From left to right: Gand&Bernadel acoustic violin; 1958 Fender Electric Violin to custom build ART-VF4 violin
Acoustic to Electric to Digital Violin

Still working on finding if copies of these instruments exist

Paul Benioff, July 2000

This is a detailed work on the subject of electric violins and is made freely available as possible for good reason. The time this project has consumed is some testament to the scope of study yet to come. This is the story of the electric violin deliberately set out so as to be expandable – more links, connections and updates made gradually over time. By doing so the world wide web of facts relating to the development and use of the acoustic, electric and digital violin might more easily be found to benefit than it was to gather together. This is not only why every effort has been made to distribute it freely in this way. Presentation as a paper publication in 1997 revealed a genuine need for this work; considerable growth in interest was found when it was published online in the year 2000; by 2015, the market for these instruments has grown and establishments have opened their doors.

At the outset of this project there was no single publication on electric violins. There was and still is genuine interest in a work of this kind. At times facts turn up completely by chance; others the results of long-winded processes of logical, lateral or random thinking. Although the violin as a musical instrument still has millennia of new music to explore, like other violins of former times the traditional, classically acoustic violin no longer copes with the demands of the day. That statement is not attached to works on Violin but is here.

The actual objective, material evidence of this work is the instrument that made the transition from acoustic to electric violin. This work must surely assist in locating more significant and as yet still unexplored musical instruments. Each uncovered example will be different as every active electric violinist should or knows already. For makers and manufacturers of electric violins there are still no laws regarding design or manufacturing technique beyond the final product having four strings and being a strong enough structure not to break in performance. There is nothing new or novel in that. The finer details of design and essentially feel of some instruments are complex, involving lots of uncommon names, significant correspondences and offering many alternative approaches to electric violin playing, uses and effects. A Violin is still a Perfect musical instrument but how many people really ever hear the highest-quality violins truly acoustically?

There are very few publications containing any detailed information about electric violins, even detail of the broader concept of electrified or amplified violins – who first developed them, who plays them, what has been recorded and most crucially, what about technique? Discussion amongst violinists and other musicians on the subject of electric violin or other bowed electric instruments tends to be at a very basic level around such questions as – how does it work and is it the same as a violin?

The electric violin is a much older subject than generally imagined. If the Internet had not been so publicly available in 1995 research would have continued as a tiresome search through libraries, second-hand book-shops and unsolicited cold-calls; the people directly involved in the story of the electric violin may have remained hidden. The Internet marks when the point of this work became obvious. Fact is, digital violins are upon us and threaten to sweep away the poor old electric violin before any exploration has been made of this violins full potential.

Electric keyboards and electric guitars are manufactured and taught on a large scale around the world. Examinations can be taken, degrees and diplomas awarded by a wide range of educational establishments offering to provide information about these modern instruments. In addition, there are many music related courses that can be undertaken with supporting publications devoted to electric guitars, keyboards, the physics of sound and music and most other aspects of music technology.
But somehow, somewhere along the line, electric bowed instruments were lost. Perhaps this information is well hidden, as closely guarded secrets… conjuring up images of closet electric violinists frightened to come out, frightened to expose themselves to The Critics!

That there is such a large list of manufacturers is not as strange as it first seems as the same people who are credited with having made the first electric guitars also made electric violins, violas, cellos and basses. The bowed electric string instrument is effectively and officially antique. So why have bowed instruments not developed in the same way as other instruments? Ever since creatures first evolved the ability to create sound there has been experimentation and progress to facilitate better communication. Vibrating vocal cords, percussion, vibrating reeds and strings have all been used – so why not sound created by advances in physics and sound technology? True the first instruments seemingly left a lot to be desired with regards the quality of sound reproduction, there was a similar reaction to the first violins. No doubt the Luddite traditionalists of that day fought a vigorous rear guard action to prevent alien sounds and shapes being introduced then. The new violin was not the same as its predecessors: the new electric violin is not the same as the traditional acoustic violin, it is a different instrument with different sounds, different techniques and a different potential to develop in different ways. It is an additional instrument with its own enormous potential, not a pseudo violin. However, today the electric violin is not generally understood as being acceptably Classical enough. It has not been granted First Study status.

