An Electric Violin in the Making …

As many of you know,  I split my music career and ministry into two distinct camps: Performer and Educator. I have a sense of real calling to both – I love teaching and passing on this amazing art form of playing the violin … and I love performing.

Occasionally,  I feel led to highlight the accomplishments of some of my music students. I have done this previously here and here.

Today I would like to talk about another senior student, Isaac Jackiw, who has taken it upon himself to design and build his own electric violin! It has been very cool to watch his journey unfold from the initial dream, to a design and now the final stages of construction. There is SO MUCH in music to explore and learn and I really enjoy the unique gifts, interests and skills my students bring. Along with exploring contemporary violin styles, improvisation, recording techniques and other “non-classical” skills, Isaac is learning (with the guidance of Luthier, Terry Maurice) about the Science and Art of building an electric violin. He is combining his interest in design, woodworking and electronics with his music education.  A recent email from Isaac explains the process (how long he has worked on it) and the interesting story behind the walnut he used for the instrument:

There’s actually a cool story behind the walnut that I used. I got it from my grandfather who had originally bought it about 20 years ago to make the frames for three cedar strip canoes (one for my father, one for my uncle, and one for my aunt). Later, he used the same walnut to make two music stands (the one in my
room, and the one in the living room).

The question on how long I’ve been working on it is totally dependent on what you mean by ‘working on it’. I started thinking of building one, and all of the research, in about November ’07. I then worked on several drafts of the design before my final one from then until about May ’08. While I was working on the drafts, I got a lot of technical recommendations from Terry. Then, in June ’08, I actually started the construction process. For that, I visited my Grandfather and Grandmother for a week, and my grandfather, one of his friends and I worked on cutting the wood in my Grandfather’s friend’s workshop (for this, I had to make stencils based on my final draft). In September, I started doing weekly sessions with Terry while he taught me how to properly use and maintain planes, scrapers, chisels, etc. as well as various elements of making/repairing violins. In this, I also learned quite a few things to keep in mind for the next violin (particularly, things NOT to do again!). I’m still working on it with Terry, as we hit quite a few snags in some of the design (mostly related to how I made the neck). I hope that once I finish this violin, I can start moving into acoustic violin repair, and acoustic violin crafting, while still making a few more electrics (I’ve actually had a friend request one, not quite ready for that yet), and maybe even someday moving into viola’s and guitars.

I am very proud of Isaac’s accomplishments. Here are a few pics of his progress thus far … Until next time. TD


Isaac's drawings of the electric violin


Isaac glues the neck to the body of the instrument in Terry Maurice's workshop


The finger-board is now on ... the instrument in taking shape (Isaac used some walnut supplied by his Grandfather for the body of the electric violin) ... a very cool design!

An Amazing Gift! – My New 5-String Viola …

On Sept. 4th, 2008 just in time for my 42nd birthday, I received an amazing gift of a new instrument: a 5-String Viola built by Luthier, Jacobus van Soelen of Capetown, South Africa. It is the acoustic equivalent to my Ned Steinberger Electric Violin.

Back in August of 2007 when I was recording the “Glory and Peace” project, I was introduced (over the internet) to Jacob via Terry Maurice, my violin repair friend who sells and repairs stringed instruments in his Guelph home studio. I was privileged to borrow a beautiful 4-String van Soelen Viola on the live “Peace” project recordings. At that time, I mentioned to Terry that I would be interested in purchasing a 5-String Viola some day (a viola with an additional higher E String). Jacob made me a no obligation offer to design a 5-String viola … and that was the beginning of an exciting collaboration to design the viola I now play today!


Performing “Peace” in the 2007 Glory and Peace Tour with dancer, Hannah Briggs on the loaned Jacobus van Soelen viola.

Here are a few excerpts of some of the many detailed emails we sent back and forth while deciding on the design of the new 5-String …

Jacob wrote:

“Hi Team, I happen to have a 16 1/4” (standard classical Italian size) Brescian back and head already completed (for a previously cancelled commission), so I only need to make the top and finish the neck and fingerboard. Therefore, from here to completion might be as short as 3 weeks, plus another 3 weeks for varnishing. It is a “generic” Brescian model, with influences from both Gasparo da Salo and Zanetto. It has single purfling like a “normal” viola, not the customary double Brescian purfling, with the long, narrow head having a single fluting a-la Zanetto instead of the normal double fluting – quite funky. The ribs are of moderate height (38mm-36mm) which should assist a quicker response. The body is fairly wide, but lightly-proportioned, with a moderate but strong arching … ”

“… Attached you will find illustrations of my proposals for nut and bridge string spacing … As far as I can ascertain, the bridge top radius for viola is pretty much the same as for violin: 42 degrees. Because the strings are spaced further apart on a viola bridge (about 12.5mm) , the string clearance is increased: it is about 2mm. I normally prefer a viola bridge with a feet spread of 46mm, but in this case I think one will have to go with 48mm. If the string spacing is decreased to about 11.6mm, the radius has to be tightened to 38 degrees to maintain a 2mm string clearance. Although the illustration isn’t exactly to scale, one can see that the difference isn’t that big – big enough to provide the required string clearance, but not big enough to affect bowing negatively … “


