Electric Instruments: Amps

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Finding the right amplifier can be just as difficult as finding the right electric violin. Unfortunately for us electric violinists, most amplifiers on the market are designed for guitar, specifically electric guitar. Now, any amplifier will amplify your electric violin, but you may have difficulty getting the exact tone you are looking for. Why? A violin has a much wider frequency range than a guitar, and produces many over and undertones. Through years of trial and error, I found that most electric guitar amplifiers cannot quite handle the upper octaves of a violin; they start sound quite shrill once you get to the E string.

The best solutions we have found here at Johnson String Instrument are amplifiers designed for acoustic instruments and guitars, like the Fishman Loudbox and the Roland AC series. These amps are designed to reproduce the sound of the instrument that you plug in, a tremendously helpful feature when you are trying to make your violin sound like a violin. Acoustic amplifiers can also handle the wide range of a violin, and most have anti-feedback systems which are extremely useful when you are using a pickup on an acoustic violin.

Figuring out which one to purchase? This decision is highly dependent on what you are planning. A little amplifier like the Roland Mobile AC is surprisingly loud, but would have difficulty competing with a full band. It is a great little amp for practicing, traveling and busking. If you are looking for a portable amp that is loud enough for small venues and groups, a Fishman Loudbox Mini or Roland AC-33 will do the trick. The Loudbox Mini packs a little more punch, which the AC-33 counters with an on-board looping function you can use to channel your inner Andrew Bird.

Looking for more volume to play with a rock band? The Roland AC-60 or Fishman Loudbox Artist should do the trick. If you need even more volume to compete with guitarists using tube amps and drummers with full kits who like to play loudly, you may need the power of the Fishman Loudbox Performer. The performer will allow you to be heard in any situation.

Any of these amps are a wonderful choice and will help make your electric violin sound like a violin. If you decide this isn’t what you want, you can always dive into the wonderful world of effects and add distortion, delay and modulation stomp boxes; stay tuned for more on these and other topics related to electric instruments!

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Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Alex Wagner

Find the best violin strings for your playing

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We’ve highlighted the general search for strings, and talked about the particular challenges facing cellists. Now, we’re entering the world of violin strings.

Violin is used in an astonishing range of genres, each style making different demands on the player. Ultimately, as we’ve mentioned before,  you will need to experiment and find what works best for you. Some factors to consider are:

Style of playing: Different styles make different demands. Are you an orchestral musician? A soloist? A bluegrass fiddler? Play violin in a band? All of these are going to require different types of sound and therefore different types of strings.

Price Range: While it might not the same financial commitment as cello strings, high level violin strings can be pricey. It’s worth getting advice from your peers or talking to a luthier to find out what type of string would work best for your genre or instrument before making a purchase.

That infamous open E-string whistle: I’m sure many of you are hearing it as you read this. Whistling happens when the string vibrates in a twisting (torsional) motion instead of side to side. This can be caused by many different things, but essentially anything that impedes how the string vibrates can cause that sound. Some instruments are more susceptible to it than others, but most players have experienced this at least once in their lives. There are a few things that can fix this:

  1. Make sure that your left hand is not touching the string at all.
  2. Keep your bow closer to the bridge when you’re playing open E.
  3. Use a wound E string.
  4. Have a luthier check your setup. There could be something about it that is exacerbating the problem.
  5. Many violinists swear by the Kaplan Solutions Non-Whistling E string or the Pirastro No. 1 E string.

A note on E strings–many violinists will buy one set of strings for the bottom 3 strings and a separate E string, or a whole set of  one brand of strings for the instrument (a generalization, but a preference we’ve noticed). Here is a list of preferred violin strings: 

Popular Violin Strings Chart

Check out our complete listing of violin strings here.

As always, feel free to call or stop by our Newton store for more recommendations!

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Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Silvija Kristapsons

Upright bass: integral to jazz and classical music

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The bass is arguably the most integral component of any group. Can you imagine a jazz standard without the bass line, or an orchestral masterwork without a bass section? As the instrument with the lowest range, the bass provides the foundation for almost all music we are familiar with. For all of its importance, it is also a surprisingly unknown instrument and one that invites myriad of questions, including the favorite “don’t you wish you played flute?”

(The answer is no, by the way.)

