Old School Meets New School
Electric violins have been available for a long time. The first ones became available during the 1920’s. They’re incredibly cool and versatile to use. You’ve probably seen them used by performers such as “Nuttin’ But Strings”, Boyd Tinsley of Dave Matthews Band, or Lindsey Stirling.
They are built off of the same premise as acoustic violins, but on their own, they make very little sound. This is intentional because when amplifying something electrically, it’s preferable to have an instrument that doesn’t resonate acoustically.
That seems counter-intuitive and we’ll explore more of that later. These types of violins are played exactly the same way as an acoustic violin. There is very little variation in core components from an acoustic violin, but the body and look of the violin can potentially be drastically different.
These instruments lend themselves more towards rock, blues, jazz, progressive, or metal (yes, there are heavy metal violinists!) music because these genres like to add effects to their instruments or add gain to the sound (sometimes referred to as distortion). There’s a lot to talk about with this subject since it’s very cool, and a lot of fun. Without further adieu, let’s rock into an electric violin review!
Electric vs. Pickups
One thing of note before we begin: No electric violin is going to sound exactly like an acoustic violin. They are not quite as mellow (though some get REALLY close). They are different beasts. It’s important to know that going in. And therefore, some people like to solve their volume problems with pickups.
True acoustic violins can be amplified by retro-fitting them with what’s called a “pickup”. These pickups take many shapes and forms. Some wrap around the violin and sit directly on top of the instrument in order to pick up the vibrations the instrument produces and then convert that vibration into a signal that can be amplified. Some are tiny microphones that sit on top of the violin or right on top of the violin bridge and send that audio signal to be amplified.
Others place a metal piece into the bridge which reads the vibrations of the violin and again, turns it into a signal that can be amplified. It’s important to note that these violins do not have any holes cut into them. They remain true acoustics and the pickup added houses the input jack by which you attach a cord that sends the signal to the amplifier.
If you have a violin that you really like and want to keep it a true acoustic while making it louder, this may be your best bet. There is always the option to simply put a microphone in front of your fiddle (violin, sir), and amplify it that way. However, this method makes it tricky to add effects, as there needs to be pedals added to the signal chain.
Electric Violin vs. Acoustic-Electric Violin
Right off the bat, we have to make another distinction: there are true electric violins, and then there are acoustic-electric violins. These violins are hollow and shaped just like an acoustic violin, but they may have a pickup internally, built into the violin from the factory. They’ve also probably got at least one hole cut out of the body where the input jack for the cord that goes to the amplifier attaches.
These instruments normally have volume or tone knobs on them as well (more holes cut out). These can be decent adaptations to the traditional violin, but I often find that they can suffer a lack of resonance and sustain if too many holes are cut. It won’t produce the same level of volume unplugged as a true acoustic instrument and can suffer from possible feedback production when plugged in due to it’s hollow body.
It’s an easy 2-in-1 method, to be sure. I find these instruments to be viable at medium cost ranges. The budget-friendly versions I have tried don’t quite do it for me. However, once we find ourselves at or above $500, there are some great options.
Why An Electric Violin?
Electric violins are easily amplified, which makes them very useful for large venues. But that’s not their only positive. They’re often times solid bodied instruments, which means they don’t have a resonating chamber and are much less susceptible to producing feedback. Hollow bodied instruments, like traditional violins, can produce feedback much more readily, especially with certain types of effects.
This isn’t a big deal when recording in the studio. However, when you’re on stage with monitors in your face and speakers blaring at the audience, there’s a much greater chance of creating a feedback loop. If you’ve played guitar, you know that an acoustic guitar is notorious for producing these types of feedback and the violin is no different. Well, it is. But the basic principles of sound engineering are not.
What I like about the electric violin is that I no longer have to worry about these issues because the violin is a solid body (therefore much less likely to feed back) and I can add whatever effects I so desire during a live performance. Another nice thing about electric violins (and with some added equipment, pickup driven acoustic violins), is that I often times have a volume control on my violin that allows me to personally cut my signal. Never forget the convenience of a volume control!
What will I need?
If you’ve acquired an electric violin, you will need several things in order to play effectively. As with any other violin, you will want a tuner. Additionally, you will need a 1/4 inch cable 1/8th inch chord that converts to a 1/4 inch jack cable (depending on your type of electric violin) to plug into an amplifier. Be sure that your cable will reach from your amplifier or input to where you will be playing and then some.
You don’t want the chord to be hanging in mid-air because it can’t reach far enough from your amplifier. That’s another thing, you’ll need an amplifier. There aren’t very many amplifiers specifically created for violins and therefore, many people use either a guitar amplifier or they plug directly into the house PA system.
This will all depend on what type of sound you want to craft, and how much equipment you want to carry with you. Trust me, there’s a LOT of options here, but to keep it simple, I recommend either a regular electric guitar amplifier or an acoustic guitar amplifier.
