Or: How That Gorgeous Piece Of Violinly Loveliness Came To Feature In The Top Left Corner Of My Blog
Due to the sporadic nature of my web reading and news following, it would appear that it took a year for me to find out that Tucker Barrett, the designer and maker of my much beloved electric violin, has ceased manufacture and development of his bowed string instruments.
For me, this represented the end of something very unique and special. I felt very sad that Tucker wasn’t going to be developing his fabulous design any further. I felt really depressed that the option to order a new Barrett custom violin with six or seven strings (as opposed to the five string model I currently play) was no longer going to be available to me. And I felt really bad that more people weren’t going to get the chance to own and play one of these (as yet) unsurpassed violins.
On the other hand, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to acquire a custom made version of one of these fantastic instruments. I find myself hoping that if Tucker really doesn’t want to work on his design anymore, perhaps he might license the design to another maker, who might take the development of it on to new heights.
And I find myself thinking about how I ended up having one of these for my very own.
Ever since I started playing amplified gigs full time in the mid 80’s, I was plagued with the problems of amplifying an acoustic violin. The primary problems were:
- Horrible amplified sound, which was not true to the sound of the unamplified acoustic instrument
- Equipment which was not designed for use with violins (most usually adapted for use from dedicated guitar equipment), and was therefore not designed to function optimally with the unique requirements of the violin
- Feedback (where the amplified sound of the violin causes the violin itself to resonate, performing the function of the microphone in the linked image)
I knew other fiddlists who were experiencing similar problems, but nobody really had any kind of adequate solution. I didn’t know it at the time, but it seems that quite a bit of quiet work had been going on to address these issues.
I spent a lot of time over the ensuing years researching the mechanisms of these problems.
- (if there is enough interest, I could do a post explaining the precise details (in lay terms) of why amplifying an acoustic violin will always be plagued by these sorts of problems, and why it will never yield a convenient enough, similar sounding result to how the acoustic violin sounds unamplified to the human ear, and also why most electric violins do not sound as good as most players would like.
I might do one anyway, seeing as I’ve not yet found a page which covers all this in the kind of detail, relevance and style which can be of use to most non physicist or electrical engineering musicians.
For those who want to try researching for themselves, I recommend this book. It will now be slightly out of date with respect to some specific electric violin models and makers, but the technical information contained within it is excellent and very sound.
I found it to be a fabulous resource when I was researching. I heartily recommend it for anybody wishing to research the topic of electric violins from the perspective of a technically interested player or maker.)
The more I learnt about the mechanisms of the issues, the more I appreciated that the only acceptable solution was to have a dedicated electric violin which was not at all acoustic in nature. So I stopped trying to find solutions to amplifying my acoustic, and started searching for a dedicated electric instrument instead.
I really have no idea how many different electric violins I tried over the next lot of years, all without generating sufficient interest to make a purchase. Because of what I’d learnt from my researches into the problems, I avoided those electric violin models which were primarily comprised of a closed, hollow, resonant box (like acoustic violins), such as these or these.
The first likely candidate was the Yamaha Silent Violin. I first saw it in the mid 90’s selling for something like £300, but it sells for a whole lot more now. Even now, I’m considering buying one of these to have as a spare, or for those gigs where I’d rather not bring my favourite instrument.
I then tried a variety of Zeta violins. I came close enough to buying one of these, because of the MIDI functionality, and because they really do have a huge name in the electric violin market. But the sound just wasn’t good enough to grab me.
After that, I tried out a bewildering array of assorted varieties of electric violins. With all these, I ended up finding that however different they looked, they all sounded and responded pretty much the same. Essentially, as far as I was concerned, all the instruments I tried had the same problems. They were all:
- Audibly less responsive or unresponsive to changes in bowing style, resulting in very little capacity to produce nuances in musical expression
- Sounding much like each other (and not enough like a good acoustic violin), with very little idiosyncratic character to audibly distinguish one instrument from the next. This results in a lacklustre, bland, colourless sounding (and frustrating) playing experience
These violins were all pretty much similar in design principle: they either had a very much smaller and less resonant sound box arrangement near the chin (with or without a more or less minimal skeletal arrangement round the edges), or they had a violin-like top plate with no back. They all had some kind of solid beam running up the centre which supported the strings, bridge, and fingerboard. The ones with the top plate and no back tended, to my ears, to sound worse than the others, with fewer overtones, resulting in what might be described as a “thinner” sound. This was a shame, because I thought those ones at least looked more violin-like than the others (even if they didn’t sound it).
Looking back on it, I’m not surprised that they all sounded similarly inadequate, since there were few deviations in design with regards to resonance. None seemed to take into account the physical mechanisms at work in an acoustic violin, which give the good ones their characteristically rich timbre. Electric violins which I’ve tried more recently still exhibit similar characteristics to the ones which put me off buying them the first time round.
OMG, I SO had to have something like this!
This was nothing like any electric violin I’d seen before. For a start, it was just beautiful. I stared and stared at that picture in the magazine. Stunning. Gorgeous. I may have drooled just a tiny bit, looking at that picture.
