Have you ever seen an electric violinist play?
While the sound is different, the actual playing of the instrument seems basically the same as a standard violin.
And it is. If you can play an acoustic violin, you won’t need to learn how to play the electric violin.
That said, it’s not quite the same. The feel of playing the two instruments is different.
Because the electric version lacks a resonating chamber, you do not feel as much (or any, in some cases) resonance when you play the instrument. This feels strange at first and definitely takes some getting used to.
And it’s not the only thing you need to be aware of.
Let’s take a closer look at how you play an electric violin. We’ll also cover related topics like tuning and setting up the instrument.
Table of Contents
- 1 How To Play The Electric Violin
- 2 How to Set Up An Electric Violin
- 3 How To Tune An Electric Violin
- 4 How To Play The Electric Violin: Final Thoughts
How To Play The Electric Violin
Lovers of classical music might find electric violins “controversial”, but just like acoustic and electric guitars, acoustic and electric violins each have their specific use. Let’s begin by taking a look at some of the main differences, before getting into how to play the electric violin.
Differences Between Acoustic And Electric Violins
The acoustic violin uses its body as a resonator to amplify the sound of the vibrating strings. Electric violins on the other hand, have rudimentary solid bodies with only the basic construction that holds the components in place.
Instead of a resonating body, electric violins have an onboard pickup. In almost all of the cases, this is a piezo pickup. The pickups also come with electronics, as well as controls for output volume and equalization.
Bodies of electric violins resonate very little, though in some cases they do use tonewoods, which can impact the instrument’s tone. In some cases, you’ll also see electric violin bodies made of composite materials. Despite the external appearance, the essential elements are all there – bridge, tuning machines, fine tuners, chin rest, tailpiece, and others.
There are also examples of acoustic-electric violins, which are also called “hybrid” violins. These are just like any regular acoustic violin, but are fitted with piezo pickups and have an output for instrument cables. They sound a bit different and you’ll need to be careful not to cause feedback in louder settings.
See Electric Violin Vs Violin, for more on the differences and similarities between the two instruments.
Playing The Electric Violin
Any acoustic violin can become an electric one with a contact piezo pickup. But if you want that sharp rasp tone to which you can add effects, then a solid-body electric violin is the way to go.
The principles of how to play these two instruments are almost the same. But there are some minor differences that make the overall experience different.
As mentioned, electric violins have completely solid bodies. This means that there are no resonating chambers like on the conventional acoustic violin.
While both instruments are held the same way, with your chin resting on the body, electric violins don’t resonate nearly as much. As a result, you won’t be feeling and hearing that extra resonance when playing an electric violin.
This lack of resonance is one of the reasons many classical musicians are not fans of electric violins. In this sense, the feel is completely different, and it will take some time to get used to, if you’re transitioning from an acoustic to an electric instrument.
On the other hand, some see this as a good thing, since you can practice silently with your headphones on, without bothering anyone around you. And when you need it to be loud, you can just plug it into an amplifier or an audio interface and crank it up. You can also add different effects.
But if we were to look at the basic principles, these two instruments are played basically the same way and are in many ways more similar to each other than acoustic guitar is to the electric guitar.
You’ll be able to use exactly the same bowing and fingering techniques on an electric violin as you did on an acoustic one. The weight and feel might change some nuances here and there, but it’s essentially the same type of instrument. You’ll just need to get used to the difference in the overall feel.
How to Set Up An Electric Violin
Of course, one of the most important differences is that you can’t really get sound out of an electric violin if you don’t have any device to amplify and reproduce its sound. Let’s take look at the different ways you can do that.
Before we begin, we need to note that electric violins, in most cases, come with integrated preamps. These require standard 9-volt batteries in order to work.
There are, however, violins with passive electronics. In this case, you’ll need a device with a phantom power option (+48 volts) in order to make them work.
There aren’t that many amplifiers built specifically for electric violins. In most cases, violinists use electric guitar amplifiers or other multi-purpose amps. In some cases, players are also using acoustic-electric guitar amplifiers. Some keyboard amps can come in handy as well since they also have a very flat response.
Electric guitar amplifiers are generally a good choice since they add some rough edges to the tone and let the violin cut through the mix. Although more expensive, tube-driven amplifiers give a more powerful sound and dynamic response. Guitar amplifiers also come with an integrated distortion, so you can add that to the tone as well.
