The history of the electric violin begins at much the same time as the development of the electric upright bass, and for similar reasons. While transport was not a major issue, outside the use of venues with excellent acoustics it became difficult to play for larger audiences. Unlike the electric upright bass, there was considerable developments in attaching a pickup device to traditional acoustic violins. There were also corresponding developments in stripping away the form of the violin into a streamlined amplifier dependant model. Both of these efforts were pioneered by two men respectively, “Stuff” Smith and George Beauchamp.
Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith was born in 1909 in the United States and was encouraged to study the violin classically by his father. However hearing Louis Armstrong play was to be both a formative and a watershed moment- he both inspired much of his own style and his shift to jazz playing. He spurned a scholarship to university and began his career as a travelling musician. After touring with Alphonso Trent, and with a brief but frustrating experience with “Jelly Roll” Morton he formed his own band in New York in 1930. Personal differances (Morton was famously arrogant) lead to the split, but more importantly in this circumstance he felt his acoustic was constantly drowned out by the rest of the band. This experience lead him to try attaching an external amp across the bridge of his violin, and from there the rest is history. His achievements in early jazz music (which were many) notwithstanding this was a pivotal moment which was to lead eventually to the birth of the electric violin in truth.
This leads us to George Beauchamp, the man responsible for the first electric violin as we know it today. There is frustratingly little concrete information regarding his thoughts prior to his patent registration for the device in 1936 in the United States. However it is reasonably reliable that he went to observe the Stroh violin workshop in Britain in the early 1900’s. It is from this experience, and perhaps from wanted to distingiush his product from the already established field of horn violins he began working on the electric model. Once patent was granted in 1938, he and Adolph Rickenbacker (who also had tried his hand at manufacturing electric double basses previously) formed the Electro String Instrument Corporation.
His first model, made from bakelite, has a charming aesthetic and from a sound and function standpoint was an excellent first attempt. It by some accounts had been used during the 1930s by the NBC radio orchestra which for a new instrument would have been quite a coup.
His second model changed both design and construction material almost completely. The stock was made from aluminium, and with a more traditional setup (wooden scroll and pegs) it is again an interesting example of design versus function. Theres little data suggesting any sales success for either model, but its interesting as a point in the development towards the modern standard. His was not the final word in innovation but as he himself had said “if I solved the problem you will not be able to forget me”. Perhaps not solving the problem, but posing the question remains his greatest legacy.
In terms of contemporary craftsmen one name looms large – Mark Wood. Credited with the invention of the first solid body electric violin (at age 12 no less) he went on to revolutionise the field. From a family background that strongly encouraged he and his brothers creative capacities, early in his career he and his brothers cut their teeth on touring as a string quartet. Talented enough to warrant a full scholarship to Juilliard, he grew dissatisfied with what he saw to be the narrow focus of classical instruction. Dropping out at age 19 he was to begin his personal oddysey to perfect his new craft. His second principal innovation was changing the string configuration of his instruments. In 1977 he built his first five string electric violin, and from there pushed boundaries to its limit with a seven string model! Amoung his other achievements was the patent of a new design of “self-supporting” violin accessories and variety of player aids such as fretting options and educational programes.
Wood’s instruments are availible in store among other excellent options. From the seven stringed Viper electric to the more traditional four stringed Stingray there is an option to suit anyones tastes and budget. There is also the custom built Phoenix performer series, made exclusively for Animato which represents an excellent starting point for those interesting in making a foray into the electric violin.