If there ever was anything like violin porn for the seriously obsessed, this was it. ;)
Mmmmm mmmmm MMMMMM.
It looked like a musical instrument, hand made with loving care. It even looked like an actual violin. Most of the other electric violins I’d seen looked like painted pieces of equipment, not like something I could love.
- (the thing about playing an instrument is, you have it with you every day, you handle it, you smell it, you feel it respond to your touch. Usually you are playing on the same individual instrument for many years, for hours every day.
You grow to know its quirks, its idiosyncrasies, what it will give you and what it can’t. Sometimes it sounds different, as it responds to environmental conditions, or to some damage you didn’t know was there.
It talks to you.
You care for it, you clean and maintain it. You carry it with you wherever you go. It picks up marks and damage, which remind you how you got them, even if they are repaired. You really develop an emotional bond with it. I can’t tell you how important it is to be able to love your instrument.
My point is, that when an instrument sounds and behaves just like every other instrument of its type, and when it looks and smells and feels like something built as one of many in a factory, it just isn’t possible to love it as an individual thing in the same way as an instrument made entirely by hand.
This is less true for guitars than it is for violins, but similar principles hold true for both, albeit in varying degrees.)
I read the blurb over and over, and looked at the picture some more.
And as I read the copy, and stared at that image, I thought about one of the more persistent problems with all the electric violins I tried. Those other electric instruments just didn’t give me that feeling of talking back to me when I played them the way an acoustic violin does, even an acoustic which is new to me.
But looking at this image, and reading the blurb over and over, and remembering all the research I’d done learning about the whys and wherefores of how amplifying instruments works, I knew, just from looking at this picture, from the design of this instrument, that this electric violin would be different.
- Now, the only thing standing in between me and that violin, was around 3000 miles and the Atlantic Ocean.
Oy vey, Vermont. It just had to be Vermont. ;)
I contacted Tucker via the magic of the telephone (I didn’t have a computer at the time), and he sent me this kind of promotion pack thingy (which I still have). It was this kind of paper file thing made of stiff card, and had pockets inside which had glossy pictures of his various models, and a price list.
Despite my best efforts, that price list had time to go out of date, as three years passed before I managed to get to Tucker’s workshop in Vermont.
After many trials and tribulations, time passing, gigs coming and going, travelling to gigs almost near enough to visit Tucker’s workshop (but not quite), there finally came the long awaited visit to Tucker’s workshop in Vermont.
And there followed much trying out of various instrument models, very interesting and interested discussions, much admiration of Tucker’s work (and tool collection), careful instrument model and wood selection, specific wood plates selected, and, ultimately, the placing of one order for a Tucker Barrett EV5 Koa Luma 5 string electric violin.
Mmmmm mmmmm MMMMM mmmm mmmmmmmmmmm.
Overall, I spent about three and a half hours at Tucker’s workshop.
The entire time I was focusing and listening so intensely to what I was doing, hearing, and learning about the new instrument I was choosing.
I focused so hard (as I am wont to do sometimes if I’m not careful), that I got one whopper of a migraine during what felt like a terribly long journey back to where I was staying.
After my arrival home, there then followed some happy transatlantic phone calls, some payments, some excited waiting, more payments, more transatlantic phone calls, more excited waiting, still more transatlantic phone calls, yet more excitement, still more waiting, shipping, and finally, the thrilled receipt of one chilled express parcel, still cold from having been at altitude in the cargo hold of a plane.
And thus, in February of the year 2000, I FINALLY had my dearly coveted electric violin I had been seeking for so long.
- Waiting for opportunity to visit: ————————————— Years – 3
- Travel to airport and check in etc: ———————————— Hours – 4
- One transatlantic flight: ————————————————— Hours – 7
- Distance between Dublin and New York: ————————— Miles – 3179
- One car journey part way: ———————————————– Hours – 3
- Distance part way: ———————————————————- Miles – 128
- One car journey next day: ———————————————– Hours – 2
- Distance next day: ———————————————————– Miles – 100
- Time spent at the workshop: ——————————————– Hours – 3.5
- Car journey back: ———————————————————— Hours – 5
- Distance back: —————————————————————- Miles – 228
- One migraine: —————————————————————— Free
- Flight back: ——————————————————————— Hours – 7
- Flight distance: ————————————————————— Miles – 3179
- Approximate distance travelled: ————————————— Miles – 6814
- Approximate time invested: ———————————————– Days – 7
- Swollen on flight: ———————————————————— Ankles – 2
- Enduring time with parents: —————————————– Neuroses – several
- One violin from a maker who isn’t making any more: Priceless.
Nearly eight years on, it’s still a pleasure to look at my electric violin. And every time I pick it up, it’s still a joy to handle, to draw my bow across the strings, and listen to it speak in its velvety, deep, rich, gooey chocolate voice. I especially love making it whisper. Sure, it belts and bellows great with the best of them. But where it really excels, where it really stands out from all the others, is how exquisitely it whispers. That whisper has made people cry.
Sure, there are some things about this instrument which bother me, just as there are many things about it which I love. And it’s that precise combination of elements, some pleasurable, some less so, which makes it possible for me to bond with it, to emote with it, to express with it, and to love it.
