Friday, June 25, 2021

My Electric Violin Journey

It has been a little while since my last post. Wrapping up the school year and trying to finish up what has been a trying year of hybrid teaching at NCSSM has been my priority for the past several weeks. Finally, today I am finished with most of my teaching and administrative work at the school and have some time to sit down and write a bit. 

I have wanted for some time, to give a little bit of my history with electric violins. For most of my readers, electric violins are simply part of everyday life as a teacher and performer. But for me, there has been an interesting journey which really starts back in the 1970s.

High school/college

Many folks know that my early training was in a modified Suzuki environment. I began playing violin at age 6 and was consistently enrolled in private lessons and youth orchestras throughout my elementary, middle, and high school experience. In junior high I became interested in the electric bass guitar and began playing in various rock bands from the age of 12 or so. I was a standard Rock kid of the mid-1970s, listening to Boston, Foreigner, Queen, Donnie Iris, and my favorite, Styx. WDVE, the rock station in Pittsburgh, was my radio station of choice and I could pick it up all the way out in Indiana, PA. At some point, I became very interested in the music of the rock band, Kansas. I loved their musicianship, intense lyrics, progressive rhythms, and of course the electric violin.  I was thrilled to see them in 1978 or 1979 at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. Of course,  Robby Steinhardt playing electric violin captivated me. My parents also had bought me several Jean-Luc Ponty albums over the years and I was very familiar with his electric violin work through those recordings. By the early 1980s, I was in high school and playing bass guitar in a very good high school cover band which consistently performed around the Indiana, PA region. As part of that band, I really wanted to occasionally pull out a violin to play novelty tunes like the Bunny Hop, the Chicken Dance, and other similar songs which were expected as part of a party band's set list in those days. My parents purchased an old Sherl and Roth violin and we had a Barcus Berry pickup installed. I, like everyone who did that sort of thing, struggled with feedback and poor tone quality. It never sounded great and it really didn't feel right or fit my needs. At some point, that band ended and I went off to college to study music education.  Throughout my undergraduate years, I focused much more on classical repertoire as a violinist. I played bass guitar in the college jazz band, but otherwise I really was strictly a classical violinist.

Palmyra Bluegrass and Believer

My first teaching position was in Palmyra, PA, as the district-wide string teacher. I taught string students from grades 3 to 12 and was there from 1987 to 1992. While in Palmyra, I was fortunate to host several residencies of great musicians through the innovative Authors and Artists Series which was run by faculty member,  Jim Woland. (That is a story for another day.) One of those was with the Modern Mandolin Quartet.  One of the huge impacts on me from those events was an introduction to bluegrass music.  One of my significant accomplishments and strongest areas of impact in those years was the founding of the Palmyra Bluegrass String Camp. I didn't really know how to play bluegrass music, but I was very interested in learning and thought that my classically trained students would like to learn as well. Through that time, I began to lay some foundational groundwork for improvisation and also rubbed elbows with some wonderful bluegrass musicians. I still really didn't need any strong amplification in those years, but the experience played a part in my electric violin journey.  

Another significant relationship in those years was my friendship that developed with Kurt Bachman. Kurt was a junior in high school when I arrived at Palmyra in 1987. He approached me and asked me if I wanted him to play guitar in the orchestra for his senior year. I wasn't sure how that would work, so I invited him to learn to play the cello instead. Kurt came to school in the summer to take cello lessons and joined the orchestra for his senior year. In the midst of that year, his metal band, Believer was signed to REX Records, and they invited me to play violin on their first record. Kurt and I wrote a cool introduction to the title track of Extraction From Mortality and I performed all of the parts to that intro on my acoustic violin in my first recording studio experience. Again, no electric violin yet. But this all laid the groundwork for what was to come. That album and song gained some national exposure and the band asked me to write and play on something for their second record. 

In 1989, Believer released their second full-length album, Sanity Obscure, which featured a orchestral, operatic, epic take on the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) movement of the requiem mass. My sister, Julianne Laird, sang on that track and we again, garnered some national attention for the innovative work we were doing. You must remember that this was all before the S&M (Symphony and Metallica) projects and other similar metal /orchestral projects of the late 1990s.

By the time Believer set out to write and record our third album, my writing and playing was an important component of the Believer sound and reputation. We decided to write a extended metal/opera epic which we called Trilogy of Knowledge. Back in my Palmyra bluegrass days, through the Palmyra Authors and Artist Residencies, I had become good friends with Mike Marshall, the principal (and virtuoso) mandolinist in the Modern Mandolin Quartet. Mike and I had stayed in close contact and at one point I was telling him about my work with Believer. Mike mentioned that he had a Zeta solid body electric violin in a closet at home that wasn't being used. One day I came home from work to find a box with the electric violin in it. I called Mike to thank him and tell him I would return it as soon as I was done with it. He let me know it was a gift from him to me. This gift changed my life. I ended up using that Zeta Stratos on pretty much all of Trilogy of Knowledge which was released in 1993. That album, Dimensions, was nominated for a Dove Award and garnered a great deal of critical acclaim. It is still considered to be a groundbreaking album in the thrash metal genre. I'm very proud of the work that I did on that record, although I must admit, I was really just learning about solid body electric violins during that recording process. All of the effects processing and tone shaping on that record we're done after the initial tracking. I seem to recall that I recorded everything dry for accuracy and the sounds were added in during the mix down. 

