What is your first association with the violin? It’s likely of priceless antique instruments being played in grand orchestra halls. Though this scenario certainly does exist, the world of the violin is much more diverse. Contemporary musicians use it in electric and acoustic forms, with string, pedal, and amplification choices to create memorable performances and stretch the boundaries of its sound in the studio.
If you are a beginner looking to start playing with a venerable and dynamic instrument, or even if you are an experienced violinist looking for new tools and tricks, there is much to consider and explore.
Acoustic vs. Electric
Hugh Marsh, known as Canada’s leading improvisational violinist, has diverse experience ranging from film scores to working with Iggy Pop. Combining the violin with electronics and new processing techniques is one of his hallmarks. His choice of violin and string types are both aligned with the goals he has for the final sounds produced.
I haven't really touched an acoustic instrument in 30 years. I have four 1970 era Barcus-Berry violins that I've played since then. I became interested in the electric violin and processing very early on in my career. I use Piastro Obligato's and Chromcor's but, to be honest, I choose them because of how they feel under my fingers. I tend to use a lot of processing so the natural sound of the string is disguised. I do love how they feel however.
Composer and international performer Anna Phoebe combines influences as diverse as classical, rock and roll, and Eastern music. She uses both acoustic and electric violins, depending on the context and desired tone. She enjoys electric for touring and its flexibility to produce unique sounds.
For my electric, I love Sensicore. I got sent a whole lot to try out when I was first touring and have been using them since. For the acoustic, I’m currently using Pirastro Evah Pirazzi. They have a lovely, rich, even tone and they hold their tuning well. They were the ones on the violin when I bought it and I like the broad tone.
For my acoustic/electric I’m still experimenting - I always used Pirastro Eudoxa but when I ran out and stuck on a Sensicore actually I really enjoyed the clean tone of the metallic string. I love my six string Violectra violin - its toured all over the world with me, including in arenas around the USA when I toured with Trans Siberian Orchestra to touring with Roxy Music in 2010. It’s pink (one day I’ll grow up and get it resprayed!) and it’s just a lot of fun. I recently used it to record some crazy effects on my brother’s new album. (He’s the singer in a band called Wolf Gang.) The two extra bottom strings are C and then F so it goes really low.
Phoebe still has a place in her heart for the acoustic violin, and finds that it takes well to both her performances and various modifications.
I love my Pfretschner acoustic violin - I use my acoustic more for recording or playing at home. My fondest memory has to be playing with Jon Lord (of Deep Purple) in his music studio when I first started working with him - him on his beloved grand piano and me on my acoustic violin - a magical memory for me. For gigs I have my old acoustic I’ve had since childhood with a Realist pickup that goes through an LR Baggs DI - and then either straight into the desk or through a few effects pedals, depending on the music. It was Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull) who persuaded me to use my acoustic more during gigs rather than just the electric.
Performance and Modification Needs
What you will be playing and how you will be playing it can influence instrument choice and modifications, such as strings. American singer-songwriter and rock violinist Antonio Pontarelli came from a musical family that gifted him his first violin at just four years old. His advice on the acoustic vs. electric debate is to consider the sounds you want to produce.
Presently, I practice, play, and record with my acoustic violin in most cases. My live performances are with my electric violin as mic-ing an acoustic is difficult for my on-stage moves. Recently, I’ve been trying Yamaha’s bridge pickup for my acoustic, which, in my opinion, produces the best violin sound. There was a time when I experimented a lot with electric violin and guitar amps that produced a distorted sound that was very different from the acoustic. Since then, however, I’ve grown to prefer the sound of a traditional acoustic violin in the context of modern music.
Consistency can also be an issue - remember this when choosing violin strings.
I prefer the sound of gut strings, but unfortunately, their fluctuating intonation makes it difficult to record multiple takes and harmonies.
American violinist, performer and composer Lindsey Stirling was known as the “hip hop violinist” during her turn on America’s Got Talent. She has an active concert style that influences her instrument selections. Stirling advises others to consider both the sound you want and the conditions you will be performing in.
My first electric violin was a cheap Yamaha - it was terrible! I eventually purchased an acoustic Roth violin, which I LOVE, and started using an LR Baggs pickup. Honestly, I feel like the amplified acoustic violins get the better sound. I took my Roth on my first tour but realized that the accumulation of perspiration over several months of performing was taking a toll on my beautiful instrument. I invested in a Luis and Clark carbon fiber violin (an excellent instrument), and that is what I normally play while on tour.
