Q: I want to buy an electric violin and I’m wondering if it really matters what the violin is made from. Since it’s electric, do different woods make it sound different? Also, some electric violins are more expensive than others—what is the difference?
—Rachel Kern, Blaise Kielar, founder of Electric Violin Shop, responds:
A: Just like an acoustic violin, an electric violin is more than the sum of its parts. With an acoustic, it is not just the spruce and maple used for the violin’s body and neck, but how carefully they are crafted that makes the difference between an instrument that sounds great and one you’d rather not play.
With an electric, the quality of the pickup element affects the tone more than the material of the body. If you consider the cost of a good, reliable pickup on top of the expense of making a decent violin body, you can see why it’s so hard to find an inexpensive electric violin that you will enjoy playing. Expect to pay at least what a good beginner acoustic violin would cost.
To get amplified with minimal investment, get a good pickup (around $100 for a Kremona or Fishman V-100) to put on your present violin, and you’ll have money left over for an amplifier and maybe an effects pedal as well.
With an electric, the quality of the pick-up element affects the tone more than the material of the body.
Once you decide to spend between $500 and $1,300 on an electric violin, you’ll find that the electrical components sound good, are reliable, and you can focus on the differences in feel and shape of the body, the pickup, and the materials of construction.
Many models use traditional woods, like spruce and maple, but a skilled electric-violin maker can make acrylic or Kevlar/carbon fiber sound very woody. Because tone is really good across many brands, the instrument’s appearance is a matter of personal taste. Do you like a bold, modern design, perhaps in a bright, non-violin color, or one with traditional curly maple on the top (instead of the back, like an acoustic)?
All of this applies to electric viola, cello, and bass, too, although there are not as many body shapes or colors to choose from (yet!). In the cello and bass world, first decide if you need all the contact points of your acoustic instrument. If not, you can get a sleek shape with no upper bouts, like those from NS Design, which are more portable.
At the handmade, artistic level, you will notice subtle differences in tone based on wood choice and body shape. Just as with fine acoustic violins, there is an appreciable difference in how each one feels. There is no one “best” electric violin.
The great news is that the price of the finest electric violins is far below what you’d pay for a fine traditional violin, or even a custom electric guitar.
There are some real beauties starting as low as $2,000, and you’d have to work hard to spend over $4,000 on a four-string (five-, six-, and seven-string models are more expensive). For a first electric violin, most musicians choose a four-string because it feels like an acoustic. If you want the deeper sound of the viola C string on your violin, consider spending the extra time getting used to having five strings on your bridge (the bow angle changes if you get a five-string).
The amp you choose will have more influence on your tone than the construction of your instrument. For instance, if you use an electric-guitar amp, chances are you will get a shrill tone that will make your skin crawl.
Why? Electric guitars use magnetic pickups, which have a different impedance than the piezo pickups used on violins, so plugging a violin into an electric-guitar amp will make the violin sound hollow and shrill. However, there are good-sounding acoustic amps that work well for violin, available in all price ranges, from under $100 to over $1,000.
Overall, judging all the wonderfully creative electric violin designs is like comparing apples and oranges. You pick your favorite based on what flavor suits you. We live in the golden age of the electric violin. Take your time and talk to a knowledgeable retailer of fine electric instruments, and pick what calls out to your musical muse.
Blaise Kielar is the founder of the Electric Violin Shop in Durham, North Carolina, which specializes in electric violins, violas, cellos, and basses. electricviolinshop.com