What to Consider Before Buying an Electric Violin

Electric violins are a fun and creative way for a player to try out new styles of music and experiment with sounds and gear. All the fun stuff guitar players get to play with — looping, delays, wah, distortion, and other effects — are available at your fingertips. And, because there are no microphones to deal with, there’s no mic bleed or troublesome feedback to ruin your amplified adventures.

The popularization of the electric violin began in the last half of the 20th Century, when pioneering violinists like Jerry Goodman, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Don “Sugarcane" Harris brought the instrument into jazz fusion and rock.

Today, electric violins can be heard in every genre, with pop players like Judy Kang and Lindsey Stirling, R&B and hip-hop maestros Damien and Tourie Escobar, the country fiddling of Dixie Chicks’ Martie Maguire, and the symphonic rock stylings of violinist and Wood Violins founder Mark Wood.

How Electric Violins Are Different

Like the difference between acoustic and electric guitars, the biggest difference between an acoustic and electric violin is how sound is created. Whereas an acoustic violin gets its sound from its resonant wooden body, an electric violin is equipped with pickups, which means you’ll have to amplify the signal through a guitar amplifier or sound system.

Electric violins are typically made from harder materials, have a solid body (or very little body at all), and little or no cavity. Therefore, the “color" of the sound is not dependent on the body of the instrument as it is for acoustic violins.

The drastically different design means that you have to play the instrument differently to get dynamic changes. Putting pressure on the bow will not change the volume or tone the way it does on an acoustic, and therein lies some of the most challenging and fun parts of playing electric. To get volume swells, you’ll need a volume pedal, and to get different timbres, you’ll need effects.

Selecting An Electric Violin

Unlike acoustic violins, whose sound and feel are known to vary widely from instrument to instrument (even when made by the same luthier), electric instruments tend to be more consistent between brand and model. This means that if you try one Yamaha YEV-104 and then buy a different one online, they should sound and feel nearly identical.

Yamaha YEV-104 Electric Violin

But when it comes to choosing which actual model to go with, there are definitely some things to take into consideration.

Pickup: The pickup on the violin will have a huge impact on the sound quality. Some pickups are imbedded in the bridge, while some rest between the bridge and the face of the instrument. Barbera pickups — which are imbedded in the bridge — are recognized as some of the best available and can also be outfitted in an acoustic violin.

Volume and Tone Control: Some instruments have controls on the instrument to adjust volume and tone. Before you purchase an instrument, be sure to look at where the knobs or other controls are located. Can you adjust them while you’re playing? Do they get in your way?

Tuners: Electric violins can come with machine tuners or pegs. If you’re playing on stage and need to retune fast, pegs may not be the best option, since pegs are not always easy to adjust quickly.

Headphone Option: Some violins (such as Yamaha Silent Violins) have a built-in headphone amp, which means you can play without making much noise.

Yamaha SV-200 Silent Electric Violin

Jack and Location: Electric violins will have a ¼-inch jack, where you’ll attach an instrument cable to connect with your amplifier or sound system. Depending on the jack’s location, the cable might be running by your ear or underneath the instrument. Some designs may have a better feel to you than others. If you plan to use a wireless system, look to see where you can clip the transmitter onto the instrument and if that would interfere with your playing.

Chin and Shoulder Rests: If an electric instrument isn’t a “traditional" violin size, it may need a proprietary chin rest or shoulder rest. Make sure the chin and shoulder rests are comfortable, especially if you’ll be playing the instrument for long periods of time.

Aesthetics: Unlike traditional instruments, electric violins can come in bright colors, finishes, and unique body styles.

Number of Strings: It's not hard to find an electric violin with five strings (normal G, D, A, E plus a low C string, like a viola). Others may have six or even seven strings.

Electric violins, like their acoustic counterparts, can be found at a large range of price points. Below is a breakdown of what you can expect at different levels.

Discount (Under $500)

This tier of violins is mostly meant for players just starting out on the electric violin, as the quality and sound of these instruments are going to be less than what you’d get from something above this price point.

But if you’re not yet sure about electric violin and aren’t ready to make a bigger investment, an instrument in this price range might be the perfect fit. Additionally, new instruments in this category often come with a full outfit (a case and a bow), which is also great for beginners. Brands in this range include Carlo Robelli, Stagg, Cremona, and Gewa.

Intermediate ($500–$1500)

For $500, you can get a decent instrument that can be used for learning, experimentation, and performing.

Yamaha has a wide variety of electric violins in an intermediate price range. YEV-104 and YEV-105 are 4- and 5-string instruments designed for performance and have the feel of acoustic violins.

Instruments in Yamaha’s Silent series include a headphone amp in the body, which is ideal for a practice instrument. It has a stereo piezo pickup underneath the bridge, and the balance between the high and low strings can be adjusted. The Yamaha SV-255 has a double pickup (bridge/piezo and body) and a blend control on the back of the instrument.

NS Design, well-known for its professional-level instruments, also makes budget-friendly violins like the WAV4 and WAV5. A proprietary Polar Pickup System allows the player to switch the response of the pickup depending on the style of playing (pizzicato or bowed). A patented tuning system also allows for more precise and stable tuning than traditional instruments.

The Zeta Strados is a great option in the intermediate price range if you can find one used. Zeta uses a patented bridge pickup and an active internal preamp (using a 9-volt battery). It comes in 4- or 5-string models.

Advanced ($1,500 or more)

NS Design’s CR Electric violin (CR4 and CR5) comes in standard and fretted versions. It has a solid body, piezo pickup, and dual-mode preamp that allows two different tones. This high-end instrument is great for the seasoned violinist or an electric player looking to upgrade. Zeta, Bridge Instruments, and Jordan also make many fine violins for the advanced player.

Mark Wood’s Wood Violins brings rock ‘n’ roll to violin playing, with his angular designs like the Viper model. Some Wood Violins models are fretted and can have as many as seven strings. While Stingray Pros will set you back about $1,500, Wood Violins also makes budget-friendly versions.

Playing electric

If you’re new to violin, an electric instrument can be fun, but it shouldn’t be a substitute to learning technique on an acoustic instrument. There’s a lot to learn about tone quality, pitch, and the response to dynamics, which will not be the same as on an acoustic instrument.

Once you learn the basics on an acoustic, your skills will translate to electric playing. Starting with an acoustic foundation will make it easier for you to get into the creative side of playing electric when you do decide to make the jump.

For the advanced player, an electric instrument can be a great way to take something you already know and make it unique or fresh. Add a few pedals to the mix, and the experience will be like nothing you’ve tried before.

If you’re interested in writing music, improvising with yourself, or just seeing your musical world in a new way, electric playing can be a great and exciting way to explore the possibilities of your instrument and your own musicality.

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