Jacob’s diagram of proposed nut and bridge string spacings

” … The varnishing process is starting tomorrow. I have lost track of how far I am behind my projected schedule at this stage – Trevor, you might like to ask Terry why he calls me ‘Luigi’ …

“At this stage I’m pretty sure I understand, after some enquiries, reading and thinking, why a regular-type violin e-string won’t work on that length. I will try a long violin e-string, but I think an interim solution will be either banjo wire or a guitar string. Nevertheless, I think I may be able to prevail on two of my suppliers (Lenzner and Warchal) to make me e-strings with a vibrating length of 375mm, with the appropriate characteristics to make them work. That is the key in this case – an e-string with the appropriate tension and mass for that length. I am convinced that it can be done, and that such an e-string will make a 5-string VIOLA (as opposed to VIOLIN) a pretty straight-forward proposition as far as that aspect of the puzzle is concerned … “


Jacobus van Soelen building a violin in his shop in Capetown, South Africa

” … Well, I’ve done a preliminary setup (the tailpiece needs to be finished and stained and the bridge needs more trimming), and low and behold, we have a 5-string viola. I’m so surprised I don’t know what to say. There are no tonal issues at all – all the strings respond perfectly. Somewhere up the A-string and onto the E-string there is an almost imperceptible tonal shift from viola to a dark kind of violin sound. The e-string responds well all the way. In general I think this one has a bit of an easier response than the one Trevor used for the recording … There are setup issues for me to solve still. I don’t know if one will ever be able to compare a 5-string to a 4-string in terms of playing comfort. There are a lot of compromises to make. At present the e and C are very close to the edge of the fingerboard. The alternative would have been a wider neck, and a commensurate loss of comfort. The distance between the strings approach that of a 3/4 violin setup, but Helicore strings are quite thin compared to most other viola strings … ”

” … I’m a bit dazed – the setup was very hard (I had to make a second tailpiece today because I got the string spacings wrong on #1), and I was so scared that the whole thing would be a tonal disaster. That it works so well is almost an anti-climax after all the planning, theorising and agonizing …”

” I opted for boxwood fittings. I therefore had to make the tailpiece from light-coloured wood. The first one had the string spacing all wrong. The second one was too long – I couldn’t tune the after-length correctly. The third – and best – was of Bosnian maple. At that point I discovered that the banjo wire on the uncovered (no end-windings) e-string had already started to chew into the boxwood peg. Also, I don’t have either a boxwood side-mounted chinrest which works on this viola, nor an over-the-tailpiece chin-rest which fits … So, I’m now busy exchanging the pegs for ebony ones, and making tailpiece #4 in ebony … However, I’m still hoping to send off the monster this week”


With Terry Maurice in his string shop after purchasing the new 5-String Viola

My email to Jacob after playing his 5-String Viola for the first time on Dec. 6, 2007:

Hi Jacob,

I had the chance this afternoon to try your new 5-String Viola. It is beautiful! – very nice rich tone throughout – and the E sounds excellent as well – did not get sacrificed at all. A very good call going with a banjo string. Terry has agreed to let me give it a good work out on the remainder of my Christmas “Glory and Peace” tour so I am really looking forward to this. He is doing a final little set up on it as I write. Thanks again for partnering with us on this.


Jacob’s response …

Hi Trevor,

Thanks for your comments! It was a very interesting experience for me to try and work out the challenges posed by that instrument. I think tonally the key is the banjo string – without the correct gauge I don’t think one will be able to make an E on a viola work. If you didn’t forward me those websites the instrument might never have worked. It’s great that you will taking it through its paces on your tour.

Thanks also for the photos. You really are tall, the viola looks like a violin in your hands … Best J

Just today, Jacob wrote the following …

Your viola has been a “special project” for me in many ways, and I am just very happy with the eventual outcome. To have had the viola eventually sold to somebody else would simply not have felt right to me …

So … 9 months later, after all the hours of research and Jacob’s amazing attention to detail, perseverance and craftsmanship (as shown in these emails and photos) I have been blessed with this new instrument. The Flyingbow Board, who gifted this instrument to me, feel it will be an excellent tool to keep me moving forward in this ministry God has called me to. I pray He will use this new instrument for His glory and honour. I know it will inspire a whole new album of material. I have had a chance thus far to perform two concerts on it to very receptive audiences. It is truly a beautiful instrument with a rich, responsive tone that will be an integral part of my concerts and recordings for years to come … Until next time … TD


My “5-String Pair” of instruments nestled in a new custom double violin/viola case supplied by Terry Maurice …

