by Joe Deninzon
The past three decades have seen a seismic shift in the string world. The general public’s increased awareness of electric-bowed stringed instruments used by mainstream artists, the multitude of emerging string camps focusing on eclectic styles, and more conservatories offering string programs in non-Classical genres have all changed the game.
As an active electric and acoustic violinist, and contractor in New York for 20 years, I see a new era of career opportunities emerging for string players. You can still make a living teaching, playing in orchestras, and chamber music, but here are ten tips to help make you more employable and thrive in this new, ever-changing landscape:
1) Learn to Improvise & Read Lead Sheets
Often, producers and artists will hand you a lead sheet and expect you to come up with your own parts on the spot. Being able to read lead sheets and chord charts is also an essential skill. Learning to improvise, especially over moving chord changes, will carry over into everything else you play. It will open up opportunities to play a wide variety of gigs.
This does not happen overnight. Take lessons, find as many playing opportunities as possible, and don’t be afraid to sound bad at first. I also recommend attending string camps by Mark Wood, Mark O’Connor, Christian Howes, Mike Block, Julie Lyon Lieberman, and others.
2) Immerse Yourself in New Styles
Learn as many different styles as you can. Focus on one genre for an extended period of time, immerse yourself in the music of its masters and memorize five songs a week in that genre. You can’t show up to a jazz gig playing with classical vibrato, or playing chromatic bebop licks with a country band. Explore different musical dialects and know when each one is appropriate.
3) Plug In
While knowing how to play both violin and viola is a valuable double, it is becoming equally advantageous to be able to amplify your instrument and play electric. The fastest way to do this is to invest in a pickup.
There are two kinds of pickups: removable and permanent. A permanent pickup consists of a transducer, which is installed in place of your bridge, and connected to a wire leading to a 1/4″ jack, which you can connect to an amplifier through a 1/4″ cable.
If you are concerned about this affecting your acoustic tone, consider a removable pickup. These consist of a wire leading to an input jack, but instead of a bridge transducer, the pickup can be found in a clip that attaches to your bridge, or a band that wraps around your instrument.
Once you’ve chosen a pickup, a pre-amp is crucial. This enables you to fine-tune the frequencies of your sound, acting as a buffer between your instrument and the PA system or amplifier. You can get a decent pickup/pre-amp combination for around $300.
4) Get an Amplifier
There are many situations where you will have to provide your own amplification.
You can have the best sounding instrument in the world, but a poor amp can sabotage that sound entirely! It is truly an extension of your instrument. Go to any music store and compare different amps with the EQ (equalization) at a flat setting (12 o’clock). The less you have to adjust the EQ to get a warm sound, the better. Take your time shopping for an amp, like you would for a good instrument.
5) Get a Solid-Body Electric Instrument
As people become hip to electric stringed instruments, the novelty factor is wearing off. With increased awareness, comes increased demand.
Unlike acoustic instruments with pickups, solid body electrics cannot be played without an amplifier, because they don’t contain a hollow chamber to resonate the sound. They have built-in transducers that run to an amp or PA.
6) Know Your Cables
I recommend purchasing the following cables:
- 1/4 inch
- 3-prong power cable for amp
- Aux 1/8″ cable with a female to male 1/4″ adaptor for plunging in a laptop/iPad to a speaker if you are playing along with tracks
These things are second nature for guitarists, keyboardists, and bass players, but new to string players. Know your gear and come prepared!
7) Explore Effects
Having an electric instrument with an extended range opens the door to a plethora of sonic colors! The four effects I recommend purchasing first are delay, wah, chorus, and distortion/overdrive.
Another option is a multi-effects processor, which contains hundreds of sounds you can program and save. Also look for apps and software like Bias and Istomp, which allow you to store multiple effects on your laptop/table/smartphone, and trigger them with a remote footswitch.
Effects are not gimmicks, but an extension of your instrument. The goal should be to become familiar with each sound and use it tastefully in clever, musical ways. This takes practice and trial and error.
Show up to low-risk gigs or jam sessions and experiment with different sounds. Start a band and write your own compositions using effects. Utilizing these sounds will work them into your vocabulary.
8) Get a Loop Pedal
I use a loop pedal in many situations, including solo performances, private lessons, and clinics. A loop pedal is an essential performance tool and practice aid, and is more fun and challenging than playing with tracks. Looping enables you to isolate a particular harmony to practice soloing over, and forces you to build an arrangement from the ground up—creating the rhythm, bass line, and harmony.
9) Go Wireless
Owning a wireless system is essential for playing with rock, pop, hip-hop, country bands, or DJs. Many gigs will require you to run around and work the room!
10) Learn to Record Yourself
These days, musicians worldwide can exchange audio files and collaborate without ever meeting in person!
Many artists want a string section on their recordings, but have limited budgets. With a laptop, a good microphone, digital audio interface, and recording software, it’s possible to record solo or layered tracks for your own compositions or clients hiring you for jingles and original projects.
As musicians, we have to educate ourselves and adapt in order to survive. The business is changing, but the work is there. If you invest the time to learn new skills, a world of opportunities will open up for you!
3 Reasons to Invest in a Solid-Body Electric
- Electronic effects on these instruments sound clearer and there is less chance of feedback.
- Many are built with 5, 6, and 7 strings. Having the extended range allows a violinist to explore viola and cello territory and play power chords and bass lines.
- They have cool designs and look great on stage!
Joe Deninzon is a freelance violinist/composer/string contractor based out of New York. He is a member of the Sweet Plantain String Quartet and the progressive rock band, Stratospheerius. He holds a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies and violin performance from Indiana University, and a master’s degree in jazz violin from Manhattan School of Music.