An electric violin is a violin equipped with an electronic sound output. The term electric violin can refer to a standard violin fitted with an electric pickup of some type, or to an instrument purposely made to be electrified with built-in pickups, usually with a solid body.
Electrically amplified violins have been used in one form or another since the 1920s; jazz and blues artist Stuff Smith is generally credited as being one of the first performers to adapt pickups and amplifiers to violins. The Electro Stringed Instrument Corporation, National Valco and Vega attempted to sell electric violins in the 1930s and 1940s; Fender produced a small number of electric violins in the late 1950s. Larger scale manufacture of electric violins did not happen until the late 1990s.
Acoustic violins may be used with an add-on piezoelectric bridge or body pickup. To avoid feedback from the resonances of the hollow body under high amplification on stage, many instruments have a solid body instead. The timbre (tone color) of a standard unamplified violin is due in large part to these resonances, however, so depending on how the signal is picked up, an electric violin may have a "rawer" or "sharper" sound than an acoustic instrument. This raw sound is often preferred in rock, pop, and some avant-garde genres. Several "semi-hollow" designs exist, containing a sealed but hollow resonating chamber that provides some approximation of acoustic violin sound while reducing susceptibility to feedback.
Solid-body electric violins typically have a non-traditional, minimalistic design to keep weight down. They are often seen as "experimental" instruments, being less established than electric guitar or bass. Hence, there are many variations on the standard design, such as frets, extra violin strings, machine heads, "baritone" strings that sound an octave lower than normal, sympathetic strings, and more, without even going into the many electronic effects used to shape the raw sound to suit the player's preference.
Alex Mitchell playing an Electric Violin
Acoustic 5-string violins exist, but it is much more common for an electric violin to have 5, 6 or 7 strings than an acoustic instrument. The typical solid body also accommodates the extra tension caused by more strings without stressing the instrument too much. Extra strings are usually a low C string for 5-strings, and a low C and high B or low F for 6, and a low C, F and B-flat (or high B) for 7.
Electric violin signals usually pass through electronic processing, in the same way as an electric guitar, to achieve a desired sound. This could include delay, reverb, chorus, distortion, or other effects.
Although the violin is an instrument used extensively in classical music, electric violins are generally employed by classical performers only in the performance of contemporary classical music. The electric violin is more frequently used by non-classical musicians in popular genres such as rock, hip hop, pop, jazz, country, New Age, and experimental music. It is also used extensively in folk rock; the most prominent exponent in the area being Dave Swarbrick.
Laurie Anderson's tape-bow violin, an electronic instrument developed in 1977, resembles an electric violin but does not have strings. It produces sound by drawing a bow, strung with a length of recorded magnetic tape rather than hair, across a magnetic tape head mounted on the instrument where the bridge would normally be. This anticipates the later technique of "scratching" in rap and hip-hop music, where a vinyl recording is turned back and forth on a turntable.
In the mid 1980's, Zeta Music developed a prototype violin for Laurie Anderson that, through the employment of a custom pickup and a conversion module, sent MIDI data, allowing the violinist to control synthesizers. This design was later refined and turned into a commercial product. While no other dedicated violin-to-MIDI systems have been manufactured, more generic pitch-to-MIDI systems like those from Roland and Yamaha can be adapted to use standard electric violin output. Most systems allow only monophonic operation—only one pitch can be detected and digitised at a time—but through the use of proprietary pickups, some limited MIDI polyphony can be achieved.
Notable artists who have employed MIDI violin include Jean-Luc Ponty and Charles Bisharat.