Electric Violin: a straightforward introduction
From the moment we start playing anything that’s not classical music – and specially if we experiment with pedals – we think: should I get an electric violin? But before rushing to the store to get one, there’s two important things to keep in mind:
• Playing electric violin is almost as playing another instrument,
• Playing an electric violin won’t make you rock out in itself.
Simply: you will be able to rock with an acoustic violin, and you may suck when starting out with an electric one. Rocking is all about the music, not the gear – so don’t go out spending your hard-earned money if you’re not sure about making the switch. You may not have to!
Personally, when I started out with my band, No Hay Banda, I had just my acoustic violin – the one I had all my life. During that year, I also began trying out pedals, playing live shows and recording the demo; I used my acoustic violin for all.
However, there are both pros and cons to both the acoustic and electric violin. Let’s see this in more detail.
Acoustic Violins: pros and cons
The first problem with acoustic violins is how to amplify it.
It’s impossible to play in a rock band with drums and even dream of rehearsing without amplification: it’s a waste of time, and very frustrating. Drums will always overshadow violins – even if amplified. I tried with different mics (air condensers and wireless) until I found the best for violins: contact microphones.
Contact microphones capture the vibrations of the instrument. It goes glued to the violin’s wood; but don’t worry: it won’t leave any marks. I use the AKG mic, and it’s the best I’ve tried so far.
The second problem with acoustic violins is how to avoid feedback.
Albeit these mics are the best option for string instruments, there’s always complications when using pedals and playing alongside a drum set. First of all, when rehearsing, you’ll soon discover the nasty problem of feedback. If you rehearse with your own gear, it’s likely it’ll be reliable – but won’t exactly look like the walls of Hiwatts The Who had. You might find something a bit more sturdy when playing live, or even recording; but rehearsals come first.
There are a few temporary solutions to this issue. The first is to get as far as possible from the amp, and turn it away from us. Sure, it’s also a pain because you won’t be able to hear yourself as well, but it helps with the problem. The second way is to cover the F holes with paper and tape, diminishing the expansive wave that generates feedback.
In spite of these solutions, there are things that will always create feedback with an amplified acoustic violin. Turning the gain up on the distortion, or using more than a quarter on the fuzz, for example. It’s very hard and arduous to get the right sound with pedals and an acoustic violin. Except, of course, when playing live: with better and more powerful gear; plus the helping hand of a sound tech, we may turn the distortion up to 11 and reduce the chance of feedback.
Let’s be honest: it’s more likely we’ll spend more time rehearsing and practising, than gigging. Hence, it’s important to find your own sound to play comfortably. Unfortunately, acoustic violins make this a challenge.
The third problem with acoustic violins is how to record in studio.
I recorded the demo for my band with my acoustic violin, but it was tricky. The way the studios record is by using professional ambient microphones. Drums complicate this kind of recording, for the obvious reason that it gets into our mic and ruins the post production and edition.
In this occasion, I had to play alone in another room, while the drummer and (electric) cellist played at once. Luckily, there was a glass wall in between so it felt like playing together, in a way. In other studios, however, you may have to record by tracks, separated. I’m not comfortable with this option, since I prefer to interact with my bandmates as we record.
It’s not all negative: acoustic violins’ pros.
If it sounds like I’m making too much of a strong case against the acoustic violin, keep in mind that the electric violins will never have the warmth or the bow response as them. You’ll be disappointed if you expected this. And that’s the main advantage acoustic violins have. No matter how well you equalize an electric violin, nothing will replace the sound and resonance of our bowing hand on an acoustic violin.
Bottom line, keep in mind the levels and mic options can be tricky. Otherwise, you’ll end up like Jerry Goodman, who got fed up with drums playing over him, and left Mahavishnu Orchestra.
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