Sunday, July 10, 2011

What is the Difference Between a Violin and a Fiddle?

Written by Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins

What is the difference between a violin and a fiddle? Well, the old joke is: about $2,000. However, in recent years fiddlers have purchased extraordinarily nice (& valuable!) violins from us, putting that old joke in its place.

The truth is that the "fiddle" and the "violin" are the same instrument. The set up is somewhat different for the different styles of playing, but a fiddle can be a violin and a violin can be a fiddle. Or both. At the same time. The differences in the set up can also vary depending on the preferences of a player. 

For beginning violinists and fiddlers the similarities are many. Most beginning violinists use very stable strings- either nylon or metal core. This is also true for beginning fiddlers. Additionally,
most beginning fiddlers and violinists use four fine tuners. The bow challenge for beginning violinists and fiddlers is to play one string at a time. This necessitates a fairly heavily arched bridge. If you use fingerboard tapes, which most beginning fiddlers and violinists do, your string height needs to be high enough so that the strings don't buzz on the tapes. 

As a player advances, the differences in set up become more apparent. Fiddlers often play two strings at once, which in classical parlance are called "double stops". Many fiddlers like a somewhat flatter arch to their bridge to make this easier. 

Many fiddlers also play in "cross tunings" ( from low to high- AEAE or GDGD). In classical parlance this is called "scordatura." The wear and tear of tuning strings back and forth to different pitches necessitates a fairly strong string. The metal core strings work best for cross tuning. For this sort of durability I recommend Helicore strings. More advanced violinists like the sound that the nylon or perlon core strings give. Fiddlers that stay in one tuning often like that sound as well. 

Traditional Cajun fiddlers often tune down one whole step. It makes it much easier to play in the keys that are best for Cajun accordion. That is, from highest to lowest, instead of EADG, they tune DGCF. Heavy gauge strings work well for that tuning. 

All fiddlers, regardless of their skill, seem to like using four fine tuners. Rather than putting four metal fine tuners on a wood tailpiece, I recommend using the Wittner Ultra tailpiece with the four fine tuners built in. It sounds better and works better. I think they work great for classical violinists as well. For more information, check out my Blog about Fine Tuners.

All of the re-tuning for a fiddler means that they are using their pegs much more than a classical violinist. I recently put in "Planetary Perfection Pegs" on a fiddler's very nice Fein/Riva violin, and he loves them. However,  I'm not so in love with the "Planetary Perfection Pegs".  Next I'm going to try a similar peg made by Wittner. I'll keep you posted. 

Fiddlers rarely move out of first position. For this reason they can tolerate a much lower string height. As a violinist moves into the upper positions, the string height on the violin needs to be close to the standard or there will be buzzing and intonation problems. When the beginning fiddler loses the fingerboard tapes, that's a good time to lower the string heights and flatten out the bridge. 

Fiddling used to have a negative connotation in the classical music world. But with great fiddlers like Mark O'Connor writing classical compositions and performing with classical orchestras and soloists like Yo-Yo Ma, the negative feelings are falling away. Many of the great composers loved to listen to Gypsy and folk tunes. They often incorporated them into their compositions. Aaron Copland in particular was a genius at that. The Bartok violin duets are often Gypsy fiddle tunes set at odds with each other. Many of the great Russian, German, English, Bohemian and Czech composers considered themselves ethnomusicologists as well. "Appalachian Spring", Kodaly's Cello Sonatas, "Ma Vlast", "Ode to Joy" and many other compositions incorporate folk songs or tunes in their themes. 

Get fiddling. It's fun, and it will open a new world of playing possibilities for you.

Are you a violinist (or fiddler) or interested on becoming one? Take a look at our Fine Violins!

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