Electric violinist as a profession barely exists. Lots of people play electric violin but the common list of Professional players included Electric Strings as a category only as recently as 2011. Until then the idea was rejected. There have been too few electric-violinists accepted by the traditional establishments. The profession of electric violinist, unlike more traditional acoustic violinists or fiddlers is poorly documented.

Playing electric-violin is almost like playing the ‘opposite’ of a violin, if such a concept can be imagined. There is a whole New World of strangely ‘violinny’ sounds which some have neither heard nor dreamed of, sometimes producing startling and startled reactions. With modern physics, modern technology and old fashioned musical daring to challenge the new; the potential for creativity is almost without limit. Musicians should dismantle boundaries, not create them. The greatness of the past can never be challenged nor should future genius be limited by tradition. Imagine what Mozart could have achieved with today’s technology. Imagine what we would have lost if centuries ago instrumental development had been stifled. This is what we risk losing in the future and on the surface of the topic of electric violins appears to already be lost. On the whole, the Conservatoires and Colleges dedicated to Music ignored, misunderstood or actively blocked this instrument. But now the tide is changing and the freshness of the electrified bowed string is receiving the attention it deserves.


This work is concerned with the violin during the twentieth century, taking as its starting point the mid-nineteenth century. It is not complete nor can it ever be. There are always going to be other sources to search but, as the core subject matter of this entire work is virtually unexplored, a start however amateur had to be made. The only surviving earliest instruments, if there really are any before those documented here are probably not allowed to be played being important scientific objects. Either that or they are not good musical instruments merely being the experimental prototypes on the familiar journey of perfecting the violin. Not much has generally been known about the origins of electric violin… hence should nothing be said?

Perhaps the musical establishments accept the challenge of the new – it is not sufficient to simply not block, but needs to be encourages and room made for what is different. Generalised and sweeping statements on the grounds that this is too new or not connected with “your” world are simply wrong. Here is all the proof you could possibly need. And if this work is wanting in any specific area, why have you not once challenged the argument. The advance of music in any era is dependent on whether the establishment of the day allows, ignores or condemns that which is different. Historically, establishments have not done well! There appear to be cases though where possibly in times of greatest need the establishments have simply been left to their own devices and swept aside.

Chronological order is the main structure in presenting this work – if any one individual is proved to have been left out or misplaced it is not an effort to sway towards a particular event or uphold any previous conception, it is only through human error. Unbiased, tending only towards that which fits logically into the whole picture of the history of musical instruments…

From Paganini to the Digital Age…

By Brian Benson
Paganini, by Brian Benson

As we read the story of invention it is wise to remember the ‘once upon a time’ when all things had their beginning. Only thus do we realise that we are kin with our earliest ancestors and understand that it is mainly in the advantages we enjoy that we differ from the cave man”

Bridges, The Book of Invention, 1925/34

In a time of huge change in the Western European view of the world; the Romantic Period and the Century of Industrial Revolution; the age of the Virtuoso musician and Telecommunications; a door closed on the dark and silent past, opening to a better future. Telegraphy, Photography, Phonography; new ways to instantly capture and share the world; seen and heard anywhere; combining in the multi-media forms used by billions around the globe today.


The story of the electric violin begins with Niccolo Paganini, the Italian genius of violin. He played his own music in entirely his own way on musical instruments by the greatest Italian luthiers. He inspired future composers and players to imagine anything capable with a violin and bow, or any instrument for that matter. Paganini also played and later traded what are now thought to be the finest and becoming priceless violins. Stradivarius and Guarnerius, the greatest names attached to the history of the violin, made instruments that are the most valuable, prize possessions, and are sought after by the best players the world over. Despite wide belief that they are brilliant musical instruments made by genius, these same musical instruments have been taken apart, analysed, changed and put back together again. It was thought that they could be made better and again they can.

From initial inspiration in invention, to the audience’s reaction, the general development of musical instruments is for an expressive capacity offering the best musical experience. The violin improves in line as all musical instruments do. Personal taste decides what music you play or listen to and now; electric instruments are part of the orchestra.

