Turning Up The Volume!

Turning Up The Volume! ©September 2015 – January 2017, Ben Heaney.    “The electric violin is an impressively powerful instrument … a whole new orchestral equipment which the traditionalists will curse but which will undoubtedly allow future composers to give us unforeseen masterpieces, using unsuspected elements of emotions.” – Emile Vuillermoz, L’Illustration (12 April, 1930)[1] […]

Turning Up The Volume!

©September 2015 – January 2017, Ben Heaney. 

 

“The electric violin is an impressively powerful instrument … a whole new orchestral equipment which the traditionalists will curse but which will undoubtedly allow future composers to give us unforeseen masterpieces, using unsuspected elements of emotions.”

– Emile Vuillermoz, L’Illustration (12 April, 1930)[1]

 

The question is, does this statement hold true for musicians, makers and listeners today? Here, I examine the debut of the electric violin; it’s reappearance at a time of huge musical exploration in the 1950’s and how the instrument is perceived today.

 

Inventor Ivan Makhonine[2] registered a patent[3] for an electromagnetic pickup device in 1930, designed to amplify the low, barely perceptible sounds of stringed or wind instruments. The patent describes a violin of special construction without a resonating body and shows simple drawings of a ‘horseshoe’ electro-magnet and coiled wire circuitry.

Advertisements announced a presentation of the ‘Violon Makhonine’[4] in concerts featuring Cecilia Hansen[5]. A photograph of Hansen published[6] alongside an article about the instrument, show the Makhonine Violin as skeletal framed, strikingly similar in appearance to today’s Silent Violin by Yamaha. The article explores the instrument noting that the invention allowed for the traditional body to be abolished, “keeping only that necessary to support the bridge and strings”. It observes the discovery of “new violin tones resembling the oboe, cor-anglais or saxophone” and “a more powerful tone that can dominate a whole orchestra to fill the biggest concert hall”[7].

 Hansen performed using Makhonine’s electric violin to large audiences at the Salle Pleyel in Paris[8]. The first of two concerts[9] reviewed in Le Matin were reportedly sold out. Her programme[10] included Mendelssohn and Saint-Saens Concertos, and works by Handel, Schubert, Paganini, Brahms and Bazzini. The Gaumont Pathé Archives have film with audio of Hansen performing Sarasate’s Malagueña[11]. This is possibly the earliest surviving footage of music played by a violinist using an electric violin.

Concert reviews describe a mysterious Violin Without A Body[12] where the vibrations of the strings were successfully turned into electro magnetic waves without impairing the quality of the sound. Another headlined Electric Violin Heard In Paris First Time[13] describes a new violin with very pure tones soaring above the strings and brass in the concertos. Le Journal[14] referred to a curious result, predicting great future success. Makhonine’s violin “allowed Hansen to draw sounds unknown to date” and some music critics saw “a true revolution with a future as brilliant as the piano replacing the harpsichord”[15].

The fate of this and another electric violin invention may be explained from information found in an online document[16]. Gabriel Dimitriu[17] claimed Makhonine’s patent conflicted with his. Certainly, the application date of Dimitriu’s invention for a violon électromagnétique[18] predates Makhonine’s by a whole year but Makhonine presented his in concert the day before Dimitriu’s patent was granted. Searches of online newspaper archives return information about Makhonine however, interestingly, Dimitriu’s name is clearly omitted. Dimitriu took the matter to Patriarch of Romania, Miron Cristea, lawyers took on the case and Makhonine crumbled.

A more recent example of an initial ‘one-day wonder’ having taken years to come to light, involves a much less likely figure in the development of electric violins. Fender, one of the true giants in the field of musical instruments and technology, reached its 70th Anniversary in 2016. Founder, Clarence ‘Leo’ Fender, set about making an electric violin very early on in his career. However, few published works mention this Fender violin at first and neither recordings nor film footage of it originally being played appear to exist.

The production prototype Fender Electric Violin was completed in 1958 and Leo Fender applied for a patent in the same year, encompassing both body design and pickup device[19]. Records of tool purchases reveal templates received in September 1951 and the idea for creating a ‘pickup’ suitable for a violin is found in the objectives of an earlier patent, more than a year before the Fender Company came into being. It “provide[d] an electrical pickup unit… which produces a more natural tone with greater fidelity than previously attained from the electrical pick-up of string vibration… such as guitar, violin, piano and many others” [20].