Whether you call it upright bass, double bass, string bass, or just bass, it is different from the rest of the string family in a few ways. First, it is tuned in fourths rather than fifths. It also sounds an octave lower than what the player reads on the page.

The two main genres people associate with the bass are jazz and classical. Each of these genres have their own use for the instrument and superstars who dominate the field. What are some of these differences?

TECHNIQUE

In jazz, the bass is almost exclusively plucked.  Classical repertoire requires both the bow and pizzicato. Bass is unique among string instruments in that it has two different types of bows and bow holds: French (similar to a cello bow) and German (held with an underhanded grip).

TYPES OF PERFORMANCE OPPORTUNITIES

Of course, there is always room for innovators in any genre (think Esperanza Spalding or Edgar Meyer), but these are the most prominent positions you can expect to see for bass players in the two this post addresses:

Bass performance chart

 

ACCESSORIES

Bass players will need things like rosin (most popular are Pops, Nyman, and Carlsson), a wheel for transport, and a bib for comfort. Jazz players may also need a pickup on their instrument, an amp, or may even use an electric bass for ease of transportation among many other benefits. Brands that manufacture electric basses include Yamaha and NS.

Keep an eye out for more posts about bass in the future!

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Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Silvija Kristapsons

Electric Violins are a new take on a classic instrument

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The world of electric violins is a small yet wonderful world. If you are ready to take the plunge, then read on!

The first step in choosing an electric violin is determining what its primary use will be. Are you looking for an instrument for performance or for silent practice? What style of music will you be playing? Rock, jazz, classical? It is also important to consider the tone you are looking for; do you want an instrument with a more acoustic tone, or an instrument with a distinct electric sound and feel? Think of the difference between an electric and acoustic guitar.

Now on to choosing the right violin. At Johnson String Instrument we are proud to carry a selection of electric instruments from Yamaha, NS Design, Realist, Bridge and our very own Johnson EV-4 Companion. For an instrument suited to silent practice, the Yamaha SV-130, SV-150 and Johnson Companion are great options. Both the SV-130 and Companion are quite versatile and make great entry level instruments for performance as well.

If you are looking for an instrument with a focus on performance, Yamaha and NS Design make fantastic options. The Yamaha SV-200, 250 and 255 all work well for performance with their advanced pick up systems, but retain the headphone output for silent practice. The NS Design violins all have a focus on performance; from the WAV to the CR model, all feature a unique solid body design. How to choose between a Yamaha and an NS Design? In this author’s opinion, the Yamaha instruments feel and sound much closer to an acoustic violin, while NS Design violins feel very much like an “electric” instrument. Both are very high quality instruments, so you cannot go wrong with either.

Another option is an acoustic-electric violin, like the Realist RV-series instruments. Essentially a regular violin with a built-in pickup system, these instruments provide the best of both worlds. A similar solution is to install a pickup on your acoustic violin. Choosing the right one is similar to choosing the right electric violin: it involves experimentation and knowing what you want out of the instrument.

Once you have chosen your electric violin, there are a few accessories you will need. As far as bows go, you can use the same bow you have always used. If you are looking for something specific, CodaBow has developed the Joule, a carbon fiber bow specifically designed for use with electric violins. Gig bags are available for Yamaha electric instruments, but any standard case can also accommodate their models. NS Design requires a brand-specific case. An amplifier is necessary as well for almost all electric instruments we carry except the Yamaha SV-150, which is exclusively a practice instrument.

Keep an eye out for future posts about choosing amplifiers and more information about electric instruments!

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Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Alex Wagner

Cello strings that fit your instrument and style

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We’ve already talked about choosing strings in the general sense. However, what about the specific needs of the cello? There are many additional factors to consider:

Price: Cello strings are more expensive than those for other instruments. The G and C strings in particular are costly–a C string alone can run the same price as a full set of violin strings. Thankfully, a cellist’s C string is not as thin as a violinist’s E and will last longer.

Playing level: More expensive brands may not be necessary for beginning players, while less expensive brands may not provide enough color or nuance for more advanced players. Teachers will often have recommendations or preferences for their students, and what you prefer when you are first starting out will probably differ from what you prefer further into your playing career.

Style of playing: This does not refer to genre alone–how you play will also determine what you’re looking for. Have an aggressive playing style? You may need something different than someone who doesn’t.

