In the right hands, sweet, soulful, searing sounds emanate from its feminine frame. Virtuosos from Paganini to Yehudi Menuhin unleashed its demons with finger flying ecstasy, and orchestras throughout history counted on it to carry the weight of the world’s melodies. From concert hall to dance hall, the violin has been the lead instrument for just about every musical genre.
With the dawn of the 21st century, new designs and changing times are presenting today’s players with fresh opportunities and ushering in a new era for this ancient instrument.
The five-string violin is not a new idea, and electrifying a fiddle is now a decades old phenomenon. But, with advanced electronics, better materials, and a gigging environment that has been turned on its ear, fiddlers are stretching what it means to be a violinist.
The Fifth String
Blame Bobby Hicks. The legendary fiddler, who began his career with Bill Monroe, was playing an extended gig in Las Vegas in 1963 when he drilled a hole in his violin’s pegbox and added the almighty low “C” string. Who wouldn’t want to have those extra low notes? To be honest, the concept had been around for centuries. It would have been very convenient to have one instrument on which to play either violin or viola parts. The problem has always been size. To give that low C string some depth you need to have a little girth. Once you add a few centimeters in size you lose a few decibels of brilliance. So don’t go selling your violin or viola just yet. The perfect hybrid acoustic has yet to be built.
The five-string violin, however, is a tremendous instrument on the bluegrass bandstand. It also serves double duty for string teachers everywhere, who can carry just one fiddle to demonstrate and play with students of either ilk.
Early amplification of violins was nasty. Wires and clunky microphones were glued and screwed into place by jazz violinists as far back as the ’20s. By the time Jean Luc Ponty came along in the 1960s, amplification and transduction technology had come a long way. He sounded awesome—and sometimes very violin-like.
Now, we have the benefit of piezoelectric transducers to capture the intricacies of tonal vibrations. Couple that with the development of acrylics and a new aesthetic. Design is completely unfettered by the past. Rather than capture the intrinsic look of the classical violin, more attention is being paid to the ergonomic issues of performance. The new polymers are light and electronics are smaller. With modern equalization electronics and digital modeling, a violinist can sculpt themselves just about any tone they desire. The five-string electric violin can easily emulate the brilliance of a soaring solo or the methodic chunking rhythm of the low strings on a guitar.
Rather than playing just the occasional solo melody on the bandstand, now fiddlers are part of the groove. The latest five-string fiddles are making that job easier and more predictable. For example, Mark Wood’s Viper has a unique fret system that allows violinists to plunk down chords with more accuracy, and at the same time allows them to play standard vibrato and glissandos.
The classical violin’s place in history is secure, and its future is assured. No sound on Earth will ever replace the awe-inspiring presence of orchestral strings. But a very promising, more electrifying future appears to be dawning.
Bellafina SSE five-string electric violin offers full functionality for students, studio, or stage. It comes with a quarter-inch output that plugs into most guitar amps or PA systems (cable included), and a volume control. It also features an upper-left bout for position playing, plus both lower bouts, so you can use your current shoulder rest.
MSRP: $695 www.wwbw.com/bellafina
Yamaha SV-255 Professional
The Yamaha SV-255 Professional Silent five-string violin is one of the most comfortable, lightweight professional electric violins available. It has dual pickups mounted in a unique hollow-body design, with a feel similar to a traditional acoustic violin. A spruce top and maple back create a resonant chamber under the bridge. Plug it into an amp, directly into a PA system, or have silent practice with headphones.
MSRP: $2,634 usa.yamaha.com
Mark Wood Viper
The Mark Wood Viper is an innovative electric violin with a patented chest support system that allows for hands-free, chin-free playing. The fret system feels like a standard ebony fingerboard, but assists in accurate chording. Its geared tuners are more precise and stable than traditional tuning pegs. It comes with an onboard volume control for the bridge’s piezo pickup. A flying V-shaped carrying case is included.
MSRP: $2,199 www.woodviolins.com
Ned Steinberger CR5
The Ned Steinberger CR5 five-string electric violin can produce everything from a traditional acoustic tone to a full-tilt electric sound. The body is crafted in solid maple with a flamed face. A maple bout on the treble side provides standard violin reference and is readily removed for unrestricted neck access. The fingerboard is fretless ebony. A three-way toggle switch allows the player to select the desired pickup and electronics options. The preamp provides volume, treble, and bass EQ.
MSRP: $3,360 www.nedsteinberger.com