I think there is now a huge gaping hole in the electric violin world, where Tucker Barrett’s ongoing work used to be. I don’t think most of the stringed world realises just what it had, and what has now gone. It seems such a shame that really excellent artists are sometimes just not valued as they should be until they’re no longer with us.
Fortunately, Tucker is still alive. :) He may, possibly, with a great deal of politeness and respect, be persuaded to make just one or two more bowed string instruments, if we’re lucky. But I can’t help thinking that the guitar world’s gain, where Tucker has gone to, is the violin world’s great loss.
I miss Tucker’s work already.
I leave you with a lovely performance I found on Youtube. It isn’t me playing. It is David Pretlow, playing “With Or Without You” by U2, solo, on his Tucker Barrett 6 string. I hope you enjoy the rich dark acoustic sound of his gorgeous instrument.
Thank you for reading.
The Youtube information on this video:
- Dave DeMonki U2 With or Without You
Joined: 1 year ago
About This Video
Cover of U2 song performed live at Seaside, Fl by Dave DeMonki early April 2006 using an RC-20 Loop Station and recorded by Drew Powell. The fiddle is custom built by Tucker Barrett.. David Pretlow
Added: May 16, 2006
Take it away…… Dave!
I was poking through my old copies of The Strad magazine, and I found the original issues with Tucker’s ad in them, the places still placemarked with paper inserts.
It seems I first saw Tucker’s ad in the April 1997 issue of The Strad, and then again in June 1997.
I think it’s entirely possible that I saw the June ad first, that’s the one I remember grabbing me for the first time. I may then have gone back through the issues to find the April ad, but I really can’t be sure. I can’t imagine that it’s really all that important in the grand scheme of this story.
Nevertheless, for completeness, I thought I’d stick it in. I thought it was pretty nice to find those old magazines (wow, over ten years ago now) with the pages still marked from where I kept going back and looking, over and over again during the following few years.
But anyhow, it’s a good excuse to put up more pretty pictures of stringed yummyness. :) I should prolly include more electric violin porn in this blog.
I know you’re all feeling incredibly shortchanged in this niche market. :p
I’ll do my best. :)
27 July, 2008
This may not count as an “update” in the strictest sense, since it actually focuses on a film which, even though I watched it only recently, was originally released in 1997. Whether this update is timely or newsworthy or whatever, anyhow, here it is.
It seems that 1997 was a bumper year for Tucker Barrett. That was the year he placed those advertisements I saw in The Strad magazine, and that was the year Starship Troopers was released. You may or may not remember Starship Troopers as the film which brought us that time-honoured and oft-repeated question:
Since time began, this very question has clearly been keeping all of us awake at night.
- (or, some of us awake at night)
(well, at least a few of us awake, on some nights)
(ok, maybe one of us was kept awake, once, by something maybe related to bugs, or thinking, or something)
For anybody who has (or hasn’t) seen Starship Troopers, or for anybody who is a fan of Tucker Barrett (and frankly, all of you should be by now, after reading all this), the obligatory hot electric violin porn in Starship Troopers is duly represented by a cameo feature of a green version of one of Tucker Barrett’s acrylic Luma 5-string violin models.
Mmmmmmm, yummy violin porn…….
And Here It Is – The Cameo
I enclose some screenshots below of Starship Troopers and the scene in which Tucker Barrett’s hot acrylic electric violin porn makes a featured cameo appearance. And I do mean cameo and featured. That violin really does feature as a guest star in that scene – you’ll see if you watch the film clip I’ve uploaded to youtube as a special extra super bonus feature. The violin features in a scene about an hour and 20 minutes into the film, during the evening party which takes place after a gory conflict with big spidery bugs on a barren planet.
Starship Troopers © 1997 TriStar Pictures Inc. and Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The Film Clip: Tucker Barrett electric violin – Starship Troopers
This is the visual glory of a Tucker Barrett green acrylic Luma EV-5 5-string electric violin as featured in the 1997 film Starship Troopers. These violins are no longer being made as of November 2006. The actual electric violin audio was played by Kat Evans on a Violectra custom 5-string.
Starship Troopers © 1997 TriStar Pictures Inc. and Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Special Extra Bit For Electric Violin Geeks
For the geekier electric violin geeks amongst us, you may be interested to know that Kat Evans, who did the actual electric violin playing in that scene, was almost certainly not playing a Tucker Barrett (which of course you knew already from the sound of the thing). Kat Evans was more than likely playing a Violectra similar to this one.
Anybody with even a semi-functional ear who has heard a Tucker Barrett played, and who has also heard any one of the multitudinous varieties of what I’ve come to call ‘electric-violin-on-a-stick’ being played, should hopefully be able to recognise and distinguish between the two. I regard the violin music in that scene as being much more characteristic of what I have come to recognise as the nasal, thin, homogeneous, violin-on-a-stick sound (notwithstanding the effects used to dress it up) when compared to the rich depths of the more acoustic and responsive Tucker Barrett sound.
And I hope you didn’t think that actor was really playing that violin?
Please don’t tell me you thought he was.
Cos I just ate. :)