Mixing and Matching: More so than violin, most cellists do not use a complete set of one brand. Many use two different brands for the top and bottom strings, while others go so far as to have different brands for all strings. You’ll need to experiment to find the right fit for your instrument. See the chart below for common preferences:

Cello Strings Chart

But what about electric cellos?

The same principle applies–you’ll need to experiment and see what works best for your instrument. Some brands make strings specifically for their instruments (like NS Design), but many electric cellos can use the same strings as an acoustic instrument. Be careful though; some pick-ups will require a specific type of string in order to function correctly.

When in doubt, talk to your luthier or salesperson–they will have invaluable firsthand knowledge that can help you find the right cello string for you.

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Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Silvija Kristapsons

Practice Tips

Practicing: the necessary evil of all musicians. We log countless hours plugging away at passages we just can’t seem to get right and etudes that drive us up a wall. How do you stay motivated and not waste time? Our staff has advice on everything from motivation to tackling that beastly passage:

 

Obviously, warming up is essential for the physical aspect of practicing. However, it’s also important to warm up your mind and get in the right head space before working on a difficult passage or technique. Beginning your session with fundamentals, a piece you know well, or some improvisation will help to establish focus and increase your productivity once you get to the serious wood shedding.

Rob Laff, General Manager, Bass


 

-Look for extra practice opportunities no matter where you need to do it. Don’t just practice at home. For years I have brought an instrument with me every day to work which I spend my entire break, alone, practicing. My last job wasn’t friendly to inside practice so I would simply take the instrument outside to a nearby park or the sidewalk. People will stare, let them stare!

-Invest in a “beat up” practice instrument.

Amer Koudsi, Customer Service Representative, Guitar and Bass


 

The best advice I ever received was this: If you are not feeling all that motivated to practice at a certain time, still go to the practice room. Do not allow yourself to get involved with other activities. Just sit there. Eventually you will just get bored and practicing will not seem so bad!

Matthew Fritz, Director of Sales and Acquisitions, Violin


Practicing is a skill that develops over time (and frankly one I didn’t truly learn until college). The two things that made a major difference in my playing were simply:

  1. If you know a particular section of the music well, stop practicing it until you need to use it in a larger context of the piece. Practicing passages that you know only wastes your valuable practice time. Practice time is better spent on correctly repeating sections that are still difficult. They become easier over time.
  2. I always had success working backwards. Starting at the end of the piece for some reason made things go more smoothly for me. I think a large reason of its success for me was that it forces you to work in small increments, whether that be a line of music, a measure, or even tricky passages within a measure. This allows not only for easily digestible sections but it always puts the music into context and avoids awkward transitions. But remember to refer to step one; once you get back to your comfort zone, stop. Running the piece as a whole should only be done when you are in the final steps of preparation for a performance.

Justin Davis, School Program and Guitar Specialist, Guitar


-When practicing, always have a goal and deadline in mind.

-Be sure to always practice your scales and the passages you are finding difficult to play.

-Practice using a metronome.

-Practice slowly and clean/polish your messy passages.

-Use a mirror.

-Be practical and don’t waste time by zoning out while practicing. Keep yourself mentally engaged.

-Slow down your right hand if it can not catch up with your left hand.

Armenuhi Hovakimian, Sales Representative, Violin


 

-Don’t expect to fix an issue or fully accomplish learning a technique or a piece within one practice session. It is easy to get frustrated if you overestimate what can be accomplished in a short amount of time, so it’s better to adjust your expectations and think of a practice session as one step on the staircase of improvement: the length of the staircase may vary depending on the goal (and you can argue that the staircase never ends), but this way you will find value in your practice and will not get discouraged if you don’t master something as quickly as you would like.

-Make yourself comfortable! Practicing is much more enjoyable if your surroundings suit your style. For example, if you are always cold (like me), make sure you practice in a warm area or wear finger-less gloves, and be sure to give yourself time to warm up properly. If you prefer privacy while you work, find a time to practice when no one else is home. If you like to take breaks, take them! Do whatever makes you comfortable and suits your personal style the best.

-COFFEE IS MAGIC-I enjoy practicing most when I have an ice coffee readily available!

Theresa Cleary, Customer Service Representative, Viola

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Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Silvija Kristapsons