There is an old joke that goes, “What is the difference between a violin and a fiddle?” The answer, “A violin doesn’t get beer poured all over it.”
Funny, yes. But there is an element of truth in it. It’s a broad reference to the environments that the two instruments are played. And that is one of the differences. But jokes and stereotypes aside, they are not, in fact, the same. So, let’s learn the difference between Violin and Fiddle.
Before we do, let’s give it some thought. People might say, “I know what a Violin is.” But do they? Let’s have a look at both instruments.
What is a Violin, and Where Did It Come From?
Its history dates back a long time. In its original and basic forms, possibly thousands of years. But the first evidence of what we see today was an Arab instrument, the Rabab. This arrived in Europe from Arab armies around the 11th century and was first seen in southern Spain.
It spread across Europe, and we see the Rebec, which had three strings appear. The Rabab was played sitting down with it on your lap. The Rebec was played with it wedged under your chin with a bow.
The 5-string Vielle became popular in the 13th century. Perhaps it was the word “Vielle” that transformed into “fiddle”? As the Renaissance approached, new instruments appeared. But it was in Italy in the mid-1500s that the Violin finally arrived.
Amati and Company
Andrea Amati was a well-known instrument maker who, with his family, made historic instruments. He set up a school to teach the art of violin-making. Additionally, he had a few notable students. One of these students was his grandson Nicolo. He was the man who taught Stradivari and Guarneri. They both went on to do quite well, I am told.
The instruments produced during this time are rare and sell for millions. You won’t see much beer spilled on them. They are considered the best there is and have ever been.
Through the Renaissance (c.1400-1600) and Baroque (1600-1750) periods, the importance of the violin increased. The Classical period (1730 to 1820) was when it came to the forefront of music. Orchestras were getting larger, and there were multiple string sections. Violins were often the lead instrument.
Beethoven, Paganini, Rossini, and some Mozart at the beginning of the period established its relevance. Pieces were being written for it, symphonies based around its capabilities.
The Romantic period (1820-1900) further emphasized its preeminence. From that time on, when you thought of the orchestra, you thought of the string section of Violin, Viola, Cello, and Double Bass.
It has an impact in many musical fields. Used in Pop and Rock and forms part of more elaborate compositions by some modern composers. It has produced its own pseudo rock/classical superstars. The likes of Vanessa-Mae and Nigel Kennedy cross all musical genres with ease.
But other music genres feature the violin. Folk and traditional music in Europe and the US, Country, Cajun, Appalachian, and Bluegrass music. It is here that the instrument can be viewed rather differently, and the risk of ‘the beer’ is evident.
And so we take a look at the Fiddle. Is the fiddle the same as the violin? Or is it a different instrument?
What is a Fiddle?
Now we know what the Violin is and where it came from. But what about the Fiddle? It is evident, even in modern vernacular, that the Fiddle is viewed as an almost comical instrument by some. Expressions like “Fiddler’s elbow” or “playing second fiddle to someone” Even the bow at one time was called a “fiddlestick.”
A violin in “Folk music clothing.” It appeared as a fiddle in the 16th century in Irish and Scottish music. That spread across the rest of Britain and Europe as part of folk music traditions.
Carried by Immigrants
It was portable and quite rugged. So it was ideal for immigrants to carry with them as people migrated. America was one place it went very early. And with the people and the instruments went the cultural traditions.
According to tradition, John Utie, who arrived in the US in about 1620, was the first fiddle player. By 1736 there were the “best fiddler” competitions being held in Virginia. Some of the European Violin making skills must also have traveled.
Immigrant traditions formed the basis of Fiddle playing
There are records of American-made fiddles being produced by the mid-1700s. The oldest surviving instrument was made by John Antes in 1759. The styles prevalent at the time took much from Celtic traditions and were used around campfires for entertainment.
However, many of these musicians who arrived may well have been trained in the basics of the Classical Violin. Not all, of course, but the basic skills were developed from those techniques.
It became “Localised”
It was a very short step from there for it to develop in its own way to what we see and hear now. The links between American Folk, Bluegrass, and Appalachian music are obvious. Another short step to the South and its Cajun-style bears its influences.
Are the Violin and Fiddle the Same Instrument?
In the dictionary of music, “fiddle” is a generic term. It relates to “any chordophone, or stringed instrument, played with a bow.” That isn’t accurate, as the term fiddle doesn’t relate to the Viola, Cello, or Double bass. So even in the definition of what the Fiddle is, there is some confusion.
It seems to get more confusing. Some professional Violinists from top orchestras in Europe have been known to call their instrument a fiddle. It is used almost as a term of affection. Almost like you might refer to your brother or sister as “our kid.”
Once, I was in the company of someone who referred to Yehudi Menuhin as someone who played the fiddle. That caused more than a minor infraction. As the person was less than courteously reminded that the great Mr. Menuhin played the Violin and not the Fiddle.
Somewhere there is a deep divide in the eyes of some people. Is it in the build of the two instruments? Are they the same?
The Build of the Violin vs. the Fiddle
So we keep asking, “Are they the same?” The answer is yes and no. Confused? Let’s look at it.
There are two elements to the instrument. There are what you might call “non-changeable parts” and those that can be “changed.” To confuse the matter, even more, some of the non-changeable parts are actually changeable.
The body, neck, and headpiece on both the Violin and Fiddle are the same design and carry the same functions. As a result, any Violin can be a Fiddle.
The non-changeable becomes changeable in that some manufacturers use different woods. In Classical Violin manufacture, there have been a variety of woods used. Maple is common because it is so hard.
Stradivarius and Guarneri made their instruments largely from Spruce. A wood used in high-end acoustic guitars for its sound qualities. But it appears that both Stradivarius and Guarneri used some kind of chemical in the process.
Despite all of our technological wizardry today, we cannot tie down exactly what it was. Perhaps that is what gives them their sound.
Different woods will produce different sounds. Two instruments made in the same way by the same Luthier will sound different depending on the woods used. Largely speaking, though, the non-changeable parts are not altered or changed by Fiddle players picking up a Violin.
This is where the first evidence that can help us learn the difference between violin and fiddle. Let’s replace the word “changeable” and instead use “setup.” Because it is how the Fiddle is set up that largely distinguishes it from the Violin.
When we talk about the setup, we are talking about anything that can be changed. This might be tuners, strings, or the bridge. It could even include any chin or shoulder rests. The tuners may only have a minimal impact, as is also the case for the shoulder and chin rest. But the strings and the bridge