By Karen Peterson | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
His energy as electric as his violins, Mark Wood has been on a mission to disrupt the most venerable of musical traditions since his first day at Juilliard, when he discovered that innovation was not part of the string curriculum—and neither was the music that had ignited the fire in the fingers of this classically trained then-violist. Hard rock. Heavy metal. Eddie Van Halen.
Especially Eddie. “He was a heavy metal virtuoso,” says Wood, reverently, of one of rock’s greatest guitarists. Wood was there when the late Van Halen guitarist astounded audiences with the explosive “Eruption,” an insanely nimble, revolutionary display of plugged-in licks, riffs, and melodies—everything an inventive string player like Wood could admire.
Of the violin as we’ve known it, “there’s been nothing new since the Stradivarius 400 years ago,” scoffs Wood. Seeing and hearing Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” solo onstage was the genesis of what has defined his music and professional life for the past four decades.
“His opening notes came from Étude No. 2 by [French violinist and opera composer Rodolphe] Kreutzer,” says Wood of the performance, then exclaims, “That was my music.”
As Wood saw it, there was “a modern-day Paganini” playing the guitar like him, a classically trained musician who was taking on the traditional canon and artfully distorting it to fit a new time and culture—just the sort of experimental musicianship Wood was pioneering. All he needed was the right instrument.
“There was nothing out there for me,” says Wood. So, he did what he had to do: designed and built his own electric instrument, one that better fit his aesthetic. There were numerous attempts, some fanciful. One resembled a space-age vacuum cleaner; another used a cast of his arm as ground support.
But the challenge was readily accepted by the Emmy-winning Wood, whose upcoming performances will delight fans with an electric violin rimmed with strobe lights. His instruments are a part of his all-around mission to inspire creativity and empower players who may not see a future in the traditional concert hall, especially up-and-coming musicians who attend his summer music camps, participate year-round in his music education outreach, and consider him an icon.
In the end, the solution appeared in the form of the Viper, today Wood’s bestselling, fuel-injected “violin with wings.” He also describes the Viper as a “tripod on a body.” And it’s reminiscent of the Gibson Flying V guitar.
Everything about the Viper, from its explosive sound to its original metallic blue body—all of it to Wood’s delight and direction—is anathema to the strictures of the past. He suggests that traditionalists would see “blasphemy” in his creation, not art or a crucial expansion of the violin’s range and cultural reach.
The Viper, says Wood, “is the vehicle for my imagination,” and was, in fact, designed to match his physical exuberance. Like a guitar, the Viper allows a player the freedom to leap—literally. Among the famous players attracted to the Viper: Rachel Barton Pine, when she played with thrash metal group Earthen Grave. It disbanded in 2014.
Notably, the Viper is also designed with ergonomics in mind, Wood’s empathetic nod to the needs of the player’s body—and a godsend for those who have suffered the neck, back, and shoulder injuries that plague string players. Wood includes testimonials on his website from string musicians who have picked up the Viper after years of pain—and played for hours without incident. “The Viper frees up the body,” Wood says. “There’s no tension; the left hand is relaxed. All is in balance.”
Today, nearly 40 years after its inception, the Viper is the signature instrument in Wood’s portfolio of electric violins, which includes the semi-hollowbody Katana, the asymmetrical Nashville, and the entry-level Stingray. He also has a line of acoustic-electric instruments known as the Concert Series.
From his earliest years, Wood followed a family heritage that includes both playing classical music—he and his three brothers were a professional string quartet—and also fine custom woodworking. As an example of his enthusiasm for the lutherie trade, in a video on his website, Wood eagerly introduces the wonders of the millworker’s dream machine: the computerized CNC, a state-of-the-art “machining” center that can mill, weld, grind, lathe, and rout just about anything.
For Wood Violins, it cuts a perfect Viper silhouette from sheets of poplar, his material of choice. “It is light and feathery,” he says of poplar, “but with just enough density, which is critical.”
Wood points out that, aside from the CNC silhouette cutting, Vipers are handmade in America. On Long Island to be exact. Pre-pandemic, Wood Violins produced around 200 instruments a year; this year he’s looking to return in full force. “It was a hard time,” says Wood of the pandemic. Two of his seven luthiers died of Covid-19.
There’s another name for the Viper, the “floating violin,” which refers to Wood’s clever, patented “chest support system.” The support system is also the primary ergonomic feature of the Viper—it frees the arms, body, neck, and head to move unencumbered. The head is not tilted to hold the violin; the arms dangle until needed; the core faces straight ahead.
The wrap-around system, in structure similar to a baby sling, consists of a paddle that is nestled comfortably under the left arm and holds the Viper upright on the shoulder. A strap attached to the instrument is then wrapped around the player, back to front, and attached to the right wing.
The same ergonomic attributes extend to the Viper’s fingerboard. Just under ten inches in length, it boasts dual frets to introduce players to chords and inverted dots to help with string fingering positions. Both are low to the surface so as not to be obtrusive.
But the primary bonus is its line-of-sight positioning: The fingerboard moves with the body, like an appendage. The player’s head remains upright. There is no neck crunching required for bowing.
Many things set the electric violin apart, like an amp (Wood offers a proprietary model on his website); machine tuners, not pegs; and, on the Viper, up to seven carbon steel strings, the sixth and seventh included by buyer request. The first five strings add a viola C to the four-string violin range; six and seven return deeper sound. In total, the seven-string Viper allows for six octaves. Tuning, using the viola C, is A-E-D-G-C-F-B flat. The added strings were tricky. When he was finalizing the Viper, strings weren’t readily available for the three he added, in diameter 27, 32, and 34 mm, respectively. The solution came by way of John Cavanaugh of Super-Sensitive Strings, now part of D’Addario of New York.
The extra strings were added by Wood to give the violin a range similar to the piano and also to provide “something supersonic.” “A seven string is a race car” compared to a traditional violin, assures Wood. That extra oomph out of a violin made waves when Wood settled on the final design: Electric violinists “are very competitive with guitarists. But once I got to seven strings,” Wood says, “guitar players were sweating.”
Picking up the Vibes
Building a Viper would be a futile exercise without pickups, which convert an instrument’s vibrations into electrical signals. The traditional guitar pickup “picks up” the magnetic vibrations of the strings; a piezo, embedded in the bridge of the Viper, picks up the vibrations of the string and the instrument.
Without pickups, the Viper, like all electric instruments, would sound tinny, if there was any sound at all.
Wood offers two configurations. His Tru-Tone piezo pickup bridge is used with the five-string model. An exclusive design, the bridge-based pickup allows the player to “get the full strength” out of the instrument without interference from body-movement distortions.
For the extended six- and seven-string Vipers, Wood calls on the Barbera, a multi-piezo bridge with a pickup for each string manufactured for the Viper by Rich Barbera of Staten Island, New York. Barbera pickups offer a “warmer, full fidelity,” says Wood. “You are essentially able to squeeze the juice out of every note.”