Why Leo developed and produced an electric violin is not clear. Friends or colleagues may have encouraged, even inspired his work; perhaps the prospect of creating something for a player such as Bob Wills or a compulsion to “round out the family of Fender electric instruments”[21] was motivation enough. Although no notebooks or memos relating to the development of this electric violin have seemingly survived, the opening two sentences of the violin patent document plainly set out the essentials for an electric violin[22].

“This invention relates to an electric violin. More particularly, the invention relates to electromagnetic pickup means adapted to be associated with amplifier and loudspeaker means for creation of sound corresponding to movement of the strings of the violin”.

Notably, his opening statement uses the term ‘electric violin’ in a way that had not been used before when defining previous inventions. Now the term is so commonly used. Leo’s first objective, “to provide an improved electric violin that may be mass produced economically and to a very high degree of predictability and uniformity of tone” adds weight to the belief that older, ‘vintage’ electric bowed stringed instruments were not entirely successful.

In 2004, after nearly ten years of research, gathering evidence of different electric violin type instruments and devices dating from 1912 and despite almost daily scanning of online auctions, blogs and forums for news, notices or sales, I had failed to locate the whereabouts of any electric violins by makers predating the 1980s. The story of the electric violin was turning into a lament; ‘where have the old electrics gone?’ Then, Fender’s 1958 production prototype model came up for auction. After bidding failed to meet the reserve, I offered the seller’s asking price and immediately settled the invoice. Within two weeks the package arrived from Seal Beach, California and after making enquiries about previous sales I discovered I had become the first violinist to own the instrument nearly half a century after leaving Leo’s workbench.

With the violin came a memo[23] from Forrest White[24], and with it something more of the violin’s history was revealed. The instrument had been taken to the WSM convention in Nashville, October 1958 and here it was ‘tried out’ by many of the Nashville artists[25]. Later, in his published memoirs White records that these trials were made over two nights, backstage before the Grand Ole Opry shows at the Ryman Auditorium. The general consensus was that they all liked the sound but not the weight[26]. At 828g this may be the reason, possibly the only reason why the “Fender Electric Violin died almost before it became alive”[27].

White cites American Western Swing fiddler and vocalist Wade Ray[28] and old-time fiddler Harold Hensley as the only musicians he knew who played the Fender for any length of time. According to Smith’s book, George Liberace was enlisted to play the instrument every week on TV. Gathering knowledge from authorities on Fender and other experts of vintage electric stringed musical instruments, it is clear that only a few were ever made, possibly not more than two. If as some sources state up to 200 were made, I suspect more would have appeared on the musical circuit by now and established players would know more about them too. In comparison with the Stratocaster and Precision Bass, as a commercial enterprise the original Fender electric violin was a monumental flop and Leo possibly lost confidence or interest in the instrument. For whatever reason, Fender withdrew it from sale in the same year it had been advertised. Although clearly not the first electric violin, Leo’s 1958 production model remains unique[29].

From the beginning of the Fender Company, Leo was aware of previous patents relating to electrifying the violin[30]. One by Dr. Hugo Benioff[31] for an Electrical Musical Instrument give details a skeletal bodied electric violin. Benioff had previously secured a patent for a Stringed Musical Instrument[32] in which the most streamlined, minimal design electric violin is depicted and described. Whilst some inventions never reach public awareness, Benioff’s electric violin and his electric cello were seen and heard in concerts from 1938. Articles at the time suggest that these instruments “astounded musicians” presenting a “new depth” and “increased power and richness of tone”[33]. Despite such promising reviews, Benioff’s musical instruments were never manufactured.

Prior examples also include two radical electric violins by George Beauchamp[34]. The first[35] and most uncompromising was cast in Bakelite and further characterised as being ‘headless’, having the tuning pegs at the opposite end to usual[36]. This fully electric violin formed part of a body of instruments presented as Electro String Instruments. Beauchamp had begun work on the violin in 1932 and Mark Allen and his Orchestra first used them in 1935[37]. Dramatic advertising invited potential customers to Listen To A Miracle.

Beauchamp’s second violin invention[38] features a tubular metal frame with adjustable parts for body length, tailpiece, bridge and pick-up placement. The neck and scroll of the instrument are completely traditional in material and appearance. These instruments and a whole family of bowed strings consisting violin, viola, cello and bass viol were manufactured and presented as The Sensational New Electro Violin Family by the Progressive Musical Instrument Corporation, part of Rickenbacker’s Electro String Instruments. They were intended specifically for broadcast work[39] and “scientifically built” for artists “accustomed to handling creations of old masters”.