If you’re interested in retaining the violin’s purest acoustic sound, the acoustic guitar amplifier may be the better choice for you. If you’re interested in blues, rock, funk, or something more progressive, perhaps choose a guitar amplifier that fits your chosen style of music. Remember that your violin will color the sound of the amp differently than a guitar and your amp will color your violin sound to an extent as well.
From there, you can simply use the amplifier to be your sole means of sound or you can plug it into a house PA system (if your amplifier has an outlet for that). There’s also an option of going with a pre-amp and running a chain of pedals for your sound and then hooking into a direct input that hooks you into the house PA. This, however, requires more equipment and thus, more research and effort that just wont fit in a standard electric violin review. The simple way is the amplifier.
Now that we’ve talked about electric violins and what makes them unique, let’s look at some options. I’ll preface all of this by saying that this is a purchase that truly depends upon your budget. As such, your needs will determine whether or not certain instruments will work for you.
In this my opinion, the quality of an electric violin reaches respectable levels at around $500. Prior to this price point, I feel that if you have an acoustic violin, it’s better to stick with that and buy a solid retro-fit pickup for your violin.
That said, I’ve also included some options for those of you without a violin and who want to get into the electric violin game.
The Band is not a new concept but a relatively new product to hit the shelves. I find it incredibly interesting, effective, and easy to use. It’s made for acoustic violins that you wish to amplify.
The Band works as if you were wrapping a small inner tube around your violin (it is threaded underneath the strings so that it can sit directly on top of the instrument and then velcroed on the back of the violin). Inside of this “inner tube” is a pickup that reads all of the vibrations produced by the instrument (I do mean all, more on that later).
The positives of this are that it cuts down tremendously on bow noise, feedback, and squeaks from the violin (though good technique is still required to produce the best sounds). One of the major selling points of this pickup is that it is so good at reducing feedback and there’s even a “hack” for it when wanting to produce even less feedback.
Most people that use the band say that it is useful all the way up to medium and loud stage volumes before feeding back. I can personally attest to this. The band is very light and easily transferable from one instrument to another. This makes it incredibly useful for situations where multiple violinists may need to swap out pickups, or you have multiple violins that you want to use.
This method uses a standard 1/4 inch guitar type cable to be plugged into a jack that is on the band, and the input into your amplifier. The Band does not modify your violin in any way, so it doesn’t scratch, dent, or change anything about your instrument. If you like your fiddle, you can keep it the way it is!
There’s a few cons here to discuss. First, as mentioned, The Band does pick up every vibration the instrument produces, so that means that it picks up finger noise to an extent as well. If you are a heavy player (on the fingerboard), you may hear some thumps as if it were a percussion part playing along with you.
I personally don’t play very hard, so I don’t have any problems here. However, some of my more spirited compatriots have noticed this to a degree. Second, the band generally gets a rating of being either 4/5 or 4.5/5 in terms of sounding like an unplugged, acoustic violin.
This means its VERY close to sounding 100% natural when amplified. So when you plug it in, make sure you have access to an EQ band for your violin and roll back some of the low end and you should be able to acquire a “true” natural violin sound. In all honesty, this is one of the best pickups that I’ve ever used for my acoustic violin.
Cecilio Electric Violin CEVN-1
The Cecilio Electric Violin has taken the entry level violin market by storm. This violin is arguably the most popular and purchased electric violin on the market. It is very budget friendly and provides a lot of bang for the buck.
This instrument comes as an outfit, so you will get it shipped to you in a hard case with a bow, rosin, headphones, and an 1/8th inch to 1/4 inch cable to plug into an amplifier. The CEVN-1 has a preamp built into it and does require a battery (a 9 volt).
This is for two reasons. 1) So that you can put your headphones on and turn on your violin in order to better hear your instrument, and 2) In case you’re going direct into a house PA system.
What does that mean? If you don’t have what’s called a DI (direct input), a regular pickup may not produce enough signal strength to be volume controlled easily at the sound board level. A preamp helps mitigate that problem. It also gives you control over your volume levels while playing and gives you a tone control as well.
As with most electric violins, it does not sound like a true natural acoustic instrument. Then again, there are acoustic violins that don’t sound like acoustic violins. At this price point, take that with a grain of salt.
With this violin you’re going to be able to plug into effects pedals, distortion, and an amplifier or any combination of these three, and produce a great sound. You can tailor the sounds you get to your taste. Many of my students have purchased this model and they are enjoying their practice and performance time on their instruments.
This is a solid body instrument, so you’re going to be resistant to feedback to a very large degree, but not entirely immune to it. This violin tends to be fairly silent. You won’t hear it next door, but you will be performing for those in the same room as you.
The sound level is reminiscent of the sound produced when using a practice mute on a true acoustic violin. There are a number of CEVN models (1,2,3 etc.). Most of them don’t bring major changes other than color, but it’s nice to have other options and variations.
This is not going to be the top of the line when it comes to electric violins. You may need to replace strings, bow hair, the bow itself, or other components within a year or two. However, it’s a great place to start. If you’re looking for a student electric violin and you don’t want to break the bank, this is a very viable option and worthy of consideration.
