Although it is usually possible to add a pickup to a violin in order to amplify it, pickups are not always the best option for an electrified instrument and in this guide we’re going to look specifically at electric violins.
Electric violins have a few advantages over amplified traditional violins.
Firstly, they are extremely quiet when played unplugged so they’re very good practice instruments if you live in a flat or want to practice after the kids are in bed. Many of the cheaper instruments have built in headphone sockets and all of them can be connected to amplifiers with headphone sockets so you can play to your heart’s content without bothering anyone else.
Secondly, a big problem when amplifying acoustic instruments is that the have a tendency to feed back when played at high volumes, particularly when the player is moving around the stage. Electric violins are much less prone to this than an acoustic violin with a pickup so for stage and theatre work they work extremely well.
Thirdly, they look cool. Come on, admit it: you really like the way they look and no one will think you’re boring if you play an electric!
However, there is a huge range of electric violins on the market today, particularly when you look at what the internet has to offer, so making the right choice can be a little tricky.
The electronics in electric violins usually consist of a pickup built into or under the bridge, and a pre-amp that amplifies the signal from the pick up. The quality of these components is very important in terms of how the violin will sound.
A few models of violin, such as the popular Wav violin by NS Designs, are what is referred as passive: so they don’t have the pre-amp section. There is an advantage to this as there is no need for a battery to be included, but they really require an external pre-amp to get the best out of them.
The context in which the violin is to be used is really important in setting a budget and in what features to look at. If the violin is to be used on stage, it is important that it can be turned up loud without hisses, hums and other unwanted noises polluting the signal. This is the big disadvantage of the cheaper instruments, and a good reason to avoid the entry level instruments if the violin is to be used as a performance instrument. If the instrument is to be used mainly for practice and quiet home use then a cheap pickup is far less of an issue – and several of the cheaper instruments also include a headphone socket which is a big bonus for practice purposes.
The quality of the pickup and preamp also effect the quality of sound produced, with more expensive instruments sounding much smoother and less brittle than the entry level ones. A really annoying quality of the cheaper pickups is an audible click as you change bow direction: this is very obvious on violins in the sub-£400 category, and worth listening out for when comparing violins. Although the better brands are of a high technical standard, they still sound significantly different to one another and, just as you would expect a selection of traditional violins to tonally differ from each other, take your time and listen to the sound of the instruments when making a decision.
The key here is to make sure the instrument is going to perform well in terms of how easy it is to press down the strings and how well the instrument tunes up and holds its tuning. Even if the violin is being purchased as a fun thing for a relative beginner, if it is hard to play and won’t stay in tune it’s only going to discourage them.
So, a warning! Most new violins require a set up to get the best out of them – we do this on every violin we sell, electric or otherwise – but there is a level of manufacture below which getting them to play well is problematic. We won’t stock many of the entry level electrics (the ones with bodies shaped like letters or treble clefs are a good example) but we do have to work on them when brought in by customers who bought them online and want them made playable and they have a number of issues. The quality of the pegs is extremely poor, as are the adjusters on the tail piece, so tuning stability is not good even when adjusted as best possible. The bridges are again made from very cheap wood, poorly shaped and left way too high so they always need cutting down for the player to stand any chance of being able to play the instrument – and in some cases (including one very well known one) the neck angle is too shallow to be able to set the bridge low enough. We can’t stress this enough: make sure when you buy an electric violin that it comes set up and is fit for purpose!
Once you get over the very basic instruments, the playability is generally very good: there’s a lot less to get right in an electric instrument than there is an acoustic one! Some instruments use synthetic materials – most significantly the Ted Brewers with plastic moulded necks but also some models use a synthetic fingerboard – so it’s worth making sure you like the feel of that material under your fingers. My personal preference is for a traditional Ebony fingerboard, which feels familiar and is easy to maintain.
Designing an electric violin has the advantage of freeing the designer from the constraints of what works acoustically – but the instrument still needs to feel like a real violin!
Most but not all electric violin makers are aware that violinists develop their technique around the fact that the neck joins the body at a fixed point, so there needs to be something in the design to meet the left hand when playing in the upper positions. This is something to watch out for!
An important point for many of the designs on the market is that some require a custom designed shoulder rest that is supplied with the violin – examples of this are the NS Designs Wav and the Gewa Novita. This allows the maker to be more imaginative with the design but it means you don’t get to pick a shoulder rest that is particularly suited to you, so in those cases be sure that you have played the instrument and are confident that the supplied shoulder rest provides proper support. Other makers, such as Bridge, Skyinbow and Ted Brewer, allow the choice of any shoulder rest so if you prefer a particular shoulder rest (I’m lost these days without my Bonmusica!) that’s definitely something to consider.
The other ergonomic factor that often strikes me with electric violins is weight. Ideally you don’t want it to be heavy, as a heavy instrument is a recipe for bad technique and back ache. If it is heavy, then it’s doubly important that the shoulder and chin rest fit well and help to carry the weight. Some designs are better than others in this respect: the worst offenders are the cheaper solid body instruments and the lightest are the Bridge and Skyinbows which are on a par with a quality acoustic instrument.
A five string violin adds a low C, so you have the range of violin and viola in one instrument. They’re fairly rare as acoustic instruments as the violin is a little too small to produce a strong tone on the C string, but with electrics there’s no such problem so five strings are a little more common. They take a little adjusting to but it’s an interesting feature for a more advanced player. I wouldn’t recommend one to a beginner however.
This largely comes down to what you are using the violin for.
If you’re buying the violin for a youngster who already plays and has expressed an interest in an electric, I’d recommend something along the lines of the Hidersine HEV -1. The build quality is on a par with student instruments such as Stentors and Primaveras so when set up they are nice instruments to play, and they sound ok. We usually recommend in this context buying an amp with some different sound effects that the player can have some fun with, so high fidelity from the pickup is less of an issue and it’s fairly cheap at £185.
If you’re an adult player who is new to the violin and likes the idea of a silent practice instrument, the Gewa E-Violin is a great choice. It’s a well made instrument that sounds a little better than the Hidersine, and it has a headphone output so you can practice without an amplifier. It comes as an outfit with everything you need to get started so it’s great in that respect.
If you’re a more experienced player on a budget, the NS Designs Wav series are great value and credible as a pro level instrument. It’s a little heavy and it ideally needs a preamp but for a little over £400 it’s very good indeed. The Gewa Novita is also well worth looking at, a little more expensive but the preamp is active and you get a carbon bow and one of Gewa’s exceptionally good pro quality cases with it.
If you’re looking for a pro level stage instrument the Bridge, Ted Brewer and Skyinbow instruments are our favoured models. Bridge are made in collaboration between a UK workshop and Eastman Strings in China and make a very stylish, sweet sounding instrument. Ted Brewer makes all his instruments in-house in the UK and has an impressive roster of pro players using his instruments. Skyinbow are assembled in a remote corner of Scotland with some of the woodwork coming from the same Czech workshop that builds our Forsyth violins. They each have their own personality and it’s an individual choice which to go for, but they’re all very well made and well regarded brands.
We’re often asked whether electric violins need specialist accessories to go with them, and the answer is pretty much no: the bow, strings, rosin etc are just the same as for traditional violins. Some models require a bespoke shoulder rest as previously discussed and some benefit from having a case that is designed specifically for the model, but in those cases you get the items bundled with the violin. So essentially if you already have a traditional violin you’re good to go.
The other obvious question is how to amplify them – that’s a big topic and one we’ll have to save for another blog…
If there are any questions you want to ask or you’re interested in trying an instrument give us a call on 0161 834 3281 ext 606 and we’ll be happy to help.