Electric violin maker works quietly, producing instruments for top artists across musical spectrum
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
Despite the fact that John Jordan is building a legend in his quiet, unassuming Concord, California garage, he's not a publicity seeker.
"I did get approached by a TV producer planning a reality show on instrument makers in the "American Chopper" style and told him what I did was slow and meticulous work. (No) fast moving computer-controlled machinery or stadiums full of yelling fans -- and I wasn't going to cut my beard and mustache to look like a walrus and yell at my son on camera," he confesses.
Sitting amid the menagerie of his electric violin-making trade, Jordan says he was flattered by the attention, but relieved to have escaped the "torture" of reality TV exposure.
While his reserved, private, inventor's soul may have kept his name mostly out of mainstream media, there are artisans, collectors, trade publications and a cadre of top-name musicians lining up to endorse -- and own -- his exotic, Picasso-esque creations.
British violinist Thomas Gould played a six-string Jordan e-violin when he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a John Adam's premiere last October.
"I always feel totally confident that because of John's skill and commitment, the violin will not let me down when it matters most. He is the Stradivarius of electric violin makers," he writes in an email.
"I'll show you my drawing for an art-deco inspired cello -- maybe that'll get Yo Yo Ma to go electric too," Jordan half-jokes.
Robert Avilés, a violinist about whom BAM Magazine writes, "Robert Avilés is to the violin what Jimi Hendrix was to the guitar," came to Jordan seeking a seven-string electric violin.
Describing Jordan as "down-to-earth," he says, "A nice person doesn't necessarily mean a quality product. I scrutinized the craftsmanship ... the sound quality and playability of his violins are second to none."
Search the archives of "Strings" or "Making Music" magazines for references to his instruments and discover superlatives like "meticulous," "beautiful" and "superior sound."
Google "John Jordan" and find well-known clients from all over the musical spectrum: the Bay Area's Carlos Reyes, Boyd Tinsley of Dave Matthews Band, hip-hop violinist Miri-Ben Ari and Detroit Symphony principal violist Alexander Mishnaevski.
Brushing away sawdust and compliments, Jordan says, "I would do this for fun. I'm not encouraging people not to pay me, but I like vessel forms."
His "vessels," rough cut with a simple band saw, then chiseled and gouged by hand, range in price from just over $2,000 to $7,000. A cello with a lot of carving, bears an $11,000 price tag.
Jordan estimates an acoustic violin requires 300 hours to make. A bass he made required three months; and a harp, 150 hours.
"An electric violin? I don't want to know, 'cause then I'd know how much I make per hour," he laughs. "An acoustic cello? I'd have to charge $25,000, so I've not made that one, but an electric is three months."
Because the violin radiates sound omnidirectionally off all surfaces, it's nearly impossible for a microphone to pick up and amplify its natural sound without grabbing from the other instruments in a band or orchestra.
Electric violins require a rare maker who is techno-savvy (to select the bridge, circuit boards, electrical pickup mechanism, cables, amplifiers, etc.) and a craftsman who is intimately familiar with acoustic string instruments.
Jordan's customizing begins outdoors.
"A windstorm wrecks a tree: that's not a tree that's going to recover. I use sustainably harvested wood, or salvaged. I had a piece of flamed ash from Andrew Jackson's estate that was cool," he recalls.
Maple, spruce, English walnut, lavender-colored purple heart -- the list goes on.
"If you have a sound in your mind, send me a recording and I'll find a wood that gets close to that sound," he promises. "I pay a premium for it and I should: I worry about leaving a decent world behind."
When wood arrives from almost 100 lumber merchants Jordan buys from, he raps on it.
"If it doesn't ring when I tap on it, I send it away. There's a musicality, a pitch to it. Not everything is a winner."
After passing the test, Jordan designs and carves; balancing the weight of the neck to avoid fatiguing the player, adjusting features to match a client's hand measurements, and adding Vitner tuning keys he says allow finer adjustments. When completed, his patented designs are instantly recognizable as violins, but completely idiosyncratic.
"I'm a bit of a control freak ... OK, I'm a complete control freak," he says. "When it's your name on the shingle, you care."
Having built nearly 500 electric violins and received considerable, if out-of-the-neon-lights acclaim, Jordan keeps the legend in perspective.
Pointing to a "P-shaped" slab of spalted curly big leaf maple and a row of gleaming nearly-finished violins on his workbench, he says, "The most interesting thing about this work isn't these things, it's what people do with them."