You don’t typically think of violins as fretted instruments, at least I don’t. And to be perfectly honest, they aren’t meant to be fretted either. Nonetheless, science has taken over, and the violin market has been graced with a few fretted violin options. In this Best Fretted Violins Guide, I’ve rounded up the Best-Fretted violins, explained why I only recommend electric versions, and provided an alternative for those wanting some finger placement guidance while still learning the basics! Let’s tighten our bows and get to work!
Bottom Line Up Front
A fretted violin is a novelty instrument that, for the most part, comes in an electric variety. I personally consider frets on an acoustic to be in bad taste; instead, I would recommend finger tapes or finger guides. Finger guides are handy when learning the violin and building muscle memory, but they shouldn’t be relied on.
Electric fretted violins come in various options, finishes, and body styles. Some of these options include:
- Active, passive, or combination pickup
- 4-7 string varieties
- Rounded, shaved, or phantom fret types
- Midi capabilities
My Top Picks
- Cantini Earphonic– Midi fretted violin at a reasonable price.
- NS Designs NXT4a– Best modern mid-priced fretted violin
- Stratton Gypsy Fretted Electric Violin– Extremely unique fantasy violin with a high-quality pickup at a really great price!
- Wood Viper by Wood Violins– The true MVP of the fretted violin world, available with most options and choices for a truly custom build!
- Fretless Fingerguide– The perfect non-adhesive finger guide for beginners.
To Fret or Not To Fret
I’ll be honest putting frets on a violin is really only useful for those who are new to learning the violin. One of the things that makes a violin unique from, say, a guitar is how you play. On a guitar, you press your finger down behind the fret to produce the note the fret is on; on a violin; you place your finger directly where the fret would theoretically go. Additionally, violinists use vibrato quite liberally when playing.
Vibrato is when you move your finger to slightly shift the note’s pitch, similar to a tremolo. It’s used to add expression to the notes and is extremely useful for making longer notes sound interesting.
However, if you do happen to find a fretted violin you love, you will find that it should be designed for you to play directly on the fret instead of behind. Additionally, you will play with lighter pressure than you would on an unfretted violin. The frets will be placed chromatically, so as long as you are on the fret, you will be in tune for that note.
So why would you fret in the first place?
As I’ve mentioned, usually, people want frets or use fret alternatives on their violin to help with intonation and finger placement. This can be really useful for beginners; in fact, I still use a note guide on one of my electric violins (well, honestly, I’ve just been too lazy to remove it). They give visual or tactile feedback on where your fingers are, and for many, this is extremely useful as they learn.
Others, especially professional rock violinists, seem to enjoy the look and feel of the frets; they also help them maintain intonation while playing on a stage with flashing lights and a lot of movement. Admittedly, Wood Violins make some fantastic-looking fretted violins that would rock any stage show immensely, and I’d want to show mine off if I had one.
I like frets on electric violins, but I would consider them sacrilege on an acoustic violin. With that said, I only recommend purchasing a fretted violin or an electric violin once you have mastered the basics with an acoustic violin. If you feel the need for finger guides, you can buy several alternatives that I’ll go over below.
The hallmark of playing the violin is being able to shift your pitch and making use of the freedom on the fingerboard. Frets serve to box a player in more by not allowing them to make subtle changes in position and pitch. In the end, I feel frets serve their purpose, but I feel they take away expression as well; that’s why I consider fretted violins novelty instruments. Great for experienced musicians who want something unique or valuable in certain situations but not an instrument to learn on.
Types of Frets
Rounded or standard frets can range in width, but they work the same. The player will lightly press the string down onto the fret to create that note. These frets feel most like a guitar fret. Still, they are significantly shorter, which allows you to press the string onto the fret without other frets on the fingerboard getting in the way.
Wood Violins uses a shaved version of rounded frets. They work similarly, but they are shaved down to be flatter; this makes the frets feel a bit wider, but they are just as tacitly responsive as rounded frets. They work the same way as well.
Phantom frets are my favorite. The violin has frets, but they are essentially shaved down to the point that you can’t feel them, and all that is left is a line to indicate where the fret was. I love this because while the idea of frets is enticing, I want more freedom in my playing, and I want the feel of an open fingerboard. This is perfect for those who don’t want obvious frets on their fingerboard or the ability to ignore them as they play.
Finger Guides or Tapes
Finger guides or tapes are an alternative to frets and are more common than frets themselves. Typically teachers will place finger tapes or a guide on the fingerboard of a new student’s violin for a few months while they become accustomed to playing. This helps them learn where to guide their fingers and helps build muscle memory.
You can use these as a student progresses through different positions as well. However, some teachers advise against this because it can slow down the progression of your ear, aka your ability to hear when you are playing in tune or not.
Finding A Fretted Violins
There are a few places to find a fretted violin; the Electric Violin Shop is my favorite. They specialize in electric violins from various top brands, including the well-known NS Designs and Wood Violins. They offer standard 4 all the way to 7-string violins and a variety of styles. I also recommend checking out the brand’s website directly, as they tend to have a more updated stock selection. However, keep in mind you will be spending quite a bit on a fretted violin.
