The History and Sound of the Stroh Violin

The Stroh Violin was Invented in London

The unusual stringed instrument with a horn had a short run. But the Stroh violin answered the need for more sound projection, a bridge to electronic amplification.

The Stroh violin stands apart from any other stringed instrument due to its unconventional design, where a metal horn stands in place of the wooden body found in traditional violins. Today, they’re hard-to-find in playing condition. It isn’t the sort of instrument you’ll find in the catalog of the typical fine violin shop. If you are lucky enough to find a Stroh for sale, there’s a good chance a maker of fine violins can restore it to playing condition.

Its appearance is disarming. In an analogy from the animal kingdom, the Stroh is the Australian kangaroo while the traditional violin is the North American deer. Both have strings and a bow, but it gets a little weird from there.

Considered an experimental violin, invented in the late 1800s by London-based John Matthias Augustus Stroh, the Stroh violin’s unique construction gave it a sharper, more focused tone suited for cutting through the ambient noise inherent to early 20th century performance venues – a time when raucous dance halls and vaudeville shows were the primary place for non-philharmonic music.

Stroh, an engineer and a musician, developed his violin to help amplify and project sound into those noisy events. The attached metal-resonator horn served a similar function to the phonograph, transmitting sound waves produced by the violin’s strings. This innovative modification gave the Stroh violin a louder, more piercing timbre with a subtle metallic edge not found in standard wooden violins.

The Stroh violin’s function was primarily to boost volume. This was in the time of ragtime, jazz, and swing music, all provided by live musicians whose measure of success was getting people to fill the dance floor.

However, as amplification technology progressed – think carbon microphones, vacuum tube amplifiers, and electrodynamic speakers – the Stroh violin faded into obscurity. Its heyday was barely two decades long.

Recently, however, there has been renewed interest among contemporary musicians who appreciate the signature tone of the Stroh, bringing new dimensions to modern musical compositions. For some, it’s about the vintage appeal of old instruments producing old and novel sounds. In some genres such as folk, bluegrass, blues, and jazz, the Stroh violin works well. Contemporary artists who incorporate the Stroh violin into their work include Amanda Shires (The Highwomen, “Devastate”), Sarah Neufeld (Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs”), Feist (“The Reminder”), and Pokey LaFarge (“Rock Bottom Rhapsody”). Antique Stroh violins from vintage goods sellers and on eBay range from $400 to $1000, and YouTube videos feature contemporary Stroh performers. 

At least one maker based in Romania, Hora, produces new Stroh violins that are popular in Romanian folk music that is often associated with Roma culture. Players of traditional violins can easily adapt to a Stroh.

While short-lived in the larger history of instruments, the Stroh violin represents an important effort to enhance the violin for specific performance contexts. The ingenuity behind its design pays homage to centuries of inventors who pushed boundaries and experimented with violins and all musical instruments in new ways – keeping in mind the violin we know today once evolved from the lyre, rebec, and Lira da Braccio. 

Is there a Stroh violin boomeranging back to us sometime soon? Listen up – some are already here.