By Patrick Sullivan
It hardly made a sound when it entered the Japanese market 20 years ago. But when Yamaha’s Silent Violin came to America, things got noisy. Yamaha poured some two years and a lot of technical expertise into developing the instrument, which debuted in 1997. The company’s first electric violin, it was designed as a practice instrument that could be listened to through ear buds.
“The whole idea was that in Japan everybody lives 10 feet from someone else,” explains Ken Dattmore, Yamaha’s strings marketing manager. “That’s a challenge when a high-pitched violin can pierce through a thin wall.” Japanese musicians snapped the instruments up.
Then the SV-100 arrived in the United States.
“And Americans, being Americans, said, ‘Cool—a silent violin! Let’s plug it into an amp and see how loud we can make it,’” Dattmore says with a laugh. Sensing opportunity, Yamaha reoriented its electric violins for performance. Demand skyrocketed, and Yamaha developed a whole family of electric stringed instruments—from violins to basses—that now includes some of the company’s fastest-growing product lines.
Two decades later, some musicians see the Silent Violin’s success as having marked a turning point in the string world’s embrace of electric instruments. Julie Lieberman, director of the Strings Without Boundaries education program, says momentum toward the adoption of electric instruments had been building since 1927, when jazz violinist Stuff Smith lost his chance to tour with Jelly Roll Morton because he couldn’t be heard over the band.
Of course, players and teachers note the contributions of a wide range of companies and instrument makers in the development of the electric violin as a legitimate performance instrument, “but [Yamaha] did innovate in the area of string practice methods, with the [Silent Violin’s] headphone jack and a built-in reverb circuit,” fiddler Darol Anger says.
“Before the Silent Violin,” says Tracy Silverman, former first violinist of the Turtle Island String Quartet, “finding an electric violin involved rummaging in the odd-ball instrument corner of music stores, the back rooms of guitar shops, and better pawnshops.” The Silent Violin was available to a wide market, and became an accessible tool to players who valued it for both its silence, and its ability to plug in and be heard.
Yamaha has leveraged its company size and expertise in electronics to develop steady improvements in their electric instruments over time. Dattmore recalls going to a product-development meeting in Tokyo several years ago and meeting with a whole room full of wood scientists, acoustics experts, and electrical engineers. That meeting helped launch the YEV-104, an affordable performance instrument that took best in show at the 2016 National Association of Music Merchants winter convention.
“Before the Silent Violin, finding an electric involved rummaging in the odd-ball instrument corner of music stores, the back rooms of guitar shops, and better pawnshops.”
Despite Yamaha’s resources, the path to success isn’t simple. Unique challenges come with making electric instruments for the violin world, according to Yamaha engineer Shinya Tamura. “No one is seeking the performance of a classical guitar on an electric guitar,” Tamura says. “On the other hand, many electric-violin players have received a classical education, and in many cases electric violinists are seeking playability that is equivalent to that of conventional violins.”
The first Silent Violin didn’t always deliver the sound musicians wanted, in part because it wasn’t designed for performance. “People would call and say, ‘Hey, I bought this silent violin, and when I plug it into an amp I get distortion,’” Dattmore says with a chuckle.
Yamaha responded by producing the SV-110 and then the SV-120, which had better electronics and a 1/4-inch screw-on adaptor plate to help players connect to amps (the SV-100 had only a 1/8-inch headphone jack). For later versions, the 1/4-inch jack was built directly into the instrument. “You just plugged straight into it, and that led to a lot less interference from things like fluorescent lights,” Dattmore explains.
As demand rose, the company started segmenting its instruments. Some were designed largely for silent practice, but could still be used for performance. Others were optimized for performance. Then some seven years ago, Yamaha rolled out the SV-250 and 255, powerful instruments designed for professional musicians. Lindsey Stirling, for example, has four SV-250s, each customized in different colors.
Over these two decades of development, one key challenge was creating a more natural sound. “In the early days there was an electric sound that was accepted,” Dattmore says. “But as time went on, people wanted a more acoustic sound.”
Weight was also a problem.
“We knew we had to make them lighter,” Dattmore says. “In the beginning musicians playing onstage would just reach for the electric for a couple songs. But as we developed a more acoustic sound, they didn’t want to have to switch.”
But heavy use of a heavy instrument leads to back aches. So when Yamaha made the SV-255, the company put the electronics into an external control box. “That made it as light as an acoustic instrument,” Dattmore says. The SV-250 also features a hollow chamber, which reduced weight and allowed a body of air to vibrate inside the instrument, giving it a more acoustic sound. Moving to better wood has also improved sound quality: Yamaha started to use spruce and maple, in place of cheaper woods like alder.
All along, the company has focused on one important design principal: making instruments ergonomically compatible with their acoustic equivalents. “We believed the crucial factor would be to create a playing feel similar to that of a traditional violin,” Tamura says. “The challenge was to think about designs and choose materials so customers can feel the traditional violin shape.”
Indeed, says Dattmore, “You could superimpose an acoustic instrument over any of our instruments and all the touch points would be there.” The goal is to allow a seamless transition from electric to acoustic. That’s especially important in education. “You don’t want kids switching back and forth between two very different instruments,” Dattmore notes.
This year, Yamaha came full circle with the release of the YSV-104, a newly designed silent violin. “We wanted to go back to our early years and make an instrument just for silent practice—but make it better,” Dattmore explains. The new Silent Violin is quite a bit lighter than previous models. Musicians can plug in an MP3 player and practice along with any kind of accompaniment. They can even change the size of the virtual room they’re performing in to get a sense of different acoustical environments. “We’re 20 years down the road, and the technology is there to be much better,” Dattmore says.
But Yamaha is also continuing development on the performance side, aiming to optimize instruments that can compete with guitars and hold down the stage at the Hollywood Bowl.
“It’s all part of the natural evolution of the violin, which has required design improvements that produce a bigger sound in different settings, from the chamber to the concert hall to now huge stadiums,” Dattmore explains. And Yamaha will continue to contribute. “As much as it’s grown, there’s still so much growth and maturity yet to come in the market,” Dattmore says.