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Fiddle Faddle / Violin's Double? (or Fiddles VS. Violins: Duelling Trebles)

April 30, 2006

Avid Folk Alley listener, Robin Roderick, has an interesting question, one I've pondered, as well, for some time:

"Have you ever been compelled to find the answer to something that really doesn't make any difference to you or anyone else, other than, perhaps, to increase your chances of winning at Trivial Pursuit? I've wondered, for many years now, just what, exactly, IS the difference between the VIOLIN and the FIDDLE? I've asked music teachers, and musicians alike. . . and have yet to hear a straightforward answer!

Does anyone out there in the folk alley have a clue, theory, or conjecture on the
subject? You can even begin with "Once upon a time. . . . "

Let's hear it, Fiddle fans - what's your opinion or research on the subject?

Posted by JoLynn Braswell at April 30, 2006 8:58 AM


A ticket to hear someone play the violin costs $50-$100.

No one buys tickets to hear fiddle players.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at April 30, 2006 10:57 AM

I find it interesting that in Webster's Dictionary, the definition of "fiddle" includes the violin, but the definition of "violin" does NOT include the fiddle!

Posted by: JL Braswell at April 30, 2006 11:32 AM

Well, since we're offering Dictionary definitions here, the Oxford Concise Dictionary cites a 'fiddle' as - 'an instance of cheating or fraud' - everyday examples of which can be seen in the words and actions of leading politicians. A violin however, is as most people will know, is a musical instrument capable of offering a soulful lament of such fiddles.

Posted by: Tony Bircher at April 30, 2006 1:49 PM

Hear! Hear!

Posted by: JL Braswell at April 30, 2006 1:52 PM

Er...violinists don't need day jobs, and fiddlers can't keep day jobs?

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at April 30, 2006 2:24 PM

What's the difference between a lasso and a lariat... ? Answer... oh, about three thousand miles! What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle...? Answer... See: metric conversion tables... (~;

Posted by: Chris Clark at April 30, 2006 5:15 PM

There's no difference in the instrument. A violin and a fiddle are one and the same. The difference is in the playing. And the employability of the player.

Posted by: Christin Keck at April 30, 2006 5:46 PM

I heard Tim O'Brien say that the difference is you can spill beer on a fiddle...

Posted by: Linda Fahey at April 30, 2006 5:56 PM

LOL! Does the beer enhance the finish/and or the playing?

Posted by: Robin Roderick at April 30, 2006 6:18 PM

I prefer bluegrass fiddling with the "Budweiser" glaze sound. Oh, I've heard those who espouse their preference for the "Rolling Rock" or "Pabst Blue Ribbon" varnish tone, but in my humble opinion these people are peasants.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at April 30, 2006 6:55 PM

Often, the members of the Houston Symphony Orchestra would fill in spots on my college orchestra roster for concerts. Once, just before we were to file on to the stage, I asked one violinist what the difference is between a fiddle and a violin. He gave me a wide grin....then he lit in to a lively jig!

Posted by: JL Braswell at April 30, 2006 9:26 PM

Can a viola become a fiddle too?

Posted by: JL Braswell at April 30, 2006 9:35 PM

1) the bridge on a fiddle should be flattened a bit more than on a violin, to allow for easier double-stops

2) the sound of a violin is different than a fiddle. One of my violins sounds absolutely beautiful, soulful, smoky ..... while my "good" fiddle cuts like a razor. That's the only way I can describe the difference in sound.

Posted by: Joe Bethancourt at May 1, 2006 1:03 AM

So, wouldn't really want to flatten the bridge on a perfectly good violin, so the lesser quality instrument gets the 'fiddle' designation?

Do fiddlers care as much about the quality of their bows, or pay as much attention to keeping their bows rosined properly? (I would think that the answer to that last bit is a big, "yes", hair stands might be flying everywhere!)
Somewhere in my past I recall info that the horse hair used for bows is from female white horses exclusively. Reason being, their urine does something to the hair to strengthen it...or something. Why a white horse, I have no clue.

I also recall hearing somewhere that the finish on instruments has a lot to do with sound quality (I think I read that on the Larrivee Guitar site.) Scientists (gotta love 'em) had analised the shellac like substance on a valuable Stratevarias violin, and had discovered that boiled shrimp shells were part of the recipe for the finish on the instrument!
Now, I wonder who came up with THAT idea!
Hey, maybe Jim P.'s Budweiser theory isn't that far off, ha! Can an instrument be French Polished with beer do you think? Hmmm...why not whiskey?

Posted by: JL Braswell at May 1, 2006 7:06 AM

Joe B. - about 'flattening the bridge'....'scuse me if my question isn't exactly the most informed. I'm not a violinist, nor a fiddler, so please forgive my limited knowledge about the instrument.

Posted by: JL Braswell at May 1, 2006 9:20 AM

The difference between a fiddle player and a violin player is that the fiddle player doesn't read music.

