Electric Guitar: Closer to the Violin than the Acoustic

When people begin to learn the guitar, there’s a standard trajectory: start with an acoustic or classical guitar, get the basics down, and then move on to the electric. While this process may seem logical, it’s worth considering an alternate viewpoint. What if we approached the electric guitar more like we do the violin, rather than the acoustic guitar? Such a shift in perspective can unlock a deeper understanding and appreciation of the instrument.

Origins and Construction

Electric Guitar and Acoustic: Shared Ancestry, Different Paths

The electric and acoustic guitars share a common ancestry, evolving from early stringed instruments. However, they’ve diverged significantly in purpose, design, and technique. Acoustic and classical guitars are built to produce their sound acoustically through the vibration of strings and the resonance of the body. The sound is a direct result of string vibration transferred through the wood.

The electric guitar, however, uses electromagnetic pickups to detect string vibrations, converting them into an electrical signal. This signal is then amplified and shaped by external devices, such as amplifiers and effects pedals.

Violin and Electric Guitar: Unseen Similarities

The violin, like the electric guitar, has a strong dependency on external factors for its sound quality. A violin’s sound is influenced not just by its strings and body but by the bow, rosin, and even the room in which it’s played. Similarly, the electric guitar’s tone is influenced not only by its build and strings but by the pickups, the amp, effects pedals, and even the cable used. Both instruments rely on a system of components to achieve their final sound.

Technique and Expressiveness

The Vibrato Connection

One of the most striking similarities between the violin and electric guitar is the use of vibrato. Vibrato on a violin is achieved by oscillating the pitch of a note through the motion of the fingers on the strings. This technique adds warmth and expressiveness to the sound.

Similarly, electric guitarists use vibrato by quickly bending and releasing a string. This technique isn’t as common in acoustic guitar playing, primarily because of the nature of steel-string or nylon-stringed guitars, which are harder to bend compared to the slinky strings of an electric. By approaching the electric guitar with the nuanced vibrato of a violinist, one can extract a rich palette of tones and emotions.

Dynamic Control

Violinists use bow pressure and speed to control dynamics. The proximity of the bow to the bridge can also affect tone—closer to the bridge produces a brighter sound, while playing further away gives a mellower tone. This range of tonal possibilities offers violinists a world of expression.

Electric guitarists can similarly explore dynamics and tone by adjusting pick attack, using volume controls, and manipulating the guitar’s tone knobs. The electric guitar offers a similar range of tonal possibilities when played with the same detailed attention to dynamics.

Amplification and Effects: Crafting the Sound

Both the violin and electric guitar depend heavily on external equipment to shape their sound. A violinist chooses the right bow, considers the type of rosin, and even the room’s acoustics play a part.

Electric guitarists choose from a myriad of pickups, effects, amplifiers, and cabinets to craft their desired tone. From the raw, unadulterated signal of a Fender Stratocaster played through a vintage tube amp, to the heavily distorted tones of a Gibson Les Paul through a high-gain stack, the possibilities are endless.

Beyond Tradition: Embracing a New Perspective

Shedding Preconceptions

Just as a violinist doesn’t compare their instrument to a cello or double bass, electric guitarists might benefit from not comparing their instrument directly to its acoustic counterpart. By considering it in light of another instrument, like the violin, electric guitarists can uncover new techniques, sounds, and methods of expression.

Exploratory Learning

Imagine an electric guitar curriculum that starts not with basic chords, but with lessons on tone crafting, understanding amplifier settings, and dynamic pick control. This could be revolutionary, akin to how a budding violinist learns about bowing techniques, dynamics, and phrasing early on.

The Great Masters: A Closer Listen to Guitar Virtuosos

The Confluence of Violin and Guitar Techniques

If we lend a discerning ear to the world of electric guitar, it becomes apparent that many guitar virtuosos have already been blending techniques and nuances typical of violin playing into their music. Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Allan Holdsworth, among others, showcase this amalgamation of styles in their work.

Yngwie Malmsteen’s demonstration of violin-like technique
Source: Official Yngwie Malmsteen
  1. Yngwie Malmsteen: Known for his neoclassical metal style, Malmsteen’s technique, especially his fast arpeggios, sweeping, and scalar runs, is reminiscent of classical violin virtuosos like Niccolò Paganini. Malmsteen has often cited Paganini as an influence.
  2. Steve Vai: Vai’s approach to the guitar often exhibits a refined, almost orchestral quality. Songs like “For the Love of God” display a violin-like expressiveness in his bends and vibratos.
  3. Allan Holdsworth: Renowned for his legato technique, Holdsworth’s style can be compared to a violinist’s bowing. His use of extended chords and unique scales also contributes to a sound that’s distinct from typical rock guitar playing.
  4. Jeff Beck: Particularly in his later work, Beck’s use of volume swells, whammy bar, and finger technique can sometimes evoke the gentle and lyrical quality of a violin. His ability to create emotive, voice-like phrasing is especially noteworthy.
  5. Jason Becker: Known for his neoclassical style, Becker, much like Malmsteen, incorporates fast and fluid runs that are reminiscent of classical violin.
  6. Uli Jon Roth: Formerly of Scorpions, Roth has a distinct style that fuses classical motifs with rock guitar. His Sky Guitar was specifically designed to achieve a range closer to that of a violin.

Why Aspiring Guitarists Should Explore the World of Violin

For serious guitarists aiming to expand their musical vocabulary and technique, there is a trove of inspiration to be found in the world of violin and classical repertoire. Here’s why:

  1. Broadening Musical Horizons: The classical repertoire is vast and varied, offering a rich tapestry of musical ideas, phrasing, and dynamics that can be integrated into electric guitar playing.
  2. Technique and Precision: Violin pieces demand a level of precision that can push guitarists to perfect their technique. Mastering a piece from the classical repertoire can instill discipline and rigor in practice routines.
  3. Understanding Dynamics: As mentioned earlier, violinists have a deep connection with dynamics through their bowing techniques. By studying violin compositions, guitarists can develop a more nuanced understanding of dynamics and phrasing.
  4. Emotional Depth: Many violin pieces, especially those from the Romantic era, are replete with emotional depth and expressiveness. Exploring these pieces can inspire guitarists to bring a similar level of emotional resonance to their playing.

Conclusion

While the acoustic and electric guitars will always be connected by their shared lineage, the electric guitar stands apart in many ways, making it more akin to the violin. Both the violin and electric guitar rely on a combination of technique, equipment, and environmental factors to produce their characteristic sounds. By approaching the electric guitar with the same depth and nuance as a violin, guitarists can discover new dimensions of this beloved instrument.

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