Published information about any one of the earliest pioneers of electric violin is scarce and despite news of huge promise, comment and attention effectively fizzles out after just a short period. Broadcasters of radio and television, film and recording studios immediately embraced electric pickup technology because it meant the violin could be heard anywhere. The appearance of such new instruments, the original ensembles inspired, the music created by them and the validity of observations expressed by some as heralding a new epoch in music, has reverberated over many years becoming more obvious to subsequent generations.

With online databases of patents freely available, the development of electric violin can be traced by inventions and the inventions they inspired. In this way it is found that the Fender electric violin is cited in a 2010 patent granted to Shinya Tamura assigned to the Yamaha Corporation for electric cello.

Asked, ‘what is the point of an electric violin?’ electric violinists[40] have replied encouragingly, pointing to the “enormous range of tone and functionality”, that “it is simply different and can do many things which an acoustic cannot” (TS). Also, that “it is the gateway to creating new and unusual sounds, tones, textures and noise” (HM); allows the violinist “to compete with and fit in with loud or amplified ensembles” and “utilise all the sound processing effects” (DW). Julie Lyonn Liebermann explains ways in which “it can also open up a number of new musical and learning opportunities”[41].

In terms of impact, electric violin has “made many classical string players aware that there are great possibilities, not only for electric instruments, but for their own acoustic violins”, with the cautionary advice “that to stay busy any good professional freelance string player now needs to own an electric” (TS). “The ability to control volume and tone for bowed string players enables us to be viable in all musical environments” (JLL) and, “the electric violin has opened up popular music to the violinist, along with other mediums such as jazz and experimental music” (DW)

For some discovering bowed electric strings is a career defining event, “truly a eureka moment”, the attraction “immediate”. “Not just from an ‘Oh wow, I can play loud now’ perspective. Rather, the access to new tones and textures” (DW). The player can become “enamored with signal processing and using an organic instrument as a catalyst for sonic mayhem or beauty”. (HM)

Today there is a wealth of choice in terms of instruments and equipment for players to choose from, and the performances given by some electric performers have found great success across the broadest spectrum of styles and genres around the world. Maybe the electric violin is yet to carve a niche genre of its own but it has augmented technique and allowed doors to be opened and pathways to be forged in to types of music that a purely acoustic violin does not fit in or cope with. Not without being given an electric boost. The point for this generation is electric violins are turned to by players, composers and enjoyed by an ever-widening audience.

“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.” (TS)

“Amplification in general has made certain things more possible” (SCY)

 

Obvious to me and no doubt to Leo Fender is that the electric violin does have a place in musical development. I am sure that some do curse this instrument but it clearly allows composers and players today to create those ‘unforeseen masterpieces, using unsuspected elements of emotions’ written about by Emile Vuillermoz back in 1930.

 

Recommended Listening

NB – links for further study, active at the time of publishing Jan.2017.

The history of electric violin usage in key jazz styles, with other violin curiosities from the 1930s to 60s is catalogued across a number of CDs exhaustively researched, compiled and published by AB Literary and Music Publishing. The following are three extensive collections from www.abar.net covering numerous artists:

Since the 1960s electric violins and electric violinists appear with increasing frequency across the musical spectrum. The following list is just a taster, by no means is it meant to be considered comprehensive. It is intended to lead the curious minded reader to interesting and hopefully new areas of discovery. For a more detailed and far-reaching list please refer to the Recordings list in the Source Guides section of this website.

20 different artists appearing on 20 album recordings, presented chronologically, across electrified folk, rock, psychedelic, prog, jazz, experimental, indie, pop, modern classical, fusions and other genres and styles:

 

[1] Translation by Catherine Phillips & Ben Heaney – ©2000-2017 Delta Violin Ltd. All Rights Reserved

[2] Yvan Makhonine, Russian inventor, emigrated to France

[3] French Patent Office, 8 March 1930, Brevet D’Invention, 707.124

[4] From 7 April 1930 – Comoedia (7 April), Journals des debats (11 April), Le Semaine (11 April), Le Temps (13 April), Le Matin (14 April)

[5] a well respected, admired violinist of the time and former pupil of Leopold Auer

[6] L’Illustration – 12 April 1930

[7] Written by two authors, F. Honoré and French arts critic, Emile Vuillermoz

[8] Possibly including the President of France, Gaston Doumergue

[9] 14 April & 21 May 1930

[10] Both performances were with the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire under the direction of Philippe Gaubert with pianist Eugene Wagner.