Posted by: Liz Slate at May 1, 2006 2:00 PM

I've enjoyed reading the many varied definitions of a fiddle vs. violin. Yes you can flatten the bridge to make double stopping easier, but you don't have to. The brightness or mellowness of tone is really a matter of taste. My 14 year old saw Natalie MacMaster play when she was 4 and decided she wanted to "do that". She started out at 5 with a Suzuki teacher (classical training), but this teacher supported her folk interest. And actually started teaching her how to read music long before Suzuki method recommends. However she also emphasized the importance of ear training since she wanted to "fiddle".

She continued a classical training plus listening and learning fiddle tunes on her own until a year and a half ago. By then she had graduated to her Grandmother's violin (a fine classical violinist in her day). She continues to play her Grandmother's violin--she has not changed the bridge, but now it's a fine fiddle. It's all a matter of how the instrument is played.

After about 7 months of working on her own with occasional input from John Kirk she has had some help from 2 other fiddler's. Because my daughter loves Cape Breton and Quebecois style both fiddler's recommended we get a certain style bow that has a lot of bounce. So, yes bow quality and responsiveness is important--but will vary depending on what style the fiddler plays.

Posted by: Nancy Holroyd at May 1, 2006 2:51 PM

Someone once told me a violinist makes the instrument sing, a fiddler makes it dance.

Posted by: Steven Nagy at May 1, 2006 7:11 PM

The difference is 4.

Posted by: Jack Swain at May 1, 2006 9:11 PM

Nagy. . . Ez az! Nancy, encourage your daughter to come up with some fiddlin' for Open Mic! She has excellent taste btw, the Cape Breton fiddlers are among the finest in the world!

Posted by: Robin Roderick at May 1, 2006 9:38 PM

Jack S. Huh...? Chris's metric conversion tables?
I'm coin-fuzed. 'The difference is 4', you say...

Posted by: JL Braswell at May 1, 2006 10:01 PM

Yeah, I was gonna ask about that meself!

Posted by: Robin Roderick at May 1, 2006 10:17 PM

4 is the eternal answer.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at May 1, 2006 11:07 PM

Jack, aftr conSumng mY forth budweser, iT becme clar. I haD smply neglCtd to incld the Chrlie Danels factr, i.e. (The Luthier Wnt Dwn to Gergia), inTo mY calclatonS. Onc agin, yU ar corRekt... the anWsrer s 4!!! p.s. i gOt A liTle heLp onn tHs, fRm Alexandra Lajoux... tanKs, Alexandra... (~:

Posted by: Chris Clark at May 2, 2006 12:22 AM

I thought the answer was "fourty two", but that's
just some grumpy computer's opinion...well, thanks for all the fish, in any case.
Four makes more sense though (thank you, Dr. West!). It's growing on me.

Chris C. - was that Charlie Daniels or...Jack Daniels??

Posted by: JL Braswell at May 2, 2006 12:52 AM

I like what Steven Nagy says. Simply, yet eloquently stated.

Posted by: JL Braswell at May 2, 2006 12:56 AM

..but someting I cannot figure out is - that if I am 16 times the size of my dog, thus living twice as long...why do large dogs live fewer years than small dogs?? Did they account for those variances in their figurings? Someone's fiddling with the facts I think...

Posted by: JL Braswell at May 2, 2006 1:03 AM

Cape Breton fiddlers are among the finest, but if you have the opportunity to hear the Shetland Heritage fiddlers give them a listen. Our 14 yr-old had an opportunity to jam with them last evening. Wow!

Posted by: Nancy Holroyd at May 2, 2006 8:19 AM

Will do!

Posted by: Robin Roderick at May 2, 2006 9:25 AM

My friend Susan who plays with the Oak Park Farmer's Market Bluegrass Band on occasion and also is a member of the Chicago Symphony played for quite awhile a very fine old violin that was at least 150 to 200 years old. She was worried about playing it outside so last summer she bought a newer Chinese made fiddle that is quite beautiful in appearance and voice. There is some beautiful and unusual detailing in its design and finish, and it sings out sweetly and with considerable volume. The first time I heard it, it was the sound that made me sit up and take notice, not the fact that it did not look so ancient as her other one.

She bought it from one of the other fiddle players in the band, Geoff, who also buys, repairs, and resells old fiddles. I have seen him a couple of times shake his head and bemoan the fact that he sold it to her too hastily and for too little!

Posted by: Jack Swain at May 2, 2006 10:48 AM

WHAT a deal!

Posted by: JL Braswell at May 2, 2006 4:59 PM

Anybody out there play the hurdy-gurdy?

Posted by: Robin Roderick at May 6, 2006 8:37 AM

A violin can be conveted into a fiddle by simply removing the stings and replacing them with straangs.

Posted by: Thomas Porat at May 6, 2006 4:20 PM

Have you ever heard a street busker play a violin?

Posted by: David Lull at May 6, 2006 4:58 PM

Yep - Sol Rudnik, the man who founded Fiddler's dream in Phoenix. He's a busker now in San Luis Obispo, but he was Arizona State Fiddle Champion a few times - and plays violin too!