I have to add that the first time I plugged in my Zeta violin, I felt that I had finally found my voice. This is what I had been preparing for my entire life. I was in my late twenties and I knew that my musical journey had been positively altered forever. 

Following the recording and release of Dimensions, I began experimenting more with the capabilities of electric violins. For a while, I played in an instrumental trio with Joey Daub (Believer's drummer) and Ted Hermanson on bass, who had engineered Dimensions. We were seeking to create a Jean-Luc Ponty type sound and I began developing some sensibilities for what the instruments could do. I bought a DigiTech multi-effects processor, a DigiTech harmonizer (DHP33), and a Lexicon Jamman which allowed me to do some basic looping. These tools for tone shaping became integral to my understanding of what the electric violin could do for me. A highlight of that band was a featured performance at a summer NAMM show in Nashville.  A lowlight of that trip, however, was that my original Zeta violin which was given to me was stolen. That was a really tough pill to swallow!


One consistent thread in my teaching life has been the notion that things that inspire me musically will probably also inspire my students. This had happened with bluegrass music back in Palmyra and now I was living in the Washington DC suburbs, teaching at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, MD, and felt like electric violins might really inspire my students.

I started reaching out to The Zeta corporation about the possibility of some sort of sponsorship with my educational background as the centerpiece. I shared Believer recordings with them and told them that I thought I could be an asset to the company. At the same time, I began thinking about how I could share what I knew about electric violins with other educators. I applied to give a conference session at the Maryland Music Educators State conference sometime around 1995. I had never spoken at a conference before but I felt like I had something unique and valuable to share with my peers. Initially, Zeta was hesitant about me. I am not sure that they fully understood the music of Believer and they probably received lots of inquiries about sponsorships and had some level of caution. (Believer is heavy, fast, rhythmically complex,  and features screaming non-melodic vocals.) When my conference session proposal was accepted for the Maryland Music Educators Association, I let Zeta know. I wanted them to know that I was going to move forward with or without their support, but I would love to show off some of their technology. When I had already set up this session, it peaked the interest of the folks at Zeta. I think this set me apart from the others. After a couple of phone calls and letters back and forth, we came to an agreement and I was now a sponsored artist with Zeta music systems. They sent me a little bit of equipment and I began working to fully master and understand their products. It is important to mention that this required a good deal of investment of my personal funds as well. They had an early MIDI controller in those days. So, I had to run out and buy a MIDI sound bank. I bought amplifiers, cables, effects processing, and other necessary tools of the electric violin trade. 

On the day of my conference session, I remember that a famous speaker, Tim Lautzenheiser, was scheduled at the same time as me. Tim's room for his session had easily a thousand chairs set up. Mine had about 30. (By the way, he was so encouraging that day.  He assured me there would be people there to hear what I had to say.)  But, people came. I had a small but enthusiastic audience and my first conference session presentation was a success. I talked about how the electric violins worked, how MIDI worked with violins, and how these could be used in the traditional public school classroom. Again, a significant course had been charted in my life and for the next decade or more, I spent a great deal of time speaking with teachers across the United States about the technology and applications of electric violins in the traditional public school classroom. 

While I was traveling around the country giving seminars on electric violins and their applications to the classroom, I met many wonderful people in the music industry. One significant friendship that grew out of that time was with Rich McKenzie, a sales representative for CodaBow International.  Rich would frequently stop in my sessions and listen to what I had to say. At some point he handed me a CodaBow and asked me to give it a try. He thought it would be a great compliment to the electric violin. Boy was he right! I fell in love with CodaBows immediately. At some point during those years, I met Jeff Van fossen, the founder of the company. We all became great friends and I have played CodaBows exclusively ever since. I have walked with the company through thier development of many different bows and technologies. It has been such a pleasure to be part of their organization and associated with them over the years. They are the perfect compliment for not only my electric violins, but all of my instruments. 

At one point in the late 1990s, I was working at Zeta HQ in Oakland California. Jean-Luc Ponty, another Zeta artist, was in town. I had the opportunity to meet him and talk for a while, and see his show that night. He was so generous with his time and treated me like a peer. Haha! One significant result of those conversations was that he suggested I use a viola bow with my electric violin. I made the switch to a Coda viola bow in those years and it really changed my sound. It gave me that heavy, beefy sound that Ponty is famous for. I used viola Codabows with my electric violin for many years until the Coda Joule  was developed. It is designed for exactly the same thing in much more of a "violin bow" package. (See any of my posts on Intentional Design) I encourage everybody to give the Coda Joule a try if you are an electric violinist.

