Electric String Instruments

Electric string instruments use electrical signals and amplifiers to increase an instrument’s volume and modify its sound. Composers from all genres of music have used electric instruments in their compositions. While electric instruments more commonly appear in rock and popular music, the classical composer George Crumb wrote a composition for electric strings entitled “Black Angels.” Electric string instruments are not the same as semi-acoustic instruments that use a mixture of sound boxes and electric amplification to create sound.

Acoustic Instruments

Acoustic instruments use a chamber to resonate and amplify sound. They may be miked to make them act like electric instruments; however, a true electric string instrument is designed to function only with an amplifier. Without the amplifier, acoustic instruments still amplify their own sound. The electric guitar has metal strings and amplifiers while the acoustic guitar uses synthetic fibers as strings.

Magnetic Pickups

Electric string instruments have magnetic pickups that convert the string vibrations into electrical signals that travel through an amplifier. The advantage of electrical amplification means real-time performance effects, such as digital samplers and reverb that alter the instrument’s timbre, can be applied.

Electric Guitar

The electric guitar makes no sound without an amplifier. Magnetic pickups detect the string vibrations, sending them to the amplifier which translates them to sound. An electric guitar is the most popular electric string instrument, and there are several types of electric guitars that have as few as one string and as many as 12. Double-neck guitars also exist that convert the guitar into a regular guitar and a bass guitar.

Electric Orchestral Strings

Electric violins, violas, cellos, and basses function in the same way as an electric guitar. This is different from an acoustic violin that uses a microphone to amplify the sound. The electric string instrument lacks a sound-post or chamber to amplify the vibrations produced. The electric string instrument does not resonate due to the solid body. The advantage of these instruments is the ability to use a bow and play acoustic techniques, including pizzicato and multiple stops, with the ability to digitally manipulate timbre and apply electronic effects.

Electric Mandolin

An electric mandolin comes in several varieties. There are semi-acoustic electric mandolins that have a sound box plus electronic sound amplification. There are also fully electric mandolins that have a solid construction and use only electric amplification. The semi-acoustic is technically not an electric mandolin. This is true of all semi-acoustic instruments.

Steel Guitar

This type of electric guitar lays out flat on a table and the player uses a pedal and levers operated by his foot and knee to further manipulate the instrument’s sound. The player uses a metal bar that he moves up and down to shorten and lengthen the strings creating higher and lower pitches. Like all guitars, it is capable of chords and plucked by a pick or fingers.


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