GearWire [January 2009]

The Wood Viper Violin: Stratospheerius’ Joe Deninzon On The Electric Violin

by Patrick Ogle

Joe Deninzon

Joe Deninzon of Stratospheerius says you could fill ten books with him talking about the violin. We decided, therefore, to get specific. We talked to Deninzon about his Viper Violin and how he would up playing it. Deninzon comes from a family of classical musicians. His father played with the Cleveland Orchestra for 30 years. He began lessons on the violin at age 6. Then he fell in love with rock music and later on, jazz. But at the time, he learned bass and guitar and shunted his violin to the side. What kid wants to play violin in a rock band?

“A few things happened which were major catalysts in my life. The first was when I heard Stephane Grappeli, my first introduction to jazz violin. The second was when local Cleveland celebrity Michael Stanley invited me to play violin with his band, and the third was when I heard a recording of Jerry Goodman with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.” says Deninzon.

These three things opened him up to using all the musical concepts he had learned and brought him “back” to the violin — the instrument he feels he is and was most adept at. He went looking for an electric violin.

“I did some research and bought a six-string Jensen electric violin, which had the top four strings of a regular violin (E,A,D,G) and went two fifths below with a lower C and F. This instrument served me well for many years, and then I moved to New York and met Mark Wood,” he says. “His Viper used the same Barbara pickups my Jensen did, so the sound was identical, but what sold me on the instrument was the ‘chest support’ system, which allowed me to free up my mouth and chin, since I sing and play violin at the same time, and the frets enabled me to nail the high notes at clubs where the monitor situation was less than ideal. I also loved the fact that it had a seventhth string (a low B-flat), which went a whole step below cello range. Perfect for distorted power chords, or recording cello parts for string arrangements.”

The Viper is a solid body instrument — not acoustic — and as such, it needs to be played through an amp. Deninzon is emphatic when discussing an amp versus playing through the PA.

“I don’t care what anybody tells you, and I’ve had arguments with many soundmen about this. Electric stringed instruments sound like crap when put directly through a house system,” he says. “I have a very strong opinion about this. You wouldn’t run an electric guitar direct in a live situation, would you? Since the Viper has such a large frequency range, I have found it to sound good with Fender Twins or Mesa Boogie Cabinets. The more powerful tube amps usually are best for these instruments.”

Deninzon also likes exploring how different effects sound with the Viper.

“When I played guitar, I became well-acquainted with distortion, wah, delay pedals, etc. I like how those things sound on a violin. Not quite like a guitar, not quite like a violin, something completely different,” he says. “I have two huge pedal-boards I use when playing with Stratospheerius or Metro Strings. I am also developing a book for Mel Bay addressing how string players can get into using effects and incorporating them into their sound.”

In the studio he uses it in many different ways.

“Often when someone is on a budget and can’t afford to hire a whole string section for their project, I play the cello and viola parts on a Viper and the violin parts on a regular acoustic violin,” says Deninzon. “With the right amp and EQ, you can get a pretty realistic cello sound.”

Among the Viper’s best features are the chest support system which incorporates a guitar strap behind the back and an adjustable chest support device. This means you do not have to hold the violin and strain your neck and shoulders. He also likes the way the Viper looks.

“The design looks like a flying V guitar, and is one-of-a kind for an electric violin design. Very sleek. ” he says. “The frets are a great cheat sheet, since in a rock situation, you can’t always hear yourself, and this really helps you nail notes. It’s especially great if you’re a singer and are trying to multi-task on stage.”

He does think there are some things about the Viper that could be rethought.

“My female colleagues have complained to me about getting “viper boob” when they play for extended periods of time. I think he needs to work on adjusting the chest support system to make it more comfortable for women.” he says.

He also says there are intonation problems — but adds most fretted instruments have those.

“The area where the F, C, and G string are has intonation problems, and sometimes the instrument goes flat as you go up the fretboard. On a violin, there is almost no margin of error, and I know Mark is constantly trying to improve these things,” says Deninzon. “When I bought the instrument, the D and A string would get ripped every once in a while around the third fret, and I had to sand the lower frets down a bit to smooth them out and prevent this from happening.”

In addition to Stratospheerius’ new CD, Deninzon is also writing and recording with his new electric string quartet, Metro Strings.