The following year, around 1996, my school invested in a quintet of Zeta instruments and we began working to create a groundbreaking Electric Zeta String Ensemble at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt Maryland. That group of students performed all over the Washington DC and Maryland area for a variety of events. Some highlights included: a performance of the national anthem for all Prince George's County teachers at the then Cap Center. It was a huge crowd and a huge success, a performance at the Rayburn Congressional Office Building on behalf of NAfME (then MENC), performances at the MMEA State conference, and many many others.  

About this time, I was also experimenting with my own solo projects and particularly with looping technology. My work with the Lexicon Jam man had blossomed into quite a bit of solo material which incorporated guitar, bass, drum machine, and analog and MIDI electric violins. I became quite interested in recording technology as well and through my live performances and with the help of   an ADAT studio in my home, I produced my first solo record, Freeway. Most of the songs on that record were built using my looping technology and could be performed live as well. I spent a great deal of time in the fall of 1998 performing at Borders Books and Music stores all over the greater Mid-Atlantic region. I sold a lot of CDs in those days and it was a great deal of fun. However, I must admit that when I go back and listen to that recording, it sounds dated. 

In 2001 I took a new position at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham North Carolina. In those years, things at Zeta had slowed down a little bit and I could tell that my partnership with the company was probably coming to a close. This was not a bad thing, in my mind, because I felt I was becoming known only as the technology string teacher and it was very important to me that folks knew I was a traditional pedagogue as well. By 2002, Zeta and I parted ways and I focused on my guest conducting work and more traditional pedagogical seminars. 

Durham NC and NC School of Science and Math

When I moved to Durham NC, I had no idea that I was also moving so close to the Electric Violin Shop, the worlds largest retailer of electric violins. They certainly knew me from my time and exposure with Zeta Music Systems and eventually we all became close friends.  I began spending some time at the store playing all the different brands of electric violins. At some point, I told Blaise Kielar, the owner, that the only other company I'd ever consider working with was NSDesign Electric violins. I had met Ned Steinberger several years earlier at Berkeley's String Fling. He and I were both manning booths at the event. I for Zeta and Ned for his new company NSDesign. Traffic was fairly slow at the exhibits and we got to know each other pretty well. We had long conversations about music, ergonomics of electric violins, both of our backgrounds, and many other awesome topics. Ned is absolutely brilliant and I was honored that he was interested in my opinion about his instruments. Ned evidently remembered me and after my hiatus from the electric violin education scene for a few years, he reached out to me in 2005. 

We agreed to spend some time together in coming months and see if this would be a good match. Without going into all of the details, the partnership between Ned Steinberger and myself was a home run! I immediately fell in love with the instruments. I loved the sound, the feel, the look, and everything about the company.  To add to the serendipity of it all, NSDesign had a close relationship with D'Addario who had been long time supporters and sponsors of my work.  Ned and I were a fantastic match in terms of our personality, interests, and mutual respect for each other. I entered into a partnership with NS Design at that time and it still goes on to this day.

In the coming years, I would be featured in NS Design advertisements and their blog, give numerous sessions at national and regional conferences on their behalf, and become a featured educator/artist for the company in many other ways. Ned would often call me for my opinion on new products or other ideas. I would lean on them for technical information and new ideas of how these instruments could be used and how I could articulate the science and engineering behind the technology to teachers.

I continued my live looping performances and released a second solo record in 2005 entitled Simple Gifts. By this time I was using a three phrase looper, the boss RC-50 Loop Station. This allowed me to create a chorus, verse, and bridge on the fly in my performances and toggle between the three as I was soloing with my electric violin. My live performance tool was taking me to the next level in terms of my writing and capabilities. 

Over the next 15 years electric violins have remained a huge part of my teaching and performing life. I have been a featured soloist with a variety of orchestras including the Carolina Cool Jazz Orchestra on two different occasions performing my original music and arrangements. I have maintained a strong YouTube presence highlighting educational applications of electric instruments and my own performances as well. Electric violins have been a wonderful enrichment for my orchestra students at NCSSM. And, I continue to perform around the region with a variety of bands and as a solo artist with my looping capabilities. I now use the boss RC-300 Loop Station. It is an upgraded version of the three phrase looper that I began using back in 2005. I continue to speak at conferences around the country on applications of electric violins in the traditional string classroom. I am always looking for innovative ways to incorporate boat electric string instruments into my teaching and to share those ideas with others.

In the end, it has been an incredible journey with electric violins and it is really fun to look back on the progression.  And, I have to say, I am not close to being done.  Just in the past year, I have been experimenting with extended range strings, doing more multi-track recording, giving a ton of seminars for students,  and giving many live performances.  The possibilities really never end. 

Thanks for taking this little walk down memory lane with me. Until next time...


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