Early this year, it became clear that the pair of Headway Band pickups I had used to play amplified gigs on both violin and viola were nearing end-of-life, and a like-for-like replacement wasn’t going to be the best way forward. They had served me well, especially at the price, but it was time for an upgrade, or at least a change of tack.
The viola Band went first, but the nature of what I play amplified viola for (String Project gigs mostly, and some work in pocket string sections for relatively restrained ensembles / performers), and the fact that I play a relatively large proportion of the time acoustically, meant that a more nearly similar replacement was the obvious choice. The onstage volumes are (again, relatively) low, feedback had never been a significant problem and I didn’t want to acquire another instrument – especially as violas are almost always different sizes, and it’s bad enough swapping between violin and one viola without my muscle memory having to try and play in tune on two different viola scale lengths too! On a mixture of recommendation and availability, I ended up going for a Fishman V-200:
As you can see, this fits semi-permanently to the instrument, which is arguably the big difference to the Band (I can remove and refit it myself, but it’s a hassle and involves taking a lot of tension off at least the bottom two strings, so in practice I don’t). It certainly doesn’t have any of the issues of loosening, physically buzzing etc. that tend to dog the Band, especially once it’s in at all bad condition. The output level is higher (I think) and the frequency response curve different, which means engineers used to one take a bit of time to get used to the other, but I absolutely don’t think there’s anything inferior about the quality of the sound.
Interestingly, as well as rehearsing, I’ve played two chamber group-sized acoustic performances recently with the pickup still attached and not noticed any problem. Presumably there must be some impact to the sound involved in wedging a small piece of springy metal into one slot of the bridge (the fact of clipping on the output socket is probably negligible when the body is already weighed down by a chinrest and shoulder rest), but it doesn’t seem to be noticeable to me or anyone else else at my level of playing and my audiences’ level of listening. The instrument still seems to be more powerful than average too!
The violin pickup has held up longer (in fact thanks to superglue I can and will be using it a little bit yet). But the vast majority of my amplified violin performances are fairly heavily amplified, with The Filthy Spectacula and Kindred Spirit. Either I’m playing with rock drummers on full acoustic kits – in which case monitors are correspondingly loud and stage volumes high – or doing Kindred Spirit duo gigs very close up against monitor and front of house speakers, without anyone riding the desk to try and head off feedback. And in both cases I’ve taken to varying the sound by using a distortion pedal, which even at the same volume is more prone to feedback.
The sensible response to this had to wait for some income to arrive that wasn’t part of the ordinary run of things. But here it is:
A Harley Benton HBV 870BK if you want to go and look up the specs, fresh arrived from Thomann (don’t ask me why the most practical solution turned out to be to buy an American-made instrument, in the UK, via a supplier in Germany).
Unlike the handful of very budget electric violins I’ve tried, this has the same scale length and neck length / shoulder positioning as a full-size conventional violin. The action height and bridge shape seem pretty normal too (I’m increasingly convinced there’s something unusual about the shape of the bridge on my other violin mind you). This meant I could pick it up and play it first time successfully, and swap between this and an acoustic fiddle without losing tuning or failing to make position changes accurately – ideal for a ‘portfolio’ player like me. Like all solid body electric instruments it’s heavy, but the weight is mostly distributed well towards you as you hold it (the output socket is more or less under the bridge, for instance) and based on first tries I think I’ll be able to get used to it.
It looks very rock-monster, and I’m sure the potential is there to create heavy electric-guitar-esque sounds, but the underlying technology is actually the piezo crystal pickup familiar from almost all electro-acoustic instruments (the model, Shadow, is available as a respectable add-on pickup for acoustic violins, in the same mould as the Fishman above). This means the clean output is very similar to using the Band on the acoustic violin – but with a solid body feedback will be almost impossible, and being manufactured from scratch as an electric instrument and without the knife-edge mechanics of resonating acoustic bodies, there should be no problem with physical buzzes, rattles or losses of signal.
I need to get a bit more used to this before I bring it out in public I think, and I have the luxury of the pickup still working so I’m not rushed, but still coming soon to a gig near you: the chance to shout ‘Judas on the fiddle!’