When it gets down to it, do violins and fiddles really differ?
By Christopher Jacoby
Q: I normally play bluegrass, old time, and Celtic music, but had a hard time blending with the other musicians when I tried playing classical music with some friends. Someone said it was because my violin was probably setup for fiddle, not classical. What’s the difference?
A: ‘Fiddle,’ in the American tradition, used to be what folks without classical training did with bowed instruments, from the dance music of Irish immigrants to the roots of jazz and blues in the black South. If fiddle music is less complex than classical music melodically, it makes up for it with articulation and rhythm challenges. I have a harder time with the cycling time signatures of old-time than I do with Bach’s fugues!
In terms of instruments, the difference these days between a classical and fiddle setup is mainly in the strings. Homegrown accessories, like rattlesnake rattles and soundpost twine aside, violins and luthiers are too prevalent for another instrument entirely to have emerged from our fiddling tradition. If the Great Depression had lasted another 30 years, you might have seen some of the wild repairs and mods I’ve witnessed from ‘grandpa’ take a new path down American Music. But mostly, fiddle players prefer steel strings, and classical players use strings with a synthetic core. This difference alone could explain your trouble blending in with your friends.
Steel strings are stark—less warm than modern classical strings. A fiddler needs to cut through a sight more foot-stomping and bar noise than chamber musicians do. Generally, poor folk created fiddle music, and when a string broke in the Appalachian Mountains, you might have grabbed piano wire, or baling wire, to keep the dance going. The sound becomes what the situation dictates.
Another variable is the shape of the bridge. A fiddle player wants to be able to ride two or three strings at once with their bow, especially for vamping and backup. A bridge is often carved for them with a flatter radius on top. Sometimes, that flatter radius is carved off the blade of a standard classical bridge, reducing the amount of wood left over the heart of the bridge. This reduction contributes to the brazen sound of a fiddler’s violin, regardless of the bridge thickness or width to begin with.
Other than that, a violin and a fiddle are the same animal. I’ve heard that fiddle players use mini-tuners, while violinists use the pegs; that a fiddle player holds the bow halfway up the stick, and a violinist demurely rests on the winding and the frog; that fiddle players stomp where violinists sway.
I like to tell people that fiddle is like rhythm guitar, and violin is lead.
The truth is that violinists play both ways, in any style, and bring the methods they were taught to bear upon the piece of music at hand. Visit your local luthier and discuss the setup on your violin. A set of D’Addario Helicore strings often bridges the gap between fiddle and classical, if you decide that playing with your friends is worth leaving traditional steel-core strings behind.
Christopher Jacoby is violin-maker-in-residence at A. Cavallo Violins in Omaha, Nebraska. He worked for Peter Prier after graduating from the Violin Making School of America.