If you’re a rocker at heart, or you dig other nonclassical styles, you may find the sound you’re looking for in electric, or electronic, violins. Folk, fiddle, country, and rock players use these violins to get power and projection, along with a more strident tone that can hold its own against the guitars and percussion.
Blues violinist Stuff Smith was one of the first performers to try using an amplified violin sound. Although electric violins were available in the 1930s and ‘40s, they weren’t universally popular until the end of the century.
Electric violins are cool, but if you’re a beginner, start off with a traditional acoustic violin. Then, when you’re a more experienced musician with solid playing techniques, you can add a pickup.
Adding a pickup (also known as a transducer) for your regular acoustic violin gives your violin that rocking sound. The pickup is a small, metallic gizmo, about the size of a fingernail, that’s usually wedged on the side of the bridge. The pickup takes your sound vibrations and converts them into electric signals that are augmented through an amplifier.
The input jack (better pickups have a1/4‐inch jack) attaches to the side of your violin, just to the left of the chinrest, and even uses a similar kind of bracket to attach to your violin. You can buy a very inexpensive pickup for as little as $10, or a quality pickup for $200 or more.
Some pickups (called active pickups) are battery‐powered and feature electronic components inside. These components turn your sounds into signals for the amplifiers, although active pickups are usually reserved for electric violins. You don’t have to use an amplifier that’s specifically made for the acoustic violin, although it gives you the best sound. A keyboard amp is fairly well adapted to violin sounds, and a guitar amp may work as well.
Classical players tend to prefer microphone pickups, such as the Shure, which is truer to natural sounds. Jazz and bluegrass players prefer piezo pickups for more stable output. Any musical instrument with an acoustic chamber, such as your violin’s bodacious body, may encounter feedback problems (high‐pitched shrieks or crackly noises) from all the reverberations.
So if you don’t have a really good amplifier to use, you need to use a pre‐amp too, such as a Fishman Pro EQ‐2, after which the violin sounds fine with an average‐quality amplifier. The transducer, a neat little device, filters out extra tones, keeping the sound clear and distinct.
Check out the websites of these fine companies for more information about available products:
If you want to have a fully electric instrument, violin models are available without hollow acoustic chambers.
These electric models, which usually look a bit like the outline of a traditional violin, have virtually no sound when played unamplified. In these violins, the piezo transducer typically does its work from under the feet of the bridge, to pick up the reverberations of the violin sounds.
Piezo is a crystal composite, sensitive to mechanical pressure, that can “translate” the sounds into various electric impulses. Electric violins are available from many major manufacturers, including Yamaha, Fender, and Zeta, and they retail from about $300 for a basic model to over $2,000 for a very fancy violin.
You can use your regular violin bow and strings on electric violins.