The Kinglos Colored Solid Wood Intermediate Electric Violin is of note because it has a spruce body. Most acoustic violins are made with a spruce top because of it’s resonance and tone production. For that reason, this violin lends itself to resonance and producing a good sound.
It comes with ebony fittings. The violin comes in a hard case and the accessories you receive include a bow, shoulder rest, headphones, an extra bridge, extra strings, an instrument cable, and rosin. Unfortunately, third party shoulder rests may not fit this violin, so it’s important to know that going in. A positive note is that the input jack on this instrument is a true 1/4 inch.
Having a 1/4 inch input jack is great because, should you forget your cable, you can just ask a guitar or bass player if they have an extra and use it since they’re generally identical inputs. This violin also has a built in preamp which is powered by a 9v battery.
What really makes this violin interesting is that you can have the colors and patterns customized. At Kinglos, they don’t believe in “one-size-fits-all” styling. You can even ask for a black bridge…and get it! All specs for this violin are overseen by luthiers from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.
The instrument comes with four fine tuners but you don’t have to use all of them (as more intermediate and advanced violinists won’t). However, they’re nice to have. As with other electric violins, it’s audible if you’re in the same room, but won’t be heard from a room or two over. If you live in an apartment, or travel a lot, this may be a great choice for you.
What’s genuinely impressive is the customer service. Kinglos responds to nearly all of their customers and their inquiries. They even go so far as to give you a rebate option. According to their description, if you at any time send them a picture of someone playing their violin, they will refund you $5.
The customization of their instruments is what promotes their staying in touch with their customers. This, in turn, promotes quick and effective customer service. If you are very creative and like things tailored to your personality, take a look at a Kinglos violin. Of course, that’s not the only reason. We wouldn’t be talking about these violins if they didn’t sound good and play well. This is a great deal for their budget-friendly price point.
With the NS Design WAV 4, we step into the world of progressive body shapes. No respectable electric violin review would be complete without a headless violin.
This happens a lot with electric instruments because they do not require a body chamber to resonate and produce sound since they are plugged in and amplified (this is one of the pros and the cons, as we have discussed). So that allows electric violin makers to get creative and thus, here we are with this NS Design.
What’s great about this instrument is that there are no pegs. All the tuning is done with machine tuners (saving you time and adding accuracy).
When changing strings, there is an automatic string clamp mechanism that makes your life easier. Some people have even said that these violins arrive in nearly perfect tune.
With certainty, these instruments stay in tune well due to their very high 40:1 precision tuning ratio tuners. The body and neck are solid maple and depending on what model you choose, it can come with a flame-maple top that is simply gorgeous. The fingerboard is ebony. The aesthetics of this violin are quite impressive for an intermediate instrument, but again, that depends on your taste.
It’s important to point out that these violins do not come as an “outfit”. They come in a hard case but do not have a bow or rosin. The shoulder rest is included as it is part of the violin (pros and cons to this later). These instruments are shipped with a medium height action on the strings that generally tends to serve all but the most particular violinists.
This violin has a Polar directional piezo pickup system that is surprisingly powerful. For this reason, the pickup system does not require a pre-amp or batteries. The piezo crystals produce more than enough power. Not requiring a battery means one less thing to worry about, and who doesn’t like the sound of that?
Personally, I would still use a DI (Direct Input) box in order to control my output, if Im hooking up direct to a PA. However, the power of this pickup means you don’t have to. If you’re plugging into an amplifier, you’re good to go, as this instrument uses a standard 1/4 inch cable input. The WAV 4 has a volume knob and a tone knob to allow you to fully shape your tone and personally control your volume levels. Finally, a fantastic trait is that this violin is billed as nearly feedback proof on even the loudest of stages.
With the pros of this instrument come a few cons. It’s not a true violin “outfit”. You will have to purchase a bow and rosin unless you already have them. If this instrument catches your eye and you don’t currently have a bow, hop on over to our violin bows article for a few solid suggestions.
Initially, the shoulder rest of this instrument is a little uncomfortable. It literally molds to your shoulder so you have to give it a few weeks to work itself in. The more you play it, the more comfortable it will feel. Additionally, the shoulder rest is attached to the body by a screw and an adjuster. Make sure your adjuster is tightened well so the shoulder rest doesn’t travel on you.
A pro to all of this is that NS has a variety of shoulder rests and chin rests to supplement yours if you don’t like it. It may take some time to get used to the strange shape of this violin as opposed to your acoustic violin. I assure you, the versatility and incredible sound you can create with this instrument is well worth it.
In summation, which electric violin option you choose depends upon your needs and tastes. One instrument may be perfect for your friend, but a bad choice for you. Maybe you thought you needed a fully electric violin but really, you need a pickup. Conversely, maybe you thought you’d be fine with a pickup but you’ll encounter more feedback situations than you previously expected. Remember to follow the guidelines in this article to determine your needs and then choose accordingly.
Whichever option you choose, always make sure the violin arrives in one piece, with all its components, and is set up correctly. If you need to, take it to a luthier for a proper inspection. I hope this helps everyone and best of luck on your electric violin hunt!