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Electric violin

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This electric violin, made by Leo Fender in the late 1950s, has a non-traditional design.
This electric violin, made by Leo Fender in the late 1950s, has a non-traditional design.

An electric violin is a violin equipped with an electronic output of its sound. The term can refer to a standard violin fitted with an electric pickup of some type, or to an instrument purposely made to be electrified with built-in pickups, usually with a solid body.

Electrically amplified violins have been used in one form or another since the 1920s; jazz and blues artist Stuff Smith is generally credited as being one of the first performers to adapt pickups and amplifiers to violins. The Electro Stringed Instrument Corporation, National Valco and Vega attempted to sell electric violins in the 1930s and 1940s; Fender produced a small number of electric violins in the late 1950s. Larger scale manufacture of electric violins did not happen until the late 1990s.

Acoustic violins may be used with an add-on piezoelectric bridge or body pickup. To avoid feedback from the resonances of the hollow body under high amplification on stage, many instruments have a solid body instead. The timbre (tone color) of a standard unamplified violin is due in large part to these resonances, however, so depending on how the signal is picked up, an electric violin may have a "rawer" or "sharper" sound than an acoustic instrument. This raw sound is often preferred in rock, pop, and some avant-garde genres. Several "semi-hollow" designs exist, containing a sealed but hollow resonating chamber that provides some approximation of acoustic violin sound while reducing susceptibility to feedback.

Solid-body electric violins typically have a non-traditional, minimalistic design to keep weight down.

They are often seen as "experimental" instruments, being less established than electric guitar or bass. Hence, there are many variations on the standard design, such as frets, extra strings, machine heads, "baritone" strings that sound an octave lower than normal, sympathetic strings, and more, without even going into the many electronic effects used to shape the raw sound to suit the player's preference.

Acoustic 5-string violins exist, but it is much more common for an electric violin to have 5, 6 or 7 strings than an acoustic instrument. The typical solid body also accommodates the extra tension caused by more strings without stressing the instrument too much. Extra strings are usually a low C string for 5-strings, and a low C and high B or low F for 6, and a low C, F and B-flat (or high B) for 7.

Electric violin signals usually pass through electronic processing, in the same way as an electric guitar, to achieve a desired sound. This could include delay, reverb, chorus, distortion, or other effects.


Electric violins commonly use either magnetic or piezoelectric pickups. Magnetic pickups require the use of violin strings that have ferrous (iron-containing, as in steel) metal cores. A few single-coil guitar-style magnetic systems are available, and one unusual acoustic/electric violin system uses the strings as a linear active pickup element.[1] This circumvents the problem that the small body size and arced string arrangement of a violin often limit the amount of space available for coil placement.

Generally, piezoelectric pickups are more common. They detect physical vibrations directly, sometimes in or on the body, or in some cases actual string vibrations directly, but more commonly general bridge vibrations are sensed. Some piezo setups have a separate pickup (or two, or even four in the case of some Barbera Transducer Systems pickups) within the bridge under each string. [2] A few systems use transducers oriented in various directions to differentiate between bowed and plucked string motion.[3]

Piezo pickups have a high (capacitive) output impedance, and must be plugged into a high impedance input stage in the amplifier or a powered preamp (a charge amplifier is best). This buffers the signal to avoid low frequency loss and microphonic noise pickup in the instrument cable. Preamplification is often done by an external signal processor, but some electric violin body designs can provide internal housing for preamp circuitry.


Zeta electric fiddle similar to that used by Charlie Daniels

Although the violin is an instrument used extensively in classical music, electric violins are generally employed by classical performers only in the performance of contemporary classical music. The electric violin is more frequently used by non-classical musicians in popular genres such as rock, hip hop, pop, jazz, country, New Age, and experimental music. It is used extensively in folk rock; one prominent exponent in the area being Dave Swarbrick. It has also found its way into modern musical theater, a recent example being Whistle Down the Wind by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Tape-bow violin

Laurie Anderson's tape-bow violin, an electronic instrument developed in 1977, resembles an electric violin but does not have strings. It produces sound by drawing a bow, strung with a length of recorded magnetic tape rather than hair, across a magnetic tape head mounted on the instrument where the bridge would normally be. This anticipates the later technique of "scratching" in rap and hip-hop music, where a vinyl recording is turned back and forth on a turntable.

MIDI violin

In the mid 1980's, Zeta Music[4] developed a prototype violin for Laurie Anderson that, through the employment of a custom pickup and a conversion module, sent MIDI data, allowing the violinist to control synthesizers. This design was later refined and turned into a commercial product. While no other dedicated violin-to-MIDI systems have been manufactured, more generic pitch-to-MIDI systems like those from Roland and Yamaha can be adapted to use standard electric violin output. Most systems allow only monophonic operation—only one pitch can be detected and digitised at a time—but through the use of proprietary pickups, some limited MIDI polyphony can be achieved.

Notable artists who have performed using a MIDI violin include Jean-Luc Ponty, Charles Bisharat, and Drew Tretick.

External links

  • Bowed Electricity — website linking many electric violin players, makers, equipment, and other resources.
  • Digital Violin - A survey and review of the violin today, including patents, makers, players, recordings and technique.
  • Electric Fiddler: home for the electric violin player
  • Fiddle and Alternative Strings Forum — forum with large section dedicated to electric bowed instruments, effects and amplification.
  • Vector Instruments — Custom handcrafted electric violins, electric cellos & electric upright basses.
  • Barbera Transducer Systems — Multi transducer bridges for violin family instruments.
  • Bridge Electric — manufacturers of electric violins, cellos and basses with composite carbon fibre and kevlar bodies; based in the United Kingdom.
  • Electric Violin Lutherie — custom built electric violins and violas.
  • Jensen Electric Violins — Jensen electric violins, violas, cellos, and basses; for all stringed music styles; based in the United States (Seattle, WA).
  • Jordan Electric Violins — Jordan electric violins, cellos, basses and guitars; based in the United States (Concord, CA).
  • E. F. Keebler Musical Instruments — Custom-built "tubular" electric violins and violas; based in the United States (Wilmington, DE).
  • Ned Steinberger Designs - The developer of the "headless" guitar now focuses exclusively on bowed strings.
  • StringAmp string transducer unique string pickup system for professional users, and a USD$1 DIY piezo pickup for everyone else.
  • Violectra — "Violectra" electric violins, violas and cellos; based in the United Kingdom.
  • Wood Violins — electric violins and cellos designed by renowned electric violinist, Mark Wood. Utilise a unique chest support system.
  • Yamaha Silent/Electric Strings — Yamaha silent/electric violins, violas, cellos and basses.
  • ZETA Music Systems — "ZETA" electric violins, violas, cellos, and basses; based in the United States (Arizona).
  • Bowed Radio — podcast focusing on new music for bowed string instruments (particularly electric ones)
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