Making An Electric Violin?
Some tips from Rich Barbera
I frequently hear from customers who are constructing an electric violin of their own design. It’s a great project, and the first design frequently leads to subsequent updated versions incorporating the lessons learned from building the first instrument. Home built electric violins can be as basic and simple as a two dimensional profile cut from a solid piece of wood, fitted with a neck, fingerboard, pegs, tailpiece, strings and bridge. More complex, designs can include resonant chambers or graduated plates and bent wood sides and modified bass bars/bracings, etc.
Over the course of 20 years of selling pickups to folks making their own electric violins, I’ve heard from customers making electric fiddles out of every type of wood imaginable. Many customers have also incorporated diverse materials such as acrylic, Corian (solid surface kitchen counter material), carbon fiber, fiberglass, aluminum, brass, steel, honeycomb composite material, even blown glass! The sky is the limit whatever your background brings to the project, incorporate it!
There are some general misconceptions about electric violins - that because they’re not an acoustic instrument, the shape and construction doesn’t really matter soundwise. This is not the case. Everything about the design, construction and materials will affect the sound and performance of the instrument and will factor into the tonal personality of the electric violin. From the structural rigidity/flexibility, density, mass, and distribution of mass in the body, to the type of finish, it all factors in and contributes to the sound, performance and feel of an electric violin, solid body or otherwise.
The resonant characteristics of a stringed instruments body directly affect and enable the way in which strings which are coupled to it will vibrate. The strings are coupled to the body, and the vibrational characteristics or tonal personality of the body is mirrored and reflected in the vibrating strings. It’s a very sensitive and interactive loop. This is why Barbera Multi Transducer Bridges are designed to collect horizontal string energies directly with a very high degree of efficiency. The tonal information/personality of the instrument is all there, mirrored in the vibrating strings. Collecting horizontal string energies directly provides a clear, rich tonal signal for amplification which reflects the personality (resonant properties) of the instrument. This allows BTS pickups to provide a baseline of functionality and fidelity that will literally transform even a simple wood body fitted with a neck, fingerboard and tailpiece, and strings, into a rich sounding electric violin when plugged in. However, no two pieces of wood will sound exactly alike! (everything affects the sound, every piece of wood sounds different)
There are some basic guidelines regarding materials and design which will yield different general tonal and performance characteristics in an electric violin. Frequently compromises have to be struck between design and materials to facilitate playability and performance characteristics.
Electric Violin Design
Some basic design types can include:
1. A solid, flat, profiled body or solid flat profiled body with hollow chambers, with neck attached
2. A solid, flat, profiled body with or without hollow chambers with a unitary neck (no neck joint). This approach usually requires the top of the body where the bridge is located to be lower via a cut out or notch. This is because it is generally not feasible to create a normal neck angle with a unitary neck. However, BTS offers a special, extra low height bridge to accommodate very low neck angle inst designs. Veneers can be used to great effect on flat, profiled electric violin bodies. A thin piece of highly figured exotic hardwood laminated onto a thicker piece of soft, tonal core wood is a great way to add distinction to an electric violin design. The veneer will also add focus and clarity to the sound.
3. A skeletal frame construction. This approach offers interesting visual possibilities and is also more challenging to construct. A skeletal or frame type electric violin, due to it’s lower mass and rigidity is more unpredictable in terms of how it may sound. Generally, low mass skeletal frame electric instruments can have undesirable resonant sensitivities which will not amplify well. Also, low mass skeletal designs can have a very unfocused and ringy quality to their sound. So, it is important to incorporate sufficient mass into the structure of a skeletal frame design, particularly in the bridge area.
Materials for Electric Violins
Generally, softer woods will yield a warmer more resonant tone. Curly maple is a great choice if you are going with a transparent finish. Curly maple is a beautifully figured, relatively soft hardwood used on acoustic violin backs. Some other attractive, tonal hardwoods that work well are Walnut, Mahogany, and sycamore. If you plan on painting the inst then Basswood or poplar is a good choice. Hard, dense exotics such as Ebony, Rosewood, Cocobolo, Purple Heart etc. can be used to great effect as laminations onto a softer hardwood such as spruce or cedar. They add rigidity and mass, which can help to focus the sound. Dense, rigid woods reflect the string energies back into the bridge while softer more flexible woods absorb and diffuse some of the string energy.
Electric Violin Construction
Making electric violins is an evolutionary process. Invariably refinements in design and construction occur as more instruments are made. Keeping that in mind, starting with a simplified prototype design is helpful. Working out basic concepts, getting a feel for how a particular design and material will feel and sound first in a simple prototype, before investing large amounts of time in a highly detailed and refined instrument, is a good approach.
Applying a Finish to the Electric Violin
The finishing process can be an extremely challenging part of making electric violins. Here is where your design and construction choices can come back to haunt you. A complex or intricate shape can be extremely difficult to apply sand and polish multiple coats of finish to. Flat outside surfaces are the simplest surfaces to finish. A transparent finish on a figured wood is much more forgiving than a high luster, painted surface on which there are no distractions for the eye from any defects in the surface. Also a satin finish is less labor intensive to apply than a high gloss finish which requires a final buffing and polishing. There really aren’t any shortcuts to achieving a professional quality finish. A compressor and spray gun and lots of elbow grease are required to lay down a quality, high gloss finish. However, there are some brush on lacquers available that are designed to flow on and spread evenly that will allow the building of a nice finish. Also there are some rub on finishes that will do a reasonable job if a less slick look is acceptable.