Are You Fiddling with my Violin?

Are You Fiddling with my Violin?

Fiddler in Desert

Fiddler in Desert

Some fans who have read Deep Naked have written with confusions of what a fiddle is, versus a violin. Since most people don’t know the difference, I decided to give them my real-world take.

For those of you who know me, you know I’ve been playing fiddle, aka violin, for  decades. I first learned classical violin, on an instrument that was more suited to a fiddle, and now I play fiddle on an instrument that is a better violin. I’ve attended festivals around the United States and have shared notes with famous fiddlers and symphony members as well.

So are these terms interchangeable?

Of course. It’s in the context. Playing fiddle is more about the style of music you play, rather than the instrument itself. The instrument is still a violin.  (Some players with a Hardanger or cigar-box violin might disagree; but I’m talking about a traditional four-stringed instrument here.)

Again, in the context, some luthiers may hand-build (or home-build) an instrument with the idea that it be used as a fiddle. Then it is a fiddle. (I’m not going to tangle with these guys!) Some players may even use a shoe box with strings, in a pinch.

Which is the violin? Which is the Fiddle? The one on the left is a Stradivarius copy; the one on the right is a home-built.

Which is the violin? Which is the Fiddle?
The one on the left is a Stradivarius copy; the one on the right is a home-built.

However, if you intend to play a lot of fiddle, and primarily play fiddle music, you may refer to your violin as a fiddle. That has to do with intention. Then again, some fine instruments might never be referred to as “fiddles,” unless it’s tongue-in-cheek. For example, Crystal’s Guarnerius del Gesu would have been worth in the six figures, and would be considered a fine violin. However, since she makes up her own style of fiddle music (called improvisation), she might refer to it as her fiddle or violin.

Author Riley Hill's fiddle

Author Riley Hill’s fiddle

Entire classical orchestras might play fiddle music, and the bass violin is also called a bass fiddle.

You can play fiddle music on a violin, although attempting violin music on a fiddle is a bit more difficult, as skilled fiddler will normally have the bridge flattened out to improve the ability to play double-stops (two strings at once). However, this isn’t a given and isn’t a criterion for playing fiddle.

What are some of the other differences?

Some fiddle tunes will call for alternate tunings of the strings. Where “normal” orchestral music calls for a G, D, A, E tuning, it is common for Appalachian fiddle to call for A, E, A, E or other tunings.  Also, a fiddle player is not as stringent in how he or she holds the instrument. They hold the violin for comfort and playability, rather than “correct form.” Since many fiddlers are self-taught, the classical form would not often be known to them, nor would they care.

Since re-tuning the strings is hard on them, some people keep more than one instrument. I keep two: my better instrument in a traditional tuning, and my “beater,” with strings I can re-tune easily and not care so much if they break.

When a violin player decides to play fiddle, s/he might switch the bow from one strung with fine-haired stallion tail to a coarser haired bow. This provides a “grit” to the playing, which can lend dimension.

Many fiddlers prefer “steel” strings, and some classical players still prefer “gut.” Personally, I think there are no better strings than Obligatos, and I like them for fiddle or violin playing.

When some people think of fiddle music, they think of Bluegrass or  Appalachian. But there are many forms of fiddle music that predate these renditions. In fact, Appalachian music stems from Celtic (where often the fiddle is set to emulate the bagpipes). As in “Deep Naked,” other fiddle music stems from the Scandinavian countries and is popular there. British fiddle tunes are often played by violins. Just pick up any music book and see examples for yourself.

Are fiddlers and violinists the same people?

They might be, as some classical players also play fiddle music at festivals for fun. Then again, the beards of some self-taught fiddlers would prickle straight out if you implied they were classically trained. And most would not use fine tuners, either. Some play with the instrument on their breast bones so they can squint at you easier. Many fiddle players play “by ear,” like Crystal did in the book.

Some well-known fiddlers (who showed up with Crystal in Deep Naked) are as follows: Darol AngerBabs Lamb, Laurie Lewis, and the wonderful Bela Balough (whose first name appears in the book).

My personal inspirations were Vassar Clements and Yehudi Menuhin. (Neither of whom I play like.)

Numerous other famous American fiddlers can be found listed on Wiki. Here are other opinions by other fiddlers on Flying Fiddle. Still confused? Get your copy of Deep Naked and decide for yourself.

All photos and text are copyrighted by Riley Hill. All rights reserved.

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