Defying Dogma: Violinist Tracy Silverman Redefines What “Proper” Is

Tracy Silverman strayed from the usual path in favor of his own.

Tracy Silverman- Blair Concert Series Fall 2017 Cover (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University / Daniel Dubois)

This is part one of a two-part series featuring Tracy Silverman

Redefining the role of the violin in contemporary music, Tracy Silverman has contributed significantly to the repertoire and development of the six-string electric violin and what he calls “post-classical violin playing.”

Lauded by BBC Radio as “the greatest living exponent of the electric violin,” Silverman’s groundbreaking work defies musical boundaries. Formerly first violinist with the innovative Turtle Island String Quartet, Silverman was named one of 100 distinguished alumni by The Juilliard School. A concert electric violinist, Silverman is the subject of several electric violin concertos composed specifically for him by Pulitzer winner John Adams, “Father of Minimalism” Terry Riley, Nico Muhly and Kenji Bunch, as well as the composer of three electric violin concertos of his own.

A true eclectic, Silverman’s compositions and performances have been recorded by Nonesuch Records, Naxos Records, Windham Hill Records; he’s recorded with The Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero, The BBC Symphony with John Adams, The Detroit Symphony with Neeme Jarvi, with composer/pianist Terry Riley, the rock band Guster, contemporary music’s Paul Dresher Ensemble, jazz legend Billy Taylor, five-time Grammy winning percussionist Roy “Futureman” Wooten, and the Calder String Quartet, among many others. Silverman has performed as a soloist with The Los Angeles Philharmonic under conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra with Marin Alsop, Carl St. Clair and The Pacific Symphony, The Montreal Symphony, The Stuttgart Staatsorchester and many others. He has appeared as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Adelaide’s Festival Theatre, Sao Paulo’s Auditorio Ibirapuera, The Hollywood Bowl, Linz’s Brucknerhaus and Vienna’s Musikverein, and made his debut with The Chicago Symphony at age 13. Silverman’s original works have been performed by orchestras and chamber music groups internationally and his scoring work has appeared in episodes of PBS’s NOVA among others.

Tracy Silverman

TV/internet and radio includes a solo performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, a profile on CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood, NPR’s Performance Today, St. Paul Sunday, and several appearances on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

In the liner notes to “The Dharma at Big Sur,” John Adams writes, “Tracy has developed his own unique style of violin playing—a marvel of expressiveness.” Mark Swed of the LA Times enthused, “Inspiring. Silverman is in a class of his own.” The Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein raved, “Blazing virtuosity. You will be astonished that anybody can play a fiddle like that” and Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, wrote, “Fleet agility and tangy expressivity with wailing hints of Jimi Hendrix.”

A long-standing advocate for music education, Silverman is the author of The Strum Bowing Method, is an in-demand clinician and on the string faculty at Belmont University in Nashville, TN.

Interview with Tracy Silverman

Check out part 2 here.

The Mission Statement of a Master

String playing must reflect our popular musical culture or risk becoming old-fashioned and irrelevant.

Driven by the desire to speak in the popular musical language of our own time
and place, I have spent my career working towards a new musical vocabulary for
the violin. My explorations with the electric six-string violin have resulted in what I
call post-classical string playing, a sound as familiar as the electric guitar yet
which retains the achievements and beauty of the last 500 years of string playing.
Although classically trained, I’ve adopted the musical vernacular of rock, jazz, and
the popular musical culture that surrounds us outside the concert hall.

Tracy Silverman with one of his custom violin designs.

All the masterpieces of classical music were written in the style of their own time and place, and I felt it was necessary for someone to update stringed instruments or today’s composers, using today’s musical styles. It’s been my mission both to bring string playing into rock and pop music, and also to bring this new rock-inflected 21st century violin style to the concert stage in the form of significant new repertoire.

It’s been my good fortune that composers such as John Adams, Terry Riley, Nico Muhly, Kenji Bunch and others have shared this vision and have written important new electric violin concertos for me and, hopefully, other six-string electric violinists. I have written three electric violin concertos of my own.

Builds his own ax

Shortly after graduating from The Juilliard School in 1980, I built some of the first-ever six-string electric violins with the help of fellow trailblazer Mark Wood. The evolution of the instrument has spanned 30 years of research and development, experimentation, trial and error, dead ends and use on the road and in the studio with a startlingly eclectic mix of different projects. Decades of exploration with ever-changing electronics, and mountains of digital and analog gear have given
me the ability to morph from one musical context to another. My demands on
the instrument range from Jimi Hendrix’s wailing distortion to Miles Davis’s
intimate jazz, Salif Keita’s emotional Malinese vocal style to Brazilian samba
grooves, Indian classical inflections and “just” (or “pure”) intonation. Even to
Bach, who was, by the way, not unfamiliar with six-string viols, early precursors to
our modern stringed instruments.

Tracy Cilverman

Adding two lower strings revealed unanticipated new possibilities. Surprisingly, the extended range, now reaching to the lowest guitar notes, resulted in new ways of using the bow. The new ability to play bass notes raised the challenge of how to play chords on a primarily melodic instrument. The style of popular music is different from the classical repertoire and the technique has to broaden as well. My years with the jazz group, the Turtle Island String Quartet, taught me a rhythmic bowing technique called the “chop” and, after years of my own experimentation with rock music, I realized that what I had developed could best be described as “Strum Bowing.” I’ve written an educational book/video about it called The Strum Bowing Method: How to Groove on Strings, and now teach “Strum Bowing” all over the world.

As a performer, I struggle to break free of the classical performance model and to try to engage the audience more directly, speaking in a surprisingly familiar and accessible musical language as a guitarist or singer might, with a similar
emotional edge and immediacy.

I hope that I’ve helped in some way to further the evolution of the violin and,
more importantly, the evolution of post-classical string technique. I put great
faith in the next generation of string players and hope to pass my work along in
the form of videos, recordings, clinics and lecture/demonstrations so that 21st
century string players are no longer relegated to the classical sidelines but are
fully participating in their own contemporary musical culture.

Silverman’s Gear:

  • Tracy endorses D’Addario Strings (Helicore and Kaplan)
  • Tracy designed his custom six-string electric violins. The instruments he uses the most are two built by Danny Ferrington and one by Joe Glaser, which is his current main instrument.
  • Mesa-Boogie Studio Pre/5050 Power Amp going through a Marshall 4×12 cabinet.On the road he uses amp simulator pedals.
  • His go-to loop pedal is a Boomerang.
  • Silverman records with Universal Audio plug-in amp simulators into ProTools.

Visit and Learn with Tracy


  • Instagram: @tracysilverman @strumbowing
  • FB: @tracysilvermanmusic @strumbowing
  • Twitter: @tracysilverman

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