Roland has a few interesting guitar or general-purpose amplifiers. For instance, a piece like the Cube Street EX can work with a few different instruments other than just electric guitars. Other good examples are the small, portable Yamaha THR10II, or the mind-blowingly huge Line 6 Firehawk 1500.
PA Systems Or Active Speakers
Any type of a PA system with a mixer that has instrument inputs can work with an electric violin. You’ll be able to shape your tone with an equalizer and even add more effects like compression, reverb, and delay. This is one of the most common ways to set up an electric violin, especially if you have a multi-effects processor.
Active speakers with integrated mixers are also a common choice, as well as Bluetooth speakers with auxiliary inputs. You probably won’t get as many tone-shaping options as with PA systems, but they’re still pretty convenient.
At the same time, you can also use any home stereo that has an auxiliary input. However, you won’t get the best tone out of it, and it’s probably not the best option for home practice and jam sessions.
Most electric violins come with two separate outputs: one for amplifiers or PA systems and another one for headphones. Since they have active electronics, you can just plug your in headphones directly.
In fact, there are also so-called “silent” violins that are intended for practice with headphones. You can basically use any headphone set with a 1/8-inch jack.
Audio Interface And A computer
If you also feel like recording multi-track projects or setting up a small home studio, then get yourself an audio interface. A piece like Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a great and affordable choice.
It can work with microphones as well, it has up to four channels, and it even comes with phantom power. You’ll be able to play your violin in real-time, process the signal using plugins, and even record original songs and covers.
Additional Gear For The Electric Violin
Preamps And DI Boxes
If you want a more realistic tone on a PA system or a home stereo, you’ll want to get a preamp. There are many microphone preamps with instrument inputs that can come in handy. DI boxes can also be used for this same purpose, as they’ll accommodate your instrument’s signal for a PA system, if there’s no instrument input.
Multi-effects Units And Guitar Pedals
Any multi-effects pedal designated for guitars or vocals can be used for electric violins. Add a distortion, harmonize your lead sections, and add chorus or delay – everything is possible! Some are even using conventional guitar pedals for individual effects. This is something that you need to experiment with and find the best solution.
Smaller mixing boards also have onboard preamps that can enhance your tone. In addition, these often have onboard effects and standard tone-shaping features, like equalizers.
A great example is the Behringer’s Xenyx 1202FX – it’s pretty cheap and has all the essentials you might need. In fact, when paired with an active speaker, you can use it for smaller live shows and even plug in a few other instruments as well.
How To Tune An Electric Violin
The process of tuning an electric violin is pretty much the same as with acoustic violins. The only difference is that you can use an electric tuner more easily with the violin’s output. Another difference is that some electric violins have 5-strings, but that’s still fairly rare.
An electric violin has tuning machines on the headstock and fine-tuners on the tailpiece. The tuning machines do the essential work and tune up to the desired note. All the minor adjustments are then made using the fine tuners.
If you want to go the conventional way, you first need a reference note, like a tuning fork or (more preferably) a tuned piano or keyboard.
An easier solution is to use an electric tuner. They’re really easy to use and can help you tune the instrument in no time. The standard tuning for a 4-string electric violin is G, D, A, and E from the lowest to the highest string.
If your string is significantly lower or higher than what it’s supposed to be, you’ll have to adjust the tuning peg. If you’re doing minor adjustments, like a fraction of a semitone, then use a fine tuner.
Turning it clockwise makes it go up in pitch while turning it counterclockwise lowers the pitch. The same rule applies to the tuning pegs.
If you’re adjusting the pitch using tuning pegs, it’s best to do it in small increments to avoid accidentally breaking the string, especially if you’re raising the pitch.
These same rules apply to 5-string electric violins. The only difference is that the lowest string is one perfect fifth interval below the fourth string. So the tuning is C, G, D, A, and E.
How To Play The Electric Violin: Final Thoughts
Playing the electric violin is essentially the same as playing an acoustic violin, at least in terms of mechanics. The sound and the feel of the instrument are different and those differences take some getting used to.
But if you can play one, you can also play the other. So if you were thinking of buying an electric violin, go for it! There’s no reason not to!