Violins and violas are fairly loud for their size, and can do very well to fill up a room with sound when alone, or in an ensemble. However, there are some situations where the violin by itself isn’t loud enough. For instance, you might be performing at church or in a rock club with a drummer. Violin/Viola pickups can be a great solution to this problem, and many others like it. Some people are familiar with the concept of a pickup, for instance it is what allows electric guitars to be heard through an amplifier. Essentially, a pickup is a small electronic device that attaches to your instrument, usually in the bridge area, which converts the physical vibrations from your bow and your strings into a digital signal. You can plug the pickup into an amp, and it will then amplify that signal, which suddenly allows you to compete with the volume of the drums. It’s pretty simple!
There are some important factors to take into account when purchasing a pick up. You will need to consider how often you’ll need to be amped, how nuanced of a sound you will require, if you are okay with the pickup being permanently fixed, and if you will also want to play acoustically while the pickup is still attached. These being taken into consideration, here is a good list of pickup types and descriptions that might make it a little easier for you to think about what would be the best for you.
There are a large variety of removable pickups which vary in style, price, ease of use and tone quality. There are many players who only have one instrument that they rely on both for playing plugged in and acoustic. For these players, a removable pickup is often the most convenient solution.
There are several different types of removable pickups.
Easy fit pickups:
Although they sound somewhat boomy and boxy (and don’t do the best job of maintaining the integrity of your instrument’s tone), you can slap one on your instrument and be playing amplified instantly. For many people, that alone is enough to satisfy their needs, so an easy fit is a choice that makes sense for them.
A few good pickups in this category are the Headway’s The Band or The Realist Soundclip.
Bridge mounted pickups:
These pickups either rest in the wing slot of the bridge or are clipped on to the side of it. These pickups will give you a higher quality tone, because they are picking up vibrations from your bridge, which is in the center of your instrument. They are also still relatively easy to install and remove. This is a good option for someone who cares about having a good consistent tone but doesn’t want to spend a fortune on a pickup.
Fishman, Kremona, or Scherlter pickups are all good options in this category.
Under the bridge pickups:
Pickups that are installed under the bridge of your instrument are a great option because they pick up sound from the bridge and the top plate of the instrument. The tone that is produced is usually more true to the actual tone of your instrument. Installation is a bit more complicated, so you probably won’t be taking one of these off and on on a regular basis due to the inconvenience. The Realist offers some great under the bridge pickups for violin and viola, as well as some easy fit clamp ons, as mentioned previously.
You could also get a permanent pickup, which attempts to integrate the pickup into your instrument. Usually this means that the electronics and pickup are embedded into the bridge. This sort of pickup does require the professional skill of a luthier to install properly, and we would advise one who is interested in this option to call your repairman or local violin shop and factor installation prices into the final cost. These pickups will not interfere with the sound of your instrument when played acoustically and the amplified tone is generally close to the natural tone of your instrument. The drawback that you might experience with a pickup like this is that the wire and output jack on the instrument are visible and cannot be removed. Because of this, you may experience some friction if you are wanting to perform in a musical setting where this physical feature may be considered inappropriate, such as in a strictly classical or baroque performance setting. If you are looking for a pickup like this, we would recommend something from L.R. Baggs, Schatten, or Starfish.
There are, of course, many options when it comes to amplifying your instrument. But hopefully this information can get you started and give you some basic information about pickups, what they do, and some different options to look into. If you have specific questions about pickups, want a professional opinion about what to buy, or want to get a quote on something like installing a permanent pickup, please contact our Merriam office and we would be happy to help you with your amplification endeavors!
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