The cheapest violin runs around $1,500 before taxes, and the most expensive, like a 7-string custom viper, can easily run around $6,000. My dream custom viper builds run approximately $4,500. Definitely not a purchase for a brand new violinist or the faint of heart.
Buying a used fretted violin is always an option if you want to save a bit of money. Since electric violins don’t really age or grow in terms of tone, you can typically find an electric violin for a bit cheaper on sites like Reverb or at your local music store. It’s important to make sure that the electronics and the ports on the violin are in good working order before you buy.
Because of this, I strongly suggest going to your local music store and testing out a used fretted violin that they have before committing to buying something used. However, you may struggle to find a local store that has any stock unless you live in a bigger city.
Selection Criteria & Buying Considerations
When it comes to buying a fretted violin, the different options can be confusing. These are a few things that I keep in mind while I’ve been searching for mine, remember overall to make sure you get something within your budget, and that’s fit for your needs.
For some, body style may be a deal-breaker; each violin on this list has a different body style and requires different things to play. Unlike acoustic violins, electric violins aren’t subject to the same body shape, finish, or even tonewood requirements. With that said, tonewoods and finish do play a small part in how the overall violin sounds, but the electronics play a much more significant impact overall.
My favorite fretted electric violin, the Viper, has a body shape that looks like a V with a more guitar-style setup; it also requires either a shoulder strap or a specialized shoulder rest to play. Other fretted options like NS Designs don’t have a neck and require a special shoulder rest. In contrast, some have a more traditional body and can use any shoulder rest.
What you want will come down to your personal preferences overall; I prefer more flexibility in my playing, so I like something that I can use a traditional shoulder rest with. However, the Viper is an exception due to its overall style, but I’ll get into that below.
Electronics & Pickup
When shopping for an electric violin in general, you want to be conscious of the electronics put into it. The cheaper the violin, the cheaper the electronics. The violins on this list are high quality and use high-quality pickups, but they do vary in how they work and the technology behind them. There are two main types of pickups.
Passive pickups don’t use an external power source and rely on your amp more for volume; however, they have a more organic sound which is excellent for players who want that, but they are susceptible to unwanted feedback. Active pickups require an external power source, usually a 9v battery. They deliver a more robust sound and can be used without an amp for “silent practice” but don’t deliver as natural as a sound.
Other differences are in how the pickups work and attach to the violin. Some attach to the bottom of the bridge, others attach directly onto it, and some attach to each string. I prefer the pickups that attach to each string individually as it allows you to pick up subtle nuances of the tone.
Another thing to keep in mind is whether you want midi capability. That means that the violin’s sound is converted from an analog signal into a digital signal using binary (that handy 1s and 0s everyone keeps talking about). You can plug it into your computer directly and use it with production software. The process isn’t without its own headaches, but the capability is handy.
I love the idea of a midi violin, but I’m willing to wait until the technology catches up, so the output is clearer; still, the price of a midi fretted violin having that extra capability is very attractive.
Number of Strings
The last overall consideration is how many strings you want on your fretted violin. Since these violins are electric, you have the option of the standard 4 all the way up to 7 strings. My preference is 4 strings as I’m not looking to add more complexity to the violin at this point. Other musicians will prefer 5 or more; I find 5 to be the standard, with 4 a close second.
The more strings you add, the harder it is to produce a good tone and the more difficult it is to bow without hitting extra strings; however, it opens up the range of the instrument considerably. For example, adding a 5th string allows you to play to a low C.
My Top Recommendations
The Cantini Earphonic is a midi violin that comes both fretted and unfretted. It’s manufactured in Italy and runs around $1500 for a base 4-string model. The body is made out of maple, and the fingerboard and fittings are ebony. I like how it looks like your basic electric violin and is compatible with nearly any shoulder rest. It comes with an active pickup that uses a 9-volt battery or a Rolland Gr-55 for power with a separate magnet on each string.
For the price, you can’t really beat the capabilities of this violin; not only do you get a high-quality fretted violin, but you also have the added midi capabilities. These violins are also the cheapest on this list. Not only do you have midi output, but you also have a quarter-inch jack, so you can hook it up to any amp and have fun!
- Midi capability
- Cheapest on the list
- Variety of finishes to choose from
- 4 or 5 string varieties
- High-quality active pickup
- Sounds lovely
- Can be hard to track down in stock
- Not suitable for extremely serious professional musicians
- 8 pin Midi output that can’t be converted to a 5 pin only works with the GR-55
- Only compatible with steel strings and cannot be used with aluminum or silver.
Next in line is the NS Design NXT4a. I love NS Designs violins and find them rather fascinating due to their body style and built-in shoulder and chin rest. Another thing to note is that this violin doesn’t have the traditional pegs or even a scroll box at all. The tuning for this violin is completely backward; you thread the ball end of the string through the holes in the top of the violin and the colored ends of the violin through the “tailpiece” on the end. To tune the violin, you turn those little knobs.
