave baritone strings. They’re pretty much all I’ve played since 1973. I’ve tried numerous others but I just feel at home with the B.B.’s
Equally important in my sonic world are the many pieces of processing gear I use in my work. Devices by Moog, Eventide, Hexe Guitar Electronics, Boomerang, Zvex, Neunaber, Strymon, Metasonix, Montreal Assembly, Oto and Iron Ether get used daily in my own writing and in my work with numerous Los Angeles based film composers.
Please see Hugh Marsh listing on IMDB.com
DW: Now this next question is quite interesting because I was under the impression (it would appear wrongly) that I was the first, or certainly one of the first people to fully electrify a violin. When I was playing with the idea of forming a band in 1969, I looked around and investigated the possibility of buying an electric violin, off the peg as it were and found that there were none on the market that I could find. So I went to the Orange shop in Denmark Street London and asked them if they could build me one. At that time metal strings had just become available for the violin so I suggested that they convert a guitar pick up and put it under the strings by the bridge, to act in the same way as a guitar pick up does on a guitar. I bought an old violin and gave it to them to convert.
JLP: The first real electric violin I played was a prototype given to me by Barcus-Berry in Los Angeles in 1969, the best at the time, then they gave me the first 5-string with a low C string in 1978, there are other good models nowadays but that old fiddle is still among the best, I still play it.
DLS: I was given a Zeta violin to for my album Indian express.
Then I was given three barcusberry violins (two five strings and one four string) by Jon Berry, and he wanted me to use one for the premiere of my Fantasy on Vedic Chants with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Maestro Zubin Mehta. I really liked the instrument because I felt that I could express myself on it. It could pick up all the microtones, dynamics and slides since it was essentially an acoustic violin with a contact micophones. I have used those violins all over the world in concert halls and stadiums, in classical concerts, orchestral concerts, jazz fusion and global music performances. I have used those violins for decades. When Jean Luc Ponty came to India to perform with me for the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival, he was playing a barcusberry as well.
More recently, my son Ambi and I endorse Realist violins, which are great. They have a very balanced tone, and in my opinion, they are best acoustic-electric violins available today.
JLL: My oldest instrument is a white vintage Barcus Berry from the 1960s. It sounds great. Nowadays, if you’re only concerned with tone and volume, a preamp like the L.R. Baggs or a mixer like Mackie, coupled with an amp designed for bowed strings like the Fishman Loudbox, can give you all the volume and tone control you need no matter which instrument you choose to play on. That said, today’s instruments provide us with a wider range of choices. We’re no longer bound to the traditional form. We can tailor the look that most represents our music and ensure that feel and weight suits individual body-type.
JD: The first electric violin I ever owned was made by the late Richard Jensen. I bought it in 1996 when I was a sophomore in college. It was a 6-string fretless with a Barbera transducer. I loved it because it was just a neck with no body, sort of like a a Steinberger instrument, and unlike most people, I liked the idea of having easy acccess to the full fingerboard.
The oldest actual “electric” violin I ever played was a phono fiddle owned by Vince Giordano when I subbed with his 20s jazz band, The Nighthawks. That was an amazing experience because there are very few of those violins in existence and it was an early attempt to amplify the violin by attaching a phonograph type reproducer as a voice box.
CH: ZETA in the 80’s. I prefer the yamaha.
MB: The oldest electric violin I’ve played was one of Ned Steinberger’s earliest models. How did it compare? Kind of like an old car. Nostalgic, but not better.
– Do you recall your first experience playing electric – what made you pursue using it?
SCY: I recall finally getting my first pickup and playing, sure. I was still a ways off from getting the instrument to where I wanted, but it was a trip for sure. I pursued using it because at the time I didn’t think I could get by playing what I wanted in basements and clubs purely playing acoustically. It’s not a knock on acoustic music but it’s notable that if a sole violinist wanted to seem “minimal” they may play acoustically (unless they are interested in playing notes). Either that or I just didn’t quite trust my ears at the time. The LP you mentioned, Solo Violin I-X, was recorded mostly acoustically, however, but with various micing techniques, as well as a little feed from the pickup mixed in as an additional element/extension.
