Account Navigation

Account Navigation

Currency - All prices are in AUD

Currency - All prices are in AUD
 Loading... Please wait...
Don Rickert Musician Shop

Going Electric: Part II of A Different Way of Achieving the Range of an Octave Violin and Octave Viola

Posted by D. Rickert on

This article is by D. Rickert Musical Instruments, a highly regarded designer and maker of acoustic purpose-built octave violins and violas, as well as 4-string and 5-string electric violins. All of these instruments are sold via Don Rickert Musician Shop

Introduction  Electric and acoustic

This is the second (see Part I) in a three part series on the topic of using a 4-string or 5-string electric violin (and acoustic instruments with the right kind of pickup installed) together with the necessary effect signal processors to achieve a sound either one or two octaves lower than the violin’s or viola’s actual tuning.

Part I of this series introduced the possibility of “going electric.” It also acknowledged the reasons why someone would want to stay with an acoustic solution. Further, Part I also suggested a compromise approach, an acoustic instrument with the right kind of pickup installed.

This installment is all about the advantages of the electronic approach to octave synthesis and the challenges associated with a purely acoustic approach, especially with 5-string octave violas.

Advantages of a Real Electric Violin (as Opposed to an Acoustic with a Pickup)

The best electric violins come in a wide variety of shapes. Most are some variation of a solid body, chambered body or “skeletal”. They all have several things in common:

  • A substantial mass of material (usually wood) directly under the bridge
  • A bridge pickup with greater mass than a regular bridge (almost always a Barbera bridge on the best instruments)
  • Ergonomic aspects that make the instruments easier to hold while playing
  • Incredible bow response

Anyone who has had the pleasure of playing a high-end electric violin knows this to be true: The bow is far more responsive than with an acoustic instrument. This is a physics phenomenon having to do with the greater mass under the strings. I will leave it to physicist to explain exactly how this works. In simple practical terms, you can play faster, more accurately and with better nuance with a full-on electric violin. Also, unless you need the string height for violin techniques such as vibrato, you can usually get away with substantially lower string height on a real electric violin (at the nut as well as the bridge).

Bottom line: an electric violin with a good bow (carbon fiber, of course) helps you to be a more amazing player! For the fundamentalist anti-electric bigots. An electric violin does NOT make a beginner sound great. It merely helps the experienced player to realize his or her full potential.

If your goal is to play music in the cello range with a conventionally tuned electric violin, the amazing aspect is even more profound. Read on…

Playing an octave, or even two octaves, lower using electronic octave synthesis vs. playing one octave lower on a a specially set up and strung acoustic octave violin or viola.

Have you ever played an octave violin or viola? Even a good 4-string octave violin or viola, such as the ones that we (D. Rickert Musical Instruments) make is challenging to play. A 5-string octave violin or viola takes the difficulty level up a notch to wickedly difficult. Let us explore why.

Note: Keep in mind that we have been designing and making some of the world’s finest acoustic octave violins and violas for almost a decade. We love these instruments, as do our customers. Owing to our enduring love affair with acoustic octave instruments, we are intimately familiar with their limitations when compared to electric violins. We are telling it like it is! You should not expect anything less than the whole truth as we see it.

String height

Unlike a regular violin, and especially unlike an electric violin, the string height of octave violins and violas, particularly 5-string instruments with super fat C strings, must be quite high in order to accommodate the extreme vibration arc of the large diameter, low tuned octave strings. String vibrational movement on bowed instruments is primarily up and down; hence, the fingerboard buzz that is well familiar to players of all larger bowed string. Much force at the fingertips is necessary to push those fat strings to the fingerboard.

String diameters

With a normally tuned 5-string violin, the difference in thickness between the lowest string (C3 or C below middle C, which is indicated as C4) and the highest string (E5) is about a 2:1 ratio. In other words, the lowest string is about 2X (200%) that of the highest string. This difference is below the problem threshold for experienced players. Even if it were a problem, there is not much that could be done about it...those pesky laws of physics!

With a 5-string octave tuned viola, the lowest to highest string thickness ratio can be as much as 4.5:1 or 450%!

This dramatic difference between string diameters makes double-stopping quite difficult. It can be difficult to avoid touching adjacent strings when playing open string drones.

With dedication and practice, many learn to overcome the difficulties described. More than a few do not. They simply give up on becoming a good octave violin or octave viola player.


Playing a standard 4-string acoustic octave violin (no low C string) generally requires a viola bow or a special octave violin bow with very aggressive synthetic hair. For playing an octave viola, which always has a low C string, regardless of whether it is a 4-string or 5-string, some players use an extra stiff viola bow (often with aggressive synthetic hair); however, I would say that the majority uses a cello bow.

Regardless of the type of bow used, all octave violins and octave violas require a slower attack, more deliberate (more muscle required) bowing than either a 4-string or 5-string violin, especially an electric violin. Put another way, the acoustic versions of these octave-tuned instruments are bowed like a large viola or cello, a style of bowing that is quite different from violin bowing and well-understood by experienced violists. Viola style bowing really limits playing speed and requires greater physical effort. Ignoring this rule results in an unfocused “mush” of notes, screeches, scraping, etc.

Bowing more strings than you intend to bow

Remember the matter of the large difference in diameter between the highest string and the lowest strings on octave instruments? The most extreme case is that of a 5-string octave viola. I discussed the left-hand (fingering) issues. Well, here is what happens at the bridge end.

Bridge arc with fat strings problem illus

You start out with an acceptable bridge arc. The illustration shows what happens to that lovely bridge arc. As the strings get thicker on the bass side, you end up with an effective bridge arc that is as flat as any fiddle set up for old school Old-Time fiddling. Trying to cleanly bow the lower 3 strings becomes quite difficult.

A partial remedy is a significant “Hill bevel” in the fingerboard, as illustrated below.

Relief diagram

This allows lowering the nut under the C, and sometimes, the G-strings. A more extreme arc can then but carved into the bridge, alleviating the problem somewhat. This can only be done with an acoustic bridge, and not with a Barbera transducer bridge.

None of the above is necessary for a 5-string conventionally tuned electric violin!

Part III of this series will focus on the nuts and bolts of how you achieve lower octaves with an electric violin.

  • 4-string
  • 5-string
  • acoustic
  • acoustic-electric
  • amplifier
  • Barbera
  • D. Rickert
  • Don Rickert
  • effect
  • electric
  • Musical Instruments
  • Musician
  • Musician Shop
  • octave
  • octave viola
  • octave violin
  • pickup
  • pickups
  • processors
  • Shop
  • signal
  • signal processor