By Cristina Schreil
For many musicians, the bond between player and instrument can resemble love at first sight. For eclectic violinist Tracy Silverman, the relationship is more unusual—more of a home-renovation project.
Initially inspired by his passion for rock ’n’ roll, Silverman plays a six-string electric violin. “I’ve been building six-string electric violins for myself and commissioning luthiers to build them to my specifications since the early ’80s when Mark Wood helped me with my first instruments. Every time I decide to build a new one it’s usually because I’ve found something about my current instrument that I want to improve,” Silverman says. He estimates he has at least 20, in various stages of development, in his possession. All are what he considers to be “semi-hollow.”
Improvements over the years are in pursuit of specific sound wishes: “My theory of an electric violin is that I want it to be less resonant than an acoustic so that it responds evenly to distortion, but more resonant than a solid body so that it has some real tone and sounds great all by itself—plugged in, but without any EQ, effects, or distortion,” he says.
Silverman spoke about the two main “axes” he always has in his specially made double case: his main violin built by Nashville-based luthier Joe Glaser, and another by Los Angeles–based luthier Danny Ferrington. “Since I play an unusual instrument, if something happens to it on the road or if I break a string onstage, I can’t just borrow someone’s acoustic violin, so I always bring a spare.”
Please tell me about your violins.
The older instrument in my case is the second instrument built for me by Danny Ferrington, who is a legendary guitar maker in L.A., in 2003. The first one he built was a sort of prototype, and we then made some significant changes to the second one. The neck and tailpiece were later rebuilt by Joe Glaser in Nashville. I was using Danny’s first instrument, the prototype, as a spare, but the two instruments felt so different that I decided to have Joe Glaser make a replica of the second Ferrington in 2016, so I could easily switch from one to the other. And, of course, we made a few minor improvements. The Glaser instrument is now my main axe with the Ferrington as the spare.
What are they made of?
I have maple on the top and very thin plywood on the back. It’s the reverse of a regular violin that has a softer spruce top and a harder maple back.
What’s the concept behind that switch?
The first one, the prototype Danny made, was a spruce top—more like a traditional violin—and we felt that it was too soft. And then, he went to this harder one, and we kind of went somewhere back a little bit in between for the last one Joe made.
What was the initial lightbulb moment many years ago that led you to develop this new instrument?
Well, it came simply from the fact that I wanted to sound like an electric guitar—I just wanted to sound like Jimi Hendrix. And so, I started building these solid-body instruments initially with Mark Wood. I was playing pretty much exclusively distorted with those instruments, using a real crunchy amp sound for hard rock and metal and stuff like that. Over the years I expanded my range musically. Of course, I’m initially a classical guy—a Juilliard guy—but I kind of went pretty deep into rock ’n’ roll and playing rock clubs for years, pretty much exclusively. And then I started developing semi-hollow instruments that would sound better with a clean sound, a more acoustic kind of sound. So it’s kind of been a development process.
What gifts do your violins bring to your playing that hadn’t been found in other instruments?
They feel very solid and even, a good balance of warmth and presence.
What are your violins’ personalities and temperaments like?
I don’t get too much into the personalities of instruments; to me, they’ve always been tools. I’m trying to build a better paintbrush, basically. I think it’s very different for classical players. I got to play a del Gesù a couple of years ago that somebody was trying out. I picked it up and I was like, “Oh my word! This is what everybody’s talking about.” It was just love at first down bow. But you know, these are my tools that I’ve made myself. [Laughs.] It’s a different relationship.
Can you compare your two main violins?
Well, the thing is they were actually designed to be as close to twins as possible. I wasn’t really looking for two instruments with two different personalities—I was trying to clone one. But of course, making a few little adjustments and fixing things and trying things. The Ferrington instrument is a little harder wood and it’s a little bit more focused a sound, a harder sound, you might say.
One thing I really wanted Joe to change is I have a cutaway on the upper bout on the Ferrington. It looks cool as hell—it looks like a mini Stratocaster. It’s a beautiful design; Danny’s got an amazing eye for design and shape. I love the look of it. But, when you go to the high positions, you use that upper bout as a location device, and so having that cutaway was not real practical for more classical John Adams and Terry Riley kinds of concertos, where you need to nail some of those upper positions. So Glaser’s has that rounded, more like a traditional violin. So, that was one thing I wanted to correct. But other than that, we more or less cloned it. We tried a slightly softer maple on the top and it has a little bit warmer sound, a more diffuse sound.
You mentioned del Gesù. Do you lean toward a richer sound?
I do. And I do in terms of electric-guitar distortion—I have a lot of the same problems that guitar players have in that I obsess over tone. I love Santana’s really warm sound and after going through a million different amplifiers back in the old days when I was trying to really figure out what would work for me, I ended up discovering that MESA/Boogie just had this distortion that I loved and it wasn’t until after that I discovered it was what Carlos Santana was using. There’s definitely a sound to an amp or the guitar when it comes to electric instruments—so much of the tone is not actually coming from the guitar. A lot of that is coming from the kind of tubes that you’re using. It becomes a much wider palette of things that can affect the sound.
Do your violins perform better in certain situations?
No, they’re pretty darn consistent. They are surprisingly responsive to changes in temperature or humidity. I would think an electric instrument would be more stable in general than an acoustic, but it can be hard to keep in tune if the temperature onstage is substantially different from the temperature in the dressing room.
What are their strengths and limitations?
With these last two instruments, I feel like we’ve achieved a good balance in many senses: There’s a really good resonance balance—the ability to get a good, natural acoustic kind of sound out of a piezo pickup while also having the stability to play with distortion. That’s because there’s a good balance and evenness of tone from the low register, which is almost to the bottom of the cello range, to the high end of the E string. That is something that may seem fundamental, but it took many years to find that balance: to make the bottom end clear, with both low end and definition, to sound rich and not muddy, while the top end is warm and clear but never sounds shrill. For many years it was hard to find the compromise that worked.
The limitation of all electric instruments I’ve played is the dynamic range. It’s because it’s a piezo pickup going through electronics and speakers and not just air being moved. It’s a little frustrating, but in general there just isn’t as wide a range to work with between soft and loud. So you make up for it in other ways. But, it’s the one aspect I really miss, especially from great acoustic instruments. They just seem to keep on giving.
What is an unexpected way that this type of instrument has inspired your compositions?
I was just thinking about this the other day. I was writing something and went from a clean sound to distortion and I reminded myself of something I discovered really early on when I first started using distortion: You play completely differently when you use distortion.
You have to because of the way the overtones work. The physics of it ends up making you do different things with your bow and with your left hand to help mute the ringing. Certain double-stops, like fourths or fifths, may work well while others, like thirds or sixths, may not.
Also stylistically, when you hear it sounding like distorted electric guitar it tends to make you—at least, me—use a different vibrato. I go into my electric-guitar dialect. And with an electric instrument you can sound like any amp you choose, add any kind of effect to that, from harmonization to delays to distortion. It completely changes what you’re going to play. It’s like playing a different instrument. So you write very differently, you play very differently, and you get used to responding to different effects in different ways.
If given the ability, what would your violin say to you if the two of you sat down for tea (or any beverage of your choice)?
It would be bourbon and it would be something like, “Haha, can you believe how much my G string dropped in the middle of the second movement?”