TS: the first time i cranked up the distortion was like giving heroin to a junkie. i was immediately hooked on that sound, that feeling. not only was i suddenly speaking the language of all my friends, the voice of the electric guitar, i went from nerd to cool at the click of a distortion pedal.
LS: Lindsey joined the band Stomp on Melvin in high school. Her first violin had a cord. No one could hear the acoustic violin from stage until she started using an electric, which she could turn up and down in volume at her leisure.
HM: Without a doubt! I had just come back from high school one day and there waiting for me in the living room wet a Balilla amp, a DeArmond pickup for my violin and a Vox wah wah pedal. My father had recognized that I was at a musical crossroads of sorts and he had the amazing foresight to present me with these new tools in attempt to foster some new inspiration.
For this I’m forever grateful.
The attraction was immediate. Not just from an “Oh wow, I can play loud now” perspective. Rather, the access to new tones and textures. from that point forward I became enamoured with signal processing and using an organic instrument as a catalyst for sonic mayhem or beauty.
DW: When I first played it in the Orange shop, it was truly a eureka moment. Suddenly, I had all the volume and cut that an electric guitar had. Everybody in the shop was gob smacked by the noise it made (including Francis Monkman who just happened to be there at the time and afterwards suggested we get together to try a few ideas out. Hence the formation of Curved Air). I used this violin for the first part of Curved Air until I went to America and discovered that Barcus Berry made a violin bridge that amplified the violin. It’s tone was a little more forgiving and I used this up until about 2000 when I switched to a band microphone which gave me even more control over the tone and the volume.
JLP: When I started jamming with jazz groups in clubs in Paris I played my classical instrument in front of a microphone on a stand, and as soon as the drummer started to get excited my sound was completely buried. I understood why Django and Grappelli had formed their Hot Club de France ensemble without drums, but I wanted to play modern jazz with a regular rhythm section and started looking right away for a way to amplify the sound.
DLS: The first time I played an electric violin was because Keith MacMillan gave me a Zeta to try! I was very curious to explore the possibilities of the instrument and the different tonalities available and used some of them for the song Indian Express. Even after the novelty of that wore off, I stuck with electric violins, because to me the electro acoustic violins have all the benefits of acoustic violins with the added amplified advantage
JLL: I began to experiment with amplification in the 1970s because I didn’t like depending on bad engineers or performance venues that couldn’t afford sound systems. Then, in the early 1980s, I began to tour with Brian Eno recording artist, Laraaji Venus. He plays on electronic zither. He inspired me to explore stomp boxes and amps. Like most of my colleagues, I basically bought every kind of pickup or electric instrument I could find as each became available until I found the complement of equipment that met my needs.
JD: I grew up leading a parallel life playing electric guitar and bass in rock bands and studying classical violin repertoire, but violin was my strongest instrument and the one I had played since I was 6 years old. I went to college for violin but maintained a deep interest in jazz and rock. The turning point for me was the first time I heard Jerry Goodman’s solo in Mahavishnu Orchestta’s “Celestian Terrestrial Commuters,” attended a Jean Luc Ponty show, and also hearing Sugar Cane Harris on the old Frank Zappa recordings. This was the early 90s and I also heard Mark Wood’s debut record, which was a game changer for me. I immediately knew that I had to get an electric violin and carve my own path on the instrument, combining all my musical influences.
CH: I was in a prison band. The warden purchased a ZETA MIDI violin with state money so I could play with what was known as the Warden’s band at Ross County Correctional Institution in Ohio- we did all R&B covers. We performed for inmates at our parent institution, church services, special events, and even traveled to other prisons and performed for community functions as well. The electric violin was necessary for me to play in the band. We thought the MIDI would allow me to make other sounds, but i quickly realized that MIDI just got in the way and resorted to signal processing. More often than not I was asked by the band to play cowbell, sing background vocals, and do a two step. The keyboardist often sequenced most of the parts in the keyboard and the band was reluctant for me to add violin into the original context of these songs. But i used the violin for church services and other events separate from the Warden’s band.
MB: My first experience playing an electric was with a Barcus Berry pickup on a throw down acoustic. It was better than holding my violin up to an SM57 by a long shot. But it made me want something even better. I tried a Fender and didn’t like it. It was too dull sounding. I tried a Zeta and didn’t like it. It was too honky. Then I tried a Viper with a Barbera pickup and that was it. I’ve been hooked ever since. I discovered effects and never looked back. The universe of options that was open to me on sound creation was mind-blowing. I’ve been doing it for over 20 years and I’m still discovering new things I can do with my violin.