What instruments are used has always mattered, whether noticed or not. Comparing pianos and organs of two hundred years ago with the same instruments as they are today reveals significant change. For instance, pianos have an increased range and use metal frames. The organ utilises electrical methods of operation for both the mechanics of the keyboard and control of airflow. In any case, there are those who think something is lost in transition and those who adapt, are better suited to or prefer the new. Moving away from the debate of old, new, mixing the two or not; the point is the violin has changed.


Paganini represents the pinnacle of an era. As a Classical Violinist he was and is the best, equivalent to the idolised super star today. His most legendary tours were rammed full at every stop. Any mystery surrounding a so-called “Secret” to his phenomenal success never solved, just argued away over the years as less than more than likely. He shot in to the public’s heart through skill, charm and some eccentricity. The story of his life is incredible. Victorians loved him, flocking to see him play. He was a revered master of the violin, striking terror or pleasing in equal amounts just about whenever he played. His biography becoming doubly interesting, considering that a major milestone in electrical science appeared during his lifetime. The only musical aspect that has not changed since Paganini or before is that music is acoustic. Electricity facilitates music to be heard where without it would not. What, when and wherever the music is, the transmission from player to audience exists in the vibration of air molecules. In purely acoustic terms players cause airwaves to be sent out in to the environment they are playing in. Electricity is an ideal medium to transmit these minute impulses, even over distances of thousands of miles. The art of violin remains undisturbed, everything else changes.

By the glaring media standards of today Paganini led an extraordinary life. His image appears in cartoons, pictures, and paintings and on coins, as well as a famed faked photograph. Such was his popularity people walked the streets whistling his tunes and singing rhymes about him. It was a great story and it caught on fast. But future generations are left guessing at much. Technology did not capture Paganini’s voice or performances. We have no more information beyond the printed word and image. If he had lived just fifty years later we would probably have the extra dimension of knowing what he actually looked and sounded like. Incredibly sadly, that is left to our imagination. This is the story of the electric violin and there are pictures, records, films and real life people involved. When Paganini grew up no one beyond the most brilliantly minded people had any idea what a battery would do. Magnets were spooky and curious, electricity trickery. Although pure speculation, those attending the first displays of the new science of electrical and magnetic laws probably credited either God or the Devil. Paganini too was thought to be an Angel or Demon.

Paganini lived right through a time when the world quite suddenly awoke to electricity. He also lived in a time of discovery, revolution, new establishments and laws. Paganini was extremely talented and grew up as a young boy in dangerous times of French and Italian revolution, particularly unpleasant for the aristocrats and anyone who even knew the wrong person. Fortunately he was adored by masses and somehow lived an outrageous life into his late fifties. Again speculation, but it is unlikely that he would have been able to miss the new word in the news. We can only wonder whether Paganini took any inspiration from new scientific wonders. At the point of frustration and endless staring at the unknowable void, the famous names, lives and influence of the scientists Oersted, Ampere and Faraday are jumping to and from their field, in to and out of music. There are boundless footprints to study here. This is where the first tremor of electric violin is noticeable.

Italy in the late 18th Century was an unsettled place. The French fought the Austrians in the north and Paganini’s birth town of Genoa experienced a siege by Austrians from land and English from sea. Living away from the town in the country meant he escaped the battles. He was very lucky and so are we. Doubtless much was lost. Unbelievably however, in amongst the carnage of this period many great instruments and important musical manuscripts survived. The Museum of Genoa holds Paganini’s Guarnerius (del Gesu) violin, made in 1742 and named by Paganini as “The Cannon”. It is well known that the violin at this point in time was already an instrument with a considerably long lost past. The earliest violins were already two centuries old and the best Italian workshops had produced instruments understood by many as perfect. Catching the moment to wonder at a historical fact, nobody can ever know what these most famous acoustic violins sounded like then. Paganini embraced the changes Stradivarius and Guarnerius had made to their master’s instruments and chose to play relatively young violins. The violin had caught on in a big way; the public loved the sound and music it made.

Design development before a successful electric violin was made continued mostly unseen for well over one hundred years.

…the further one probes into ancient history, the more one loses oneself and strays along uncertain paths. Much of that history is based on doubtful foundations and indeed one finds much therein that is more fabulous than probable.

