E-Violins Broaden the Minds and Opportunities of Many
by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio
An annoyed grimace spread across my conductor's face upon hearing a Bach concerto played with crunchy distortion in the band room before an orchestra rehearsal.
Expecting to find a headbanger guitarist mocking the establishment by shredding away at a time-honoured classic, his fury slowly melted into a pitying look of concern and loss, as if inside his head he was thinking, “Dear God, there goes another one.” My dad had bought me an electric violin and I was making heads turn with my heavy variations on the classics.
My new violin made it possible for me to be regarded as cool by my peers, even though I was still playing music by dead guys with wigs. My very expensive [Zeta Strados Modern] model even had five strings, which made it more of a violin/viola hybrid, the low range being perfect for raunchy power chords and guitar-like riffs.
Despite my conductor's fears, the arrival of the e-violin did not mean the end of my classical playing, though it did make me humbly aware of the huge proverbial iceberg of music that lay hidden beneath Beethoven and Mozart.
The electric violin made it possible for me to play in heavily amplified situations free from a fussy microphone and a clumsy mic stand and completely eliminated feedback. Word got out that there was an electric violinist at school and I played in all sorts of bands, from country to heavy-metal, jazz to pop and disco to swing.
I soon discovered this violin wasn't limited to playing in loud venues entirely. My violin became very useful in studio situations where consistent levels, tone and timbre are required. No microphone is needed here, so engineers don't have to fuss to get the mic in the exact same spot every session and the room doesn't have to have good acoustics. I just plug in my patch cable directly into the main mixer and play, leaving reverb and levels up to the engineer.
Forget the noises of passing trains, cell phones and even the player's breathing into the mic wrecking a good take. This gal stomps to the beat, playing free from headphone or isolation booths, and chatting it up with the engineer between solos. And since some electric violins are designed to sound exactly like an acoustic violin rather than a “bowed guitar,” the end result sounds unmistakably like a regular, old-fashioned violin.
Granted, there are things you can do to tweak your violin into sounding quite unlike a violin. I plug into an effects box and play with chorus, reverb and distortion effects. Better yet, some companie make a synthesizer that converts the violin's analogue signal to MIDI.
Jargon aside, with this tool you can make your electric violin sound like anything from a trumpet to a Chinese gong or any other sound imaginable. With more features than I can list, this gear isn't cheap, which explains why I'm still stuck in analogue mode.
Which brings up cost: Even though electric violins have no acoustic body, there is still a vast difference between low and high end models. Don’t be swindled into buying a cheap $150 “instrument” from anyone, no matter how nice the thing looks in the photo.
Remember that you get what you pay for and electric violins, like any new technology, have become a market for suckers. You wouldn’t buy a $150 stereo system, why’d you buy a $150 instrument and amp? Such “bargains” sound nothing like a violin, feedback terribly when amplified and never last very long due to cheap components. Just like acoustic violins, you’re better off saving up for a good violin rather than throwing good money after bad.
It’s worth getting a fine electric violin just for the looks you get from other players! I’ve always enjoyed the double and triple-takes I get when I play my violin anywhere. I also reserve full bragging rights when speaking to other electric violinists. Denis Letourneau, one of my violin idols, has a green one- of-a-kind Thompson violin, “Green Dragon.”
As a year-end treat I bring my "e-violin" into lessons and teach my students about reverb, distortion and the concept of studio recording. Shocked faces, similar to the aforementioned expression of my former conductor, meet the music as concerned parents witness their children creating gruesome variations on their lesson songs.
“I've created a monster,” I say to myself, knowing these parents will be inundated with requests for an electric violin in the car on the way home.