– Do you think the electric violin has carved a niche of its own in terms of any particular style or a genre?
SCY: I’m not quite sure if the electric violin on its own has carved a niche – maybe I’m not paying enough attention. I do think amplification in general has made certain things more possible, as mentioned before, but as for an electric violin “niche” – when I think of electric violins I just think of, like, Laurie Anderson.
– Have you ever played the original, 1958 Fender Electric Violin
JLP: the model I tried must have been the CBS one since it was mid to late 70s, it did not sound like your old model for sure.
DLS: No unfortunately Dr. Subramaniam has never heard of this.
– What do you think we owe, if anything, to the early makers – pre-1960s?
JLL: “Early electric violin makers bucked up against a rooted tradition that included a snobbish mentality toward any new ideas in the string world. If we could go back through time, I imagine these makers would share stories about how the faith of a handful of players kept them going as they pushed uphill against the entrenched classical world of luthiers.”
– Tracy Silverman—Artistic Statement
It’s been my life’s work to demonstrate the broad capabilities of the 6-string electric violin and to contribute to the development of significant new work for it, furthering the legitimacy of this new instrument and of post-classical violin playing. I believe string playing must be updated to reflect the broader musical culture, our contemporary vernacular of rock, jazz, pop, international and other idioms, or risk becoming irrelevant.
I’ve endeavored for years to advance the classical performance model in a meaningful way, to make musical performance that’s both challenging yet completely accessible and relevant to a technologically sophisticated audience. The core of my work for many years has been my solo performances, making extensive use of electronics and live loop recording, including a technique I call “macro-looping.” Using this complex looping strategy, I perform original works and extended suites arranged from larger orchestral works, electric violin concertos written for me by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams, (premiered at the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic), “Father of Minimalism” Terry Riley (premiered at Carnegie Hall with the Nashville Symphony,) Kenji Bunch (premiered at Avery Fisher Hall), Nico Muhly (premiered at Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony in October 2015,) and two concertos of my own.
Live looping has a compelling narrative power, involving the audience in the creation of the work as they witness each part in a musical counterpoint being recorded rather than passively receiving the finished music. Overlapping networks of smaller looped elements can combine and be rearranged to form larger looped structures, something I call “macro-loops”, resulting in an uninterrupted stream of multi-layered music, a virtual ensemble, moving freely, naturally and unpredictably through a symphonic palette of keys, dynamics, tempos and textures.
My career path has been unorthodox, taking me full circle from classical violin through rock, jazz, folk, Indian, Brazilian music and finally back to the classical concert stage, but with an eclectic, post-classical technique. A Juilliard graduate, I decided the world didn’t need another recording of the Tschaikovsky violin concerto, formed a rock band and started designing and building some of the first-ever 6-string electric violins. I spent the next 10 years reinventing the instrument and my approach to playing it. I was discovering a way of playing that was an organic part of my own musical culture, a way of playing that spoke to my friends from high school in their native musical language, the American vernacular that was dominated by rock guitar. I entered Juilliard hoping to be the next Jasha Heifetz and left hoping to be the next Jimi Hendrix.
I’m currently touring full-time nationally and internationally as a soloist with orchestras and with my solo performance, Concerto for One. Formerly first violinist of the ground-breaking Turtle Island String Quartet, I also perform as a member of the Terry Riley Trio, Three Part Invention with composer/pianist Phil Aaberg and Mike Block, and Concerto for Two with 5-time Grammy winning percussionist Roy “Futureman” Wooten (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones). A long-standing advocate for music education, I’ve developed a method of teaching string players how to play contemporary rhythms idiomatically, how to groove, called Strum Bowing. I’m on the faculty at Belmont University and give frequent clinics and workshops around the world.
My thanks is given to the artists and managers who gave their time and found words to share their thoughts on the subject – Ben Heaney, January 2018
If you are an electric violinist and would like to contribute your answers to the same four questions above or would like to enter into the discussion of Electric Violin Usage, please contact Ben directly using the contact form here.