– Violin Playing, Leopald Mozart (1787/1963)

The electric violin may have a misty start, but it did start. Roots lying deep within other seemingly unrelated subject matters. The first electric telegraphs were invented in 1816 and although the violin was used in some of the first experiments in examining electricity, there are no records of an electric violin existing at this time. Paganini was 34 years old and was coming to the end of an unexpected two-year lull in his career. He put his newly bought 1724 Stradivarius violin in the care of his Genoese banker and took his Guarnerius on a tradition collapsing concert tour. Paganini never played an electric violin but he is the best description of the complete electric violinist. A player, who dazzled, leaving reviews of concerts where people passed out, gasped and swooned. He must have made a connection with his audience that created an electric atmosphere.

Significantly, Paganini raised questions. For some, belief in the system of violin technique stopped at the first publication of his “24 Caprices” in 1820. For others it stopped when they saw and heard him play. His compositions confounded experts and showed a new vision of possibility. To the minds of others they were a musical torchlight. These pieces are cherished dearly as they are rejected for theatrical tricks. In the violinist’s musical education a circle is often drawn around this composer; in many respects the music is ignored. Some violinists push themselves to physical feats of amazing dexterity; minds fuelled by inspiration or sheer desperation to be just like Paganini. But Paganini only ever performed his own music in public. Meaning, learning his music is one thing; originally coming up with it is impossible. A composer who is also violinist is quite uncommon in the acoustic violin profession. It is more of an electric phenomenon today. A luthier-composer-player is not unheard of either. The electric violin then has raised questions too.

When Michel Faraday announced discovery of electromagnetic induction in 1831, Paganini was hugely famous, a Knight of the Golden Spur, ranked with Mozart. Both Faraday and Paganini were creating excitement in their separate fields of expertise. Music has always been quicker to promote than new scientific discoveries. Paganini’s marketing was good and he travelled far and wide ensuring something of the real person was known beyond the myth. He played the circuits and shot to fame. He had conquered Europe but his health was not good. He endured many hazardous, horse-drawn journeys; he took drugs bought on the street and paid the ultimate price. He was an infidel too, in hiding with his lover Antonia Bianchi and their illegitimate child, Archilles. His second? He was alive, when Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke took out their first joint patent in 1837 for the Electric Telegraph. This new technology changed the way news could travel. Communication technology was at the break-through stage of Morse code. The word was about to find a new way in which it could be uttered, captured and made to travel. Morse Code was still in use pretty much as invented until the end of the twentieth century.

The rapid spread of telecommunication technology took place after 1840, too late for Paganini. He died horribly sick, tormented and barely noticed. His shelf life as an active performer severely curtailed through his slow but fatal illness. People learnt that information in the form of electricity travelled much quicker than by any other means. In terms of human discoveries, the widespread acceptance and interest in electricity is a remarkable one. All sorts of uses are still being found. Huge chunks of the population completely rely on electricity in the form of extensive telephone exchange networks. The human mind has conceived that any point on the globe is a reference and can be reached instantly through transmission of electrical flux. The laws of electricity have boundless applications yet fundamental points. The proof is in reading the news headlines coming from another country on the same day announced, or when speaking to someone through a mobile telephone. Electricity is amazing. Entrepreneurs seized communications technology and the first attempts at making a physical, electrical connection to America started in 1857. From conception through application to results, the leap was dramatic. The first successful Atlantic Telegraph was completed to wild excitement in July 1866. Just a few decades later and the world of wireless technology would throw yet more possibility at brains already sizzling on electrical ideas.

A means and way of combining energy, magnets and electricity with violins was just two steps away. The first would be the invention of the pick up, the second to design the violin in combination with the pickup. These two steps took many decades and the electric violin finally appeared in the early 1930s only to be blitzed. The Depression in America, World War Two and Nuclear bombs were much more important news. In keeping then with the rise of the violin from the Renaissance period, at first the electric violin was found in dance bands. The first electric violinists were Jazz musicians. They and all the best dance bands used electrical amplification. There are many photos of the most successful and great fiddlers playing up close to microphones, or seen with pick ups attached to their instruments”.

From here the story of the electric violin is much easier to be told. The main source is from recordings, much is found on-line. There are now many violinists who choose to play electric. There is a rapidly growing market for electric violin. Is it not just a viable instrument nowadays, but possibly the only choice?