The NXT4a comes with an active pickup with a passive bypass. It also comes with its own type of strings, NS Electric Strings from D’Addario. I love these strings and use them on my own electric violin; they provide an excellent balanced tone and last a good while. This violin will cost you around $2,000 for a basic 4-string model.
- Interesting body design and tuning mechanism
- Available in 4 or 5 strings
- Piezo pickup under a bridge with passive bypass
- Passive or active mode. Active mode is activated by pulling the tone knob outwards and supplies up to 16 hours of performance time
- Must use built-in shoulder rest
- 1/4inch jack port is located on the back of the violin body; I prefer them on the side, but it’s a personal preference.
Jeff Stratton makes some incredible violin, and the Gypsy is by far my favorite! This unique violin lends quite a bit of fantasy to its design. Still, it maintains the same style as a traditional violin. It reminds me of an ancient goddess who crafted a violin out of driftwood for her enjoyment, but you know, with frets and modern electronics because that’s how we roll in 2022. It’s an incredible piece of art that packs a lot under its housing.
The Gypsy is handmade and comes with an ebony fingerboard, pegs, and chinrest. It has bronzed hardware that really leans into the overall look of this violin. The pickup and bridge are Starfish Design which is considered quieter than the Barbera. You will find it to be popular on the Viper fretted violins. However, while the overall tone is quieter than some violins, the sound is more natural and acoustic.
- Handmade solid wood body
- Unique design that would add a lot of character to specific types of music, Steampunk comes to mind almost immediately.
- Uses a standard shoulder rest
- Bronzed hardware
- Extreme attention to detail and overall look of the violin, everything from the bridge to the pegs are in theme with the violin
- High-quality electronics
- Only comes in a 4 string variety
Other Stratton MasterPieces
I’ve mentioned the Viper throughout this article, and that’s because it really is a top-of-the-line fretted violin, and really they are quite unique. Created by Mark Wood from Wood Violins, the violin body reminds me of a v-shaped electric guitar. The neck is also shaped like an electric guitar and uses the same tuning gears in place of tuning pegs. I like the look; it really does remind me of an electric guitar. In the words of Emilie Autumn, “Violin is the new guitar.” Okay, that may be overzealous, but you get what I mean.
You have a lot of flexibility in your viper configuration; you can even purchase a custom-built Viper. Just be prepared to wait up to 2 years to receive it, as production really does take that long. The cost will also set you back; while you can find one as low as $2,500, you can also pay up to $5,000 depending on the overall configuration. But it’s worth it for one of the best-fretted violins money can buy.
- High-quality custom built electric violin
- A variety of options to choose from, including fret type, finish, and string number
- 4-7 strings violins available
- 2 choices of pickup: Barbera or Tru Wood Pickup
- A violin guitar
- Custom builds an take a long time to receive
- Special order only
- Can only use the built-in chin rest and shoulder strap
If you find you want the same capabilities as frets but don’t want to spend money on a fretted violin or would rather just use your acoustic, then the Fretless Fingerguide is perfect. As I mentioned, frets are great for students to learn, but it can become too easy to rely on them for finger placement. The Fretless Fingerguide allows you to place temporary finger guides on your violin while you are learning for the first few months.
The best part is that it doesn’t use an adhesive like many other finger guides, so you are at less risk of damaging your fingerboard. You simply align it and wrap the two sides overlapping around the neck. The material will cling to itself instead of your instrument, allowing you to remove it easily. I used one of these for about the first year I played. I found it extremely useful, but I did feel reliant on it at times, so I took it off. But it helped me start to build muscle memory at first.
Answer: Acoustic violins rely more on the type of wood, construction, and overall technique than an electric violin. Frets take away some of the freedom, but it also allows you to neglect parts of your technique, and ear development favor tactile or visual feedback. I only recommend fretted violins for those who have been playing for years and have mastered at least advanced techniques on a traditional violin.
For new students, I recommend finger guides, if needed, like the Fretless Fingerguide to learn muscle memory and finger placement.
Answer: This will depend on the manufacturer; most recommend using steel strings. Some violins aren’t compatible with anything but steel strings. I recommend NS Designs Electric Strings by D’Addario. They are stranded steel-core and have a great balanced sound that is compatible with any electric violin.
Answer: Yes! There are a couple actually the Fantastic FingerGuide, which has stickers for hand placement and finger placement; however, you have to place them each by hand; they aren’t in one single sheet. This can be a bit frustrating, in all honesty. I currently use the Cosmos Fingerboard Sticker from Amazon on my electric violin. While it’s a bit beat up nowadays, it’s still stuck to the fingerboard like glue. This is actually one of the reasons I’m not too fond of it and one of the reasons I have yet to remove it.
Overall if you want the best-fretted violin with the most options money can buy, then a Viper is the way to go! But, I would probably choose the Gypsy out of all of the options, with the Cantini being a second pick due to its midi capabilities. Either way finding a fretted violin is both an easy and challenging task. While they are all sold under the same storefront, for the most part, stock availability and pricing can hold you back from purchasing one.
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