Acoustic has a better overall sound. For practicality purposes, or if you like being able to manipulate the sound, electric is the way to go. As for beginners, I recommend renting-to-own. If you don’t prefer the rental you have, trade it in until you find one you really like.
Keep an Open Mind to New Technology
International orchestra and chamber violinist Viviane Hagner was given her first violin at age three. Though she performs in the venerable arena of classical music, she is a supporter of both new music and new ways to perform it, including her string choices.
I choose the strings for their sound qualify (and not the other way around). The strings I currently use are medium-strength synthetic with a bit of added titanium. As string manufacturers are constantly developing new types of strings, it is an ongoing and exciting process of experimenting with new (combinations of) strings.
Emmy Award-winner and founding musician of the Trans-Siberian orchestra, Mark Wood, has taken new developments for the violin into his own hands by creating his own instruments.
I’ve built up an international rock violinist career that encompasses being one of the founding members of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, touring and performing with Billy Joel, Celine Dion, Kanye West, and more. I won an Emmy award for music and I invented the first solid body electric violin in the early ‘70’s. I’ve been referred to as both the Jimi Hendrix and Les Paul of the violin world by international media, and I own and operate my own company that manufactures electric violins around the world, Wood Violins. I personally play a 7-string fretted Viper electric violin, my own patented design.
Even if you are not buying one made by him, Wood encourages violinists to select a violin that truly speaks to your unique needs.
Always look for quality of craftsmanship, originality of design, excellent tone, and innovative elements. I truly believe that whatever instrument inspires you should have a soul to it. There are many “boxes with strings” out there but, after 30 years of experimenting, I’ve come to the conclusion that whichever instrument you play must ignite your deepest creative potential.
Judy Kang is a classical violinist, composer, and producer with many modern influences. She has played since age four, and recently performed with Lady Gaga on her Monster Ball World Tour. In some aspects of her performance she has made changes, but other gear choices remain consistent.
I started out playing acoustic and more recently, in the past four years, I began to play on an electric by Mark Wood. It's called a Viper. I love it. It brings a different angle and element to playing but also relates on many levels to an acoustic. I have always used Dominant strings with a Hill E. I felt comfortable with this set and never really experimented too much with anything else. I think it's definitely dependent on many factors: instrument, tone, and personal choice. I like a deeper, warmer quality in particular, so I felt content enough with what I was using.
Kang believes that playing the violin, or any instrument, can help us make connections, both internal and external.
I definitely believe that being a musician - amateur or professional - adds much creativity and life to one's world and to each other. I believe that it is something that resonates with our senses and even deeper: our soul. Playing an instrument is a powerful weapon of sorts.
For Beginners First Picking up a Bow
Grammy-nominated classical violinist Jenny Oaks Baker has sold more than a quarter of a million albums, has performed internationally and served as a musical competition judge. She started her violin journey as a young child, and wishes that more children had that opportunity.
When I was younger, it was my mom that really made sure I practiced every day (except Sunday). Her commitment to consistent, effective practicing, along with excellent teachers and probably an innate musical gift, enabled me to excel at the violin from an early age. Once I could see that I was good at the violin, the desire to keep working hard at it started to come from within. I have always loved performing, so I was willing to work hard practicing in order to be able to perform. It is an incredible thing to be able to share good music with people, and be a part of them hopefully experiencing something grand and incredible.
When choosing an instrument, Oaks Baker considers it wise for beginners to enlist the help of experts.
I think it is hard to choose a violin unless you really know how to play a violin. So, it is helpful to enlist the aid of a professional musician, like a teacher, unless you are nearly a professional yourself. It is also helpful to play a lot of different instruments and pick out your favorites. Then have trusted people with good ears listen to you play your three to five favorite violins while they close their eyes. Have them tell you which one has their favorite sound. Then have your teacher or other professional violinist play the violins while you close your eyes, and see whether you come up with the same favorite. If so, buy it!
It does not have to be a Stradivarius to stir your soul, but some consideration of your recording and performing goals will help you to find the right violin setup. This esteemed instrument is only limited by your imagination and the creative work you are willing to put into it.