Makers of Electric Violins

Close-up picture of a ZETA Jazz bridge on custom build Paul Cliff violin body
Custom P.Cliff with ZETA Jazz pickup (1995)

The Violin is Dead


Long Live the Violin



The period detailed here starts from the earliest known reference in a published work to an instrument now generally deemed as being an electric violin. Where possible inclusion of detail is based on instruments that are known to exist today, even if extremely scarce, in some cases their actual whereabouts is however uncertain. Some references have been deliberately left out in this edition as yet no trace of an instrument, name or other detail is known beyond rumour. Much of this information was published for the first time via between 1997 and 2004. It appears here in this augmented, revised and edited form for the first time in the knowledge that there is still much research to undertake and much updating still to be done!

“It’s a lifetime commitment to make things that sound better, look better and play better.”

N.Steinberger, 1996

This explanation and review of makers of bowed electric stringed instruments is set out chronologically and as accurately as data allowed at the time. Over time, as new and clearer data emerged this work has naturally tried to follow. When contemporary electric violin makers claim only scant knowledge of their subject just seeing their work side by side in context of the time-line shows undeniable links to what are earlier and the most original of makers and their ideas. The makers under the heading of electric violins today are set out alphabetically as this seemed the easiest thing to do in trying to keep up with the steady flow of additions to the list. Rather than try to create an infallable list that is the most comprehensive, what is published is based only on what has been physically gathered and known for certain to exist, or it is presented as being physically referenced somewhere.

From studying the development of the instruments classed as being in some crucial way electric; gradually and appropriately instruments are tagged as being of a certain type, or like another but earlier instrumental design. All importantly, by looking for the links clearly defined types of electric violin can be seen to be evolving and are therefore becoming tried and tested. Broadly, these ideas range from violins being almost undetectably electric in appearance and sound through to bearing little resemblance to the still traditional and overtly classical violin in sound and design.

The starting date chosen is simply used as a point from which to depart. There are probably a number of forgotten people. The edges are blurred, even when considering today’s electric market. There are new makers being discovered regularly, some have made one-offs for customers and some players have built their own. The material presented here however, is a good cross-section view of the various types of bowed electric string instruments.
On 29 October 1965, the People section of Time Magazine quoted Classical Guitarist Andre Segovia, “Who ever has heard of an electric violin?”.
The context is scathing – Segovia quoted describing the electric guitar as an “abomination” and The Beatles music as “horrible”. On November 12, Kenneth W. Beckman President Invention, Inc. Washington, D.C. had a reply letter published by Time pointing out that there were “at least nine patents on electric violins”. Naturally there were those who missed or skimmed, unmoved over this point completely. Beckman could have referenced at least eleven electric violin Patents, or at least sixteen taking into consideration the other electric musical instrument inventions applied to the violin up to then. In fact, he could have cited over a dozen more if he included inventions used to electrically pick up the sound of the violin.

The individuals that made Beckman’s reply possible are the past makers of the first musical instruments that can conceivably be called electric violins. Since that exchange of words in Time, there have been as many inventions again at least for electric violins, and countless more for their associated technology. However, sparking real sustained and serious interest in electric violins in the Classical profession appears to have taken many more decades. Thankfully, the subject is becoming less of a surprising or novel/proposterous idea/thing to encounter and looks set to continue much in the same direction.

The market for electric violins is much stronger than it ever has been. These instruments are now manufactured on a scale never before achieved by the makers of the past. Electric violins have appeared in many, if not all major genres of music and an ever increasing number of people are to be found playing them. These things are indisputable and point to an unignorable fact. It seems that Violinists can not do without some kind of electric or electrified violin or device for their very real living and therefore survival.

The infamously fierce and physical altercations wrought about when Bob Dylan dared to switch his acoustic guitar for electric during tours in the Sixties are nothing compared with the sheer determination with which some in the past held on to the superiority of one violin over another. Many publications on Violin describe a “perfect” instrument; the “King of the orchestra”, and something that can not be improved upon. In terms of there being anything like any information on Classical electric violinists or luthiers, it is worth wondering whether progress in the Violin Family has been actively blocked? This thought can be sustained as there is a wealth of publicised documentation surrounding the furore surrounding the rapid spread in popularity of, for example electric guitars but virtually nothing on the history and development of the electric violin. Even less on technique. And just about nothing in terms of teaching it. Conversely, it may be equally true that owing to this instrument emerging so gradually over a whole century, the scant information available on the subject meant that for quite a long time many did not even notice the electric violin had even arrived. This aspect of the evolution of a musical instrument is not uncommon. Sadly though, to some today it is still an instrument that is not acceptably associable to Classical music. In the light of the wealth of information discovered over the past two decades however, such an opinion has obviously been been formed from just a mere glance at the surface of this fascinatingly broad and exciting subject; and, more likely held without conscious knowledge of the gaping hole in their own understanding of Violin. Tragically for them, “it” (the hole) is the most important bit and their likes, opinions and influence are now being swept into oblivion.

Makhonine Electric Violin from L'Illusration magazine, April 1930
Makhonine Electric Violin (L’Illustration magazine, April 1930)

A very early image found in the April 1930 edition of L’Illustration magazine shows a player with an electric violin pre-dating the now popular Yamaha Electric Violin by some 70 years, yet it looks so very much like the Yamaha…

Scan of Yamaha advert for the then new "Silent" Electric Violin c.1999
Yamaha “Silent” Electric Violin Ad (1999)