Shopping For Two New Student Violins

I have the privilege of teaching approximately 35 violin (2 cello) students in my Guelph home studio in all music styles from classical (Royal Conservatory) to Celtic fiddle, Jazz to electric violin Rock. I love violin instruction/coaching and am blessed to work with a wonderful group of students and parents. On Monday this week I took two of my students and a parent shopping for two new full 4/4 size violins. They had both outgrown their 3/4 size instruments. For a small consulting fee, I regularly set up appointments in private and large violin shops to get the “best instrument” within a particular price range. On this day we chose three violin shops: Terry Maurice – a private dealer and restorer in Guelph, Phil Davis – a private dealer and restorer in Toronto, and Geo. Heinl & Co. Ltd. – Canada’s foremost and oldest violin shop in Toronto currently presided over by Ric Heinl. Our price range was $1500 to $2000 for the one student and $3000-$4000 for the other. I am constantly amazed by the instruments that win the “sound tests”on these violin shopping trips. Here is the process we took on Monday …

After packing our lunches and downing a much needed coffee, we started at Terry Maurice’s shop (a large main floor show room and the basement of his beautiful heritage cottage in Guelph) at 8 a.m. He had aprox. 8 instruments in our price range which we quickly boiled down to two that stood out from the rest with a beautiful full sound. These we packed into a double violin case, and before long we were on the 401 headed for Toronto for our next stop, Phil Davis.

Students with Terry Maurice

Terry Maurice and two of my students with their “trial” violins

Terry’s violins stayed in the car as we entered Phil Davis’s home studio at 10:45 a.m. (a basement walkout addition on his beautiful old Danforth home). He also had 8 or 9 instruments from which we selected the 3 best options to take with us along with 2 German bows to our next stop: Heinls.

Phil Davis and Students

Phil Davis and students with another “trial” violin

After cutting along the Danforth and weaving our way to the down town Toronto core (with a bit of crazy Toronto driving I must add!) we pulled into a back alley behind Heinls by 12 noon and found an open parking spot. Whenever I go to Heinls I always use this little known “secret” back entrance for Heinls for the “regulars”… feels like spy operation stuff: you ring a little doorbell just off the alley … and one of the workers inside asks for the secret password (Stradivarius) and let’s you in … just kidding! … but anyway … I think in the 25 years I have visited Heinls, I have only entered the main front entrance twice! This is where the real violin “trials” began. With our 5 trial instruments in hand from the Maurice and Davis shops, sales manager, Andreas, ushered us upstairs past a “who’s who” gallery of famous string players, past the famous violin workshop to a beautiful large room with comfortable leather chairs dedicated to auditioning instruments. It was here in Canada’s hallowed and oldest violin store that we started the “violin trials”. Within 15 minutes, Andreas had brought up another 20-30 instruments in our price range … we quickly went through the whole group and boiled it down to the top ten … from these violins we started using the “blindfold test” …

Heinls Audition Room

Two students and a parent in Heinl’s large “audition room”

Student Blindfold Violin Test

A student using a blindfold to test a violin in Heinl’s large “audition room”

The “blindfold test” is a final selection process where the student wears a blindfold so they only focus on the sound and feel of the instrument, not the look and name … With their blind fold on, I give them violin A, B and C to play and they tell me which one they like the best. The parent and I also listen to the tone of each as well. We continue this process of elimination until only one instrument is left. Here are a few quick tips to follow while you select a violin:

1/ Shop around at a variety of specialty violin stores. Don’t shop at general music stores that sell other instruments. Private violin shops often have some real gems so make sure you include a smaller private shop in your list of places to visit. Take the best instrument with you to the next store.

2/ Sound is everything! Don’t get caught up in the name, price, age or look of the instrument (thus the blind fold test!) Don’t worry about the look of chin rests, pegs etc

3/ You want to find a violin that sounds nice to both the player and the listener. It is possible to play an instrument that sounds very small and pinched to the players ear but sounds beautiful and full to the listener and visa versa … it is important, though, as a player to be inspired by the sound of your violin and also have the knowledge that what you are hearing is what the audience is hearing.

4/ When you are trying out the violin, play it in it’s full range from the g to the e string in a variety of positions. Scales are a good place to start (2 and 3 octave) … then play a song (the same song on each instrument) that you know well …

5/ If possible, take your teacher or another professional player who can really give the instrument a workout for you to hear as a parent or student. This can be a valuable resource.

A good online article on this topic to read is “How to choose a violin” by Peter Zaret

Student’s Winning Violin

And the winner is … a 2004 handmade violin by Christina Yankovich

To make a long story short … Monday morning’s violin shopping trip ended up with two clear winners … 1) a French turn of the century factory made violin that had been “reworked” (ribs, back and top reshaped internally to correct proportions) by Terry Maurice to produce a superior sound and 2) a handmade 2004 Stradivarius modeled violin by Christina Yankovich from the shop of Philip Davis. I guess the two small violin shops won out this time! Overall a very productive day with two very happy and newly inspired students!

You can contact: Terry Maurice in Guelph at: 519-763-8481, Phil Davis in Toronto at: 416-466-9619 and Heinl’s at: 1-800-387-7858

Until next time … TD