[11] Journal Actualité, ‘A New Musical Instrument’ 11 April, 1930 (PJ193002211). Available https://www.facebook.com/meloclassic/videos/703218906415446

Where the recording was made is yet to be determined

[12] Dundee Evening Telegraph 16 April 1930

[13] Oakland Times 16 April 1930

[14] Louis Aubert, French composer and pianist

[15] L’Afrique du Nord illustrée – 2 August 1930

[16] studii.crifst.ro/doc/2013/2013_4_02.pdf

[17] Rumanian studying in Paris

[18] French Patent Office, 15 April 1930 Brevet d’Invention 686.683

[19] United States Patent Office, 10 October 1961, #3,003,382

[20] Patent shared with his first business partner, inventor and engineer Clayton ‘Doc’ Kaufmann – USPO, 7 December 1948, #2,455,575

[21] Richard R. Smith, Fender – The Sound Heard ‘Round The World, Hal Leonard 1995

[22] An interesting parallel can be drawn between his second statement and an explanation of the traditional acoustic violin given by James Beament in the introduction to his work The Violin Explained (OUP, 1997): the understanding of electric violins is concerned with how strings vibrate, how the vibration converts to an electrical signal, how the signal is amplified and how the amplified signal then causes a speaker to vibrate.

[23] Originally sent with the first sale of the violin in 1989

[24] Early years Vice President and former General Manager at Fender

[25] Including Roy Acuff, Tommy Jackson and Howdy Forrester

[26] Is the issue of weight why Leo included a metal strap-pin in place of the traditional violin’s tail-button? If the intention was not for it to be used then it is entirely superfluous. Certainly a strap can be effectively fitted in a similar way to the methods found on current electric violin models by Wood, and NS Designs.

[27] Forrest White, Fender – The Inside Story, Miller Freeman, 1994

[28] With only one promotional photo surfacing on the Internet of Wade Ray holding the violin and not in a playing position, it is not known for certain which instrument he actually played, to what extent, or really if ever at all

[29] It should be noted these scarce instruments are not the same as the electric violin model reissued in the late 1960s after the original Fender Company had been sold to CBS, and are quite different to the two versions available today, which the Company reissued again in 1999 as the FV-1 and FV-3 models.

[30] References to prior art are cited in both the electric violin and earlier shared patent, acknowledging inventions between 1934 and 1951

[31] United States Patent Office, 29 April 1941 #2,239,985

[32] United States Patent Office, 19 November 1940, #2,222,057

[33] E.g. The Day & St. Petersburg Times (13 June 1938), Spokance Daily Chronicle (14 June 1938), Lewiston Daily Sun (June 27 1938)

[34] Co-founder of what would eventually become Rickenbacker, another giant company in today’s musical instrument market.

[35] United States Patent Office, 13 September 1938, #2,130,174

[36] Exactly in the manner seen on instruments by Jordan, Violectra, Jensen and others available today

[37] The late Elliott Fisher made at least one album recording In The Land Of Make Believe (Dobre, 1976) using one of the very few Electro violins to have been sold

[38] United States Patent Office, 9 February 1943, #2,310,199

[39] In June 1947, Popular Mechanics magazine published a detailed article about these instruments as being used by Bert Lynn’s all electric orchestra.

[40] With contributions from Julie Lyonn Lieberman (JLL) http://julielyonn.com; Hugh Marsh (HM) http://www.hughmarsh.net; Jean Luc Ponty (JLP) www.ponty.com; Tracy Silverman (TS) http://tracysilverman.com/music; Darryl Way (DW) http://www.darrylway.com; Spencer C Yeh (SY) http://www.ubu.com/sound/yeh.html

[41] From “How To Play Contemporary Strings: A Step-by-Step Approach for Violin, Viola & Cello” (Hal Leonard, 2016) by Julie Lyonn Lieberman


My thanks to Chloe Cutts, editor of Strad Magazine for the stimulus and encouragement to research and produce this article.


About the Author