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at May 6, 2006 7:53 PM

Thomas P - good one! ;o)

Posted by: JL Braswell at May 6, 2006 8:58 PM

People ask me this question a lot! I always say:

If you ask a violinist to play a song with you, he will say, "Sure, where's the sheet music?" If you ask a fiddler to play a song with you, he'll say, "Sure, what key's it in? You gonna kick it off?"

Posted by: at May 21, 2006 8:53 AM

The Apalachian answer, sure to be the final word 9since that is where the fiddle was invented0 is 'a fiddler learned to play the thing and a violinist was taught'.

Also it seems all violists can see. No one ever hears of a blind violinist.

My answer is that it is possible to play the violin with sufficient restrain. I have heard that on rare occasions. I may not have ever heard a retrained fiddler, so perhaps it's not possible.

Posted by: D Neely at May 22, 2006 4:55 PM

After playing classical violin in my early years and then learning and teaching fiddling for 27 years on Prince Edward Island, I can safely say that there is no difference between the violin and the fiddle as instruments. Some fiddlers flatten their bridges, some don't. Some fiddlers hold their bow higher, some don't. Some fiddlers use harder strings for a brighter sound, some don't. All of that comes down to personal taste. Classical violinists also have strong views on how their instruments are set up. My main violin is still set up classically, because to change that, changes its voice to my ear. At the same time I have been complemented on its sound time and again by fiddlers. As to reading music, yes classically trained musicians, such as myself, depend heavily on written music. However, no fiddler or violinist these days can work at their best without having some skill in both reading music and in playing by "ear". Both of these skills are important for a good perfomer. Both of these skills allow a wider range of performance than just using one or the other. I have students who come to my class who play well by ear, yet I encourage them to learn how to read at least enough that they are not entirely dependent on someone else playing the tune in order for them to learn it. Being able to read also allows an ear player to write down tunes they compose, rather than losing them because they have forgotten key passages.

Anyway, I have written enough for a book.


Posted by: Kathryn Dau-Schmidt at June 9, 2006 8:41 AM

P.S. Mr/Ms Neely, the fiddle and fiddling was invented in Europe and transported from there to Appalachia and elswhere with the immigrants. If you listen carefully, you can hear that the ancestry of the tunes played in Appalachia is the same as those played in the Maritimes. They just took different directions once they landed in North America.

Cheers again (and I'll shut up now)...

Posted by: Kathryn Dau-Schmidt at June 9, 2006 10:36 AM

I read an interview with Vassar Clements and he said the difference between the violin and the fiddle was "about a six-pack".

Posted by: Gary Foshee at June 11, 2006 5:41 PM

The only real difference is in the way they are played. Classical players have caled their violins fiddles for genorations. In the Appalachian Mountains some fiddlers filed their bridges flatter to play 3 strings at once, not double stops. I don't know any tunes, but I know they exist. There is also a bow you can take apart and play all 4 strings at once and some classical peaces have been written for this unique bow. scuse my spelling....

Posted by: Ted Wilby (Ted The Fiddler) at June 15, 2006 2:42 PM

That's VERY INTERESTING Ted! Don't worry about your spelling . . . I understand the information and that's all that matters. Imagine how rich the sound of four strings vibrating at the same time!

Posted by: Robin Roderick at June 15, 2006 10:20 PM

Hmmm, it just occured to me . . . this bow you've described . . . minstrels in the Middle Ages went about coaxing sound from strings yet another way . . . inventing the hurdy-gurdy, which has a rosined, wooden wheel placed UNDER the strings, and keys that strike the notes while the wheel is turned. This instrument sounds more like a fiddler and bagpiper got together for a gig.

Posted by: Robin Roderick at June 15, 2006 11:03 PM

Hednigarna uses that hurdy-gurdy, really cool sound - like a Medieval Moog!

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at June 19, 2006 7:32 PM

There's a Swedish or Norwegein fiddle with several drone strings under neath the main strings that vibrate sypathetically. It has a really unique sound.

Posted by: Ted Wilby at June 20, 2006 12:31 PM

Yes, Ted, that would be the Hardanger Fiddle, from the Hardanger Fjord area of Norge (Norway), which is where my Grandfather was born and raised. There is a real art to playing it so that it sounds appealing. It can be quite a challenge, but worht it, I understand, and is quite exotic sounding.

Posted by: JL Braswell at June 20, 2006 9:24 PM

As a new violinist, I have always been taught that a good fiddle cost $100 and a good violin cost $10,000. So you can make a violin sound like a good fiddle, you will never get a fiddle to sound like a good violin.

Posted by: Larry Dunn at July 18, 2006 12:53 PM

Things that make you go hmmmmmm. . . . . . .

Posted by: Robin Roderick at July 19, 2006 10:12 PM

a fiddle has beer spilled on it!! har har!

Posted by: Nicole Smith at July 29, 2006 10:51 PM

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