By Blaise Kielar
From amplified praise bands in large churches to string players in Broadway shows to those sitting in with a local rock or bluegrass band, today’s string player needs to be comfortable with electric instruments and the related gear. If you remain specialized in acoustic music, whether classical or trad or otherwise, your job opportunities are not as wide. In addition to learning technique and classical repertoire, the new string fluency includes playing electric.
Begin your amplified string journey by considering these questions.
1. What Do I Want It To Feel Like?
Given that most electric instruments (not counting the cheap ones that are sold all over eBay) are made with the same dimensions and contact points as your acoustic instrument, you should not have to change the geometry of how you hold your instrument or bow. Most electric violins and violas accept a shoulder pad or come with one as part of the design. Most electric cellos and basses come with an endpin, but some also allow a shoulder strap so you can dance around as you play.
2. To Bout or Not to Bout?
Your most crucial body choice is whether you need the upper bout or can find your way up the fingerboard without it. Also known as the shoulder, the bout is the part of the instrument your left hand maneuvers around to reach the high positions. On electric violins and violas with removable (or no) upper bout, octave leaps and wild improvisational slides can be done without bringing the left elbow forward. About half of cellists and bassists find it too different to not have the familiar lean of the body available as you go into thumb position. Others love the feeling of liberation you get from not having to get around the body to play high up the neck.
3. Can I Get a Customized Setup?
Although most electric violins play okay as they come from the makers, most benefit from a careful shop adjustment. Just as with a new car, the dealer performs essential services to make your ownership more enjoyable. Such details as string height and bridge curvature can often be finetuned to your taste. On some models, you can change your own bridge height with a screwdriver.
4. What Do I Want It to Look Like?
If you want to look traditional, choose an acoustic-electric instrument. A transducer bridge or pickup is mounted on an acoustic body, and the only way to tell you are electrified is by the cable trailing off the instrument. If you want to leave no doubt that you have gone electric, you can venture off into many different body shapes, from smooth and rounded to angular and skeletal. Despite their appearance, all the standard contact points and geometry are preserved. And pick a color: red, gold, blue, green, black, white, purple, even pink! Those who want maximum stage impact can go for a glitter finish or an acrylic electric violin with flashing LEDs.
5. How Do I Want It to Sound?
Given the sensitivity of electric instruments, you’ll find it much easier to project your subtlest nuance of expression to the audience. Most of the better electric violin makers have engineered their instruments to produce a tone very close to an acoustic violin. However, your tone production is now colored by your amplifier, so be sure to choose a compatible amp. An effects processor allows you to add reverb, distortion or other innovative sounds, and some connect to your computer for recording.
6. Five Strings—or More?
An electric stringed instrument has one huge advantage over an acoustic: the pitches it reproduces are not limited by body size. Since an amplifier converts the signal back into sound waves, pitch range can be extended in several ways.
Although having five strings is usually associated with violin, it’s now common on viola, cello, and bass as well. Having a C string on a violin, or an F string on a viola or cello, allows you more performing flexibility—like playing power chords or bass lines. With a fifth string, you’ll have to relearn your bow angle over the bridge, so approach cautiously if your focus is on classical music.
Or consider choosing a six- or seven-stringed instrument, or extended-range strings. Strings are available to tune a violin an octave down or even the same pitch as the cello. The seven-string electric violin goes to B-flat below the cello C string. Because the bridge curvature is so extreme, in some ways it’s easier to get used to than a five string. You will not lapse back into four-string bowing habits!
7. Is This for Performance or Private Practice?
Most solid-body electric violins are even quieter than an acoustic violin with a heavy metal practice mute. You will not disturb neighbors in the next room. If you get one with a headphone jack, just plug right in. For designs without a headphone jack, just connect to an amplifier or an effects processor, and plug the headphones into them. In either case, the headphones will reveal every detail of your playing, especially useful for working on clean bowing and tone colors.
The electric violin family truly takes its acoustic siblings into new territory. The style, ease of playing, and unlimited new sounds will challenge you to reinvent your playing style(s).
Enjoy the adventure!
Looking for more in-depth information about buying an instrument? Try Strings’ Your Dream Instrument.