David Bruce Johnson’s Violectra Is Meant to Feel and Sound Like an Acoustic, Even If it Doesn’t Look Like One

Though he is best known for his Violectras, each instrument he makes is unique

By David Templeton | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

“I enjoy what I do greatly,” says David Bruce Johnson of Moseley Violins in Birmingham, England, who’s developed a popular style of electric violin that is as gorgeous and eye-catching as it is pleasantly clear and distinctive to hear. “Each instrument I make is kind of unique,” he says, noting that his shop produces traditional acoustic instruments in addition to electric and electro-acoustic models. “I particularly have enjoyed my Violectras,” he says, naming the instrument for which he’s become best known. “I enjoy the whole customization process, working with musicians, incorporating their ideas. Everything I am doing with the Violectra has been quite customer-led.”

The Violectra is a series of striking, skeletal-looking electric instruments. Violins and violas are available in four-, five-, and six-string models, and cellos have either four or five strings. Johnson has made a number of four- and five-string vio-basses as well. The Violectra, explains Johnson, follows a specific equation for achieving sound, a process of putting string tension over wood, causing the wood to vibrate, thereby amplifying that interaction. In offering additional strings, which increases the string tension, Johnson presents players with a wider array of performance possibilities.

Violectra Violin
Violectra Violin. Photo courtesy of David Bruce Johnson

“When I first began designing the Violectra, I was responding to what I was being told people needed,” Johnson explains. “What makes them different from other electric violins is that they are based on the dimensions of an acoustic violin, so a player who’s been accustomed to acoustic instruments can pick one up and be immediately comfortable with how it functions and feels. They can start playing and gigging with it right away.”

When custom building a Violectra, Johnson generally offers to take measurements of a player’s existing acoustic violin and match those dimensions when making the new instrument. “A lot of people take me up on that,” he says. “Especially if they plan to be switching back and forth between their acoustic and the electric. This way, they both feel basically the same.”

Blue 5-string Violectra Violin
Violectra 5-string Violin. Photo courtesy of David Bruce Johnson

Johnson’s Violectras—of which he estimates he’s built about 240 so far—have been commissioned by some of the most famous and active musicians in the world, including French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, who purchased a sea-blue six-string in 1997. He informed Johnson that within six months it had become one of his “main instruments.” The American-Canadian classical violinist Leila Josefowicz plays a six-string Violectra based on a 1724 del Gesù, and the late folk musician Dave Swarbrick of the Fairport Convention—who started playing his Violectra in 1992—called the instrument “the Rolls-Royce of electric violins.” Other clients include American rocker Kaitlyn Hova, English violinist and violist Nigel Kennedy, the London-based quartet Stringfever, and Europa String Choir violist Cathy Stevens.


Advertisement


“Leila Josefowicz doesn’t use a shoulder rest,” Johnson says, “so I had to adapt the Violectra so it wouldn’t have the lower corners. She had a del Gesù for me to copy, so I met her in London, and she had the instrument for me to measure. That was a great day. Working with people like that, customizing an instrument to their needs, you learn so much as a maker, if you can keep an open mind and genuinely enjoy customizing instruments for players, which I very much do. I like to work with people’s best ideas and make them a reality.” 

red Violectra 6-string Violin
Violectra 6-string violin. Photo courtesy of David Bruce Johnson

Born and raised in southern Ontario, Canada, Johnson began his journey to violin making in college at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. It was 1975. After initially attempting to enroll in the school’s photography program, he learned that all of the photography classes were full up. As an alternative, Johnson was offered woodworking instead.

“It changed my whole life, really,” he says. “That’s where it all started for me.” 

Once he’d learned his way around a woodworking shop, Johnson—whose grandfather on the paternal side was a craftsman and whose grandmother, also on the paternal side, was a musician—decided to try making a musical instrument. His first was a guitar.

Jean Luc Ponty with his Violectra 6-string violin
Jean Luc Ponty with his Violectra 6-string violin. Photo: Tony Lipomi, 2008

“I eventually made about six guitars,” he estimates. “School was such a good experience. I learned so much. Afterward, I went back to Ontario, and I built guitars in a workshop I had in the cellar, as many people do in Canada. I enjoyed it. Making musical instruments seemed to bring all of these different parts of my background together.”


Advertisement


Taking his new passion to the next level, Johnson moved to London in 1978, where he studied for three years at the Institute of Musical Instrument Technology. “On my first day of school in London, I went to the violin teacher and said I wanted to make a violin, and she said, ‘Well, maybe you can start in your second year,’” recalls Johnson. “So, I started it in the evening class. I used the students as my tutors quite a bit. And I had 24-7 access to the work studio, which was good.”

Though it was not until his third year that he completed the project, the finished violin clearly turned out rather well. “That violin got me a job right out of school,” he says. “Somebody offered me work as a violin repair person based on that first violin. That was great, and so that was the path I followed after college.”

Nigel Kennedy playing Violectra violin
Nigel Kennedy

In 1986, after working in shops in Beaconsfield and Birmingham, he opened his own business. He soon began experimenting with approaches to electric bowed instruments, and in 1992 he produced the first Violectra violin.

Given Johnson’s initial education at an arts college, it’s no surprise that he has always had a strong sense of design. “I learned early on to look at things closely and try to understand what I am seeing,” he says. “When the idea of the Violectra came around, it was sort of a combination of my artistic abilities and design skills with my music-shop understanding of what musicians wanted.”


Advertisement


The distinct look of the instrument is a large part of the appeal of a Violectra, which—given that Moseley Violins is a small shop and a busy one—can take a year or so for a custom order to be completed. Carved from maple, then stained or dyed to enhance the grain of the wood or adorn it in bright, shiny colors, Johnson’s Violectras have to be seen and heard to be fully appreciated: true works of visual art in addition to functioning as modern machines of music making.

David-Bruce-Johnson_High_Res_Workshop4709-Dan-Burwood-Photography-2023
David Bruce Johnson in his workshop, Dan Burwood Photography, 2023

“The colors and shine and look of the instrument are part of the customization process, letting people choose exactly what they want,” says Johnson. “It’s funny that, because of the vividness of the colors, a lot of people don’t think they are made of wood, assuming they are molded or made of metal. One player wanted a purple violin, which she thinks is the only purple instrument of its kind. I’ve found that often what’s popular in cars is what people ask me for in their instrument. People have actually shown me pictures of cars and said, ‘I want this color,’ or have brought in jewels for us to match.”

Each instrument Johnson makes is created as a one-of-a-kind item, and he takes the practice seriously. Among the characteristics of a Violectra that he is proudest of is its pure sound, which often surprises people. “I try to make my Violectras sound like an acoustic violin, which is one of the things that people are not expecting,” he says. “They see it, and they don’t see a soundbox. They see a hollow skeleton, so they don’t think it will produce a sound like what one thinks an acoustic violin sounds like. With amplification, of course, you can modify its sound with effects and things. I’m always happy when people tell me how much they like the way my instruments look, but I always love it when they say how much they enjoy their sound. 

“For a violin maker, it’s such a wonderful thing to hear.”