Who invented the electric violin? That is a great question! Although the acoustic violin was born in 1520 around Milano, in Italy, the electric violin was probably born much later!
Define ‘electric violin’
The term ‘electric violin’ in this article refers to a violin without a resonance box (solid body), equipped with a jack in order to be connected to an amplification system to be heard.
The Interest of the Electric Violin
The creation of the electric violin is closely connected to the numerous inventions and technological advancements that the 19th century witnessed. Music was affected by all these changes. The possibilities of recording and broadcasting ‘forced’ musicians and luthiers to adapt their musical instruments. Without amplification, an acoustic violin became irrelevant when played in a very large hall. Sound capture with the help of a microphone posed a challenge to ensure audibility and prevent feedback from spoiling the artistic performance.
One must also consider the development of extensive tours in stadiums or increasingly larger venues with ever-growing audiences. Hearing acoustic instruments in such conditions was impossible without an electric amplification.
These changes are closely linked to new technological inventions that paved the way for electric musical instruments.
The Genesis of the Electric Violin
Elisha Gray’s Experiments
In 1874, Elisha Gray, an ingenious American inventor, experimented with the ‘electrification of a violin.’ In 1875, he obtained a patent for his ‘Electric Telegraph for Transmitting Musical Tones‘, an electric telegraph transmitting musical sounds. A violin was used as a resonator to produce musical sounds transmitted through a telegraph wire. On this violin, a metal plate was installed to receive and amplify the electrical oscillations through the resonating body of the instrument. His idea represents the reverse of the principle of the electric violin. In his experiment, the violin played the role of the amplifier. We are still far from the first electric violin as we know it today.
The Stroh Violin: A Close Cousin
The Stroh Violin, also known as the Stroviol, was invented by John Matthias Augustus Stroh, an Austrian engineer. He introduced this musical instrument in 1899 in London. The Stroh Violin attracted many curious onlookers because it lacked a resonating body and featured a horn attached to a membrane near the bridge. It represents the fusion of the violin with Thomas Edison’s gramophone invention. Thanks to the gramophone’s amplification system, vibrations are amplified and then projected through the horn.
The Amplification of Acoustic Violins
Stuff Smith is considered the first violinist to have used electric amplification techniques on a classical violin. He did not play what we call today an electric violin, but he had amplified his acoustic violin by using a pickup.
The First Electric Violins
A Succession of Patents
The majority of information regarding the origins of the electric violin can now be found in patents. Older documents published by inventors may have disappeared, may never have existed, or are not yet discovered. There is a lack of information on this subject.
Primarily, these patents relate to an amplification system, either to be installed on a violin or directly integrated into the violin, with the goal of amplifying the instrument’s sound. Among them are both patents for the invention of electric violins and pickups (systems for amplifying the instrument). Note that the earliest inventions were pickups designed to be installed on an instrument.
The Pioneers of the Electric Violin
On April 12, 1930, the French newspaper L’ILLUSTRATION published an article about a violin designed by Ivan Makhonine, Russian inventor and engineer. The electric violin featured in the article was played by the violinist Cecilia Hansen. There is no patent associated with Ivan Makhonine’s work about this electric violin. He was famous for other searches like his Makhonine fuel. His efforts are brought to light through this article and a video to be discovered below. In the image, a violin without a resonating body is clearly visible, connected by a cable to an amplifier. Therefore, it is an electric violin.
Victor A. Pfeil
Victor A. Pfeil is an American inventor who envisioned several electric musical instruments, including a violin and a cello, utilizing a magnetic pickup. Multiple patents have been filed in his name and are still accessible in databases. The first one was filed in 1928 and describes:
This invention relates to musical instruments and it has particular reference to a stringed instrument having a transforming and amplifying device mounted in part therea The invention contemplates the provision of a stringed musical instrument simulating any well known type, which may be played manually for directly producing a pulsating electric current which may be amplified and transformed into sound energy reproducing the notes of the instrument at a remote point.
This electric cello and electric violin were featured in an article from the newspaper RADIO-CRAFT published in August 1933.
George Beauchamp (Rickenbacker Company)
One of the electric violins manufactured by George Beauchamp is cataloged by the MET Museum. The museum possesses violin number 21 in its collection. On its website, the MET specifies:
This design was made by George Beauchamp of Los Angeles, who first received a patent for an electric violin in 1936. This specific instrument is probably a prototype for his second patent which would be granted on February 14, 1943.
Unfortunately, verifying the claim about the first patent granted for an electric violin remains challenging. Victor A. Pfeil’s patent was approved more than a decade before George Beauchamp’s. While Pfeil’s patent does not explicitly use the term ‘electric violin’ in its description, the instrument as presented and schematized is indeed an electric violin.
George Beauchamp did not limit himself to imagining an electric violin. He wanted to offer a complete electric bowed string quartet (violin, viola, cello and double bass). The quartet is named “The Electro Violin Family” and has been featured in various commercials. However, only the violin and the double bass seem to have been commercialized. Only a small quantity has been made available on the market. The other instruments existed as prototypes.
Luis Nicolas de Lazaro
At the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, there is an electric violin on display, designed (?) or based on the patent of Luis Nicolas de Lazaro. This Spanish inventor began playing the violin in his childhood before improving his musical skills at the Royal Madrid Conservatory under the guidance of Fernandez Bordas. Then, he studied with J. Poullet in Paris, where he won the first prize for violin at the Bordeaux International Competition in 1929.
After several world and national tours, he embarked on creating his electric violin. In one of the biographies extracted from an artistic program presenting Luis Nicolas de Lazaro, one can read:
Fervorosamente apasionado por el violín, puso su empeño en obtener la máxima pureza de sonido y en lograr la uniformidad en las vibraciones, por electricidad así como en ampliar la potencia y la pastosidad sonoras del instrumento, cuyo empeño tras de ardua labor y a través de pausados y concienzudos estudios electrofonicos, le llevó a la invención del Violín Eléctrico, logrando despuès de una obstinada labor, la construcción de un violín que fue perfeccionando, a fuerza de estudio y de voluntad, hasta conseguir la maravilla del sonido y de pureza que constituyen las más destacadas características de su Violín Eléctrico.
Translated in English
As a fervent violin enthusiast, he strives to achieve the maximum purity of sound and uniformity of vibrations through electricity, while also enhancing the power and softness of the instrument’s sound. These efforts, after diligent work and slow, conscientious electroacoustic studies, led him to the invention of the electric violin. It is a violin obtained through hard work, a construction that he perfected through extensive study and determination, ultimately achieving the marvel of sound and purity that constitute the most remarkable features of his electric violin.
His patent was filed in 1948.
These inventors are among the pioneers of the electric violin. However, during that time, the idea and interest in an electric violin were not taken seriously. It would take many decades before the electric violin gained significance. It was in the early 1960s that the instrument underwent new developments and became more popular.
The Vanguard of the Electric Violin
Clarence Leo Fender
In the late 1950s, Clarence Leo Fender, founder of the company bearing his name, introduced a new electric violin equipped with a magnetic pickup. His patent was filed in 1958. The diagrams in this patent depict a violin equipped with a pickup. The patent describes it as an electro-acoustic instrument. A year later, he filed a second patent protecting the design of the body of his electric violin.
It is likely the first electric violin to have been mass-produced in identical pieces. However, it is impossible to know the exact number of units produced for this model. The initial versions of the Fender electric violin were relatively heavy and did not achieve significant commercial success. Subsequently, the Fender company was taken over and reintroduced new versions of this instrument.
Spencer Lee Larisson (Xinde Corporation)
Spencer Lee Larisson founded the Xinde Corporation, which produced the Vitar electric violin in the early 1970s.
The patent filed in 1970 describes:
A stringed musical instrument, which is preferably adapted to be bowed, including a solid body and an elongated neck member attached to and extending from the body. […] Novel electronic pickup means is also provided including separate pickup devices for each string and separate means for adjusting the volume output from each string.
The patent details a 5-string electric violin equipped with a magnetic pickup. The design resembles that of an electric guitar. The body was made of fiberglass. The equalizer on the right side of the instrument is dedicated to controlling the volume per string. The instrument also featured a built-in fuzz called the DynaFUZZ.
The recognition of the electric violin
With the passing decades, numerous electric violins have emerged. Since the 1980s, they have experienced a revival with the rise of technology and the advent of modern music genres. The visibility of many violinists playing electric violins has made the instrument popular. All of this has enabled a greater number of violinists to embark on the ‘electrified’ adventure.
We have mentioned only a few names of inventors known for their contributions to the development of the electric violin. There are dozens of others. A quick search on the Google Patent database yields a vast number of results.
Sources and images: Wikipedia, Mark founder of metropolisnj (author about searches on the Vitar violin), users who sent us some pictures from museums or found on the Internet, Benedict Heaney (author about searches on the electric violin), Google Patent, YouTube, the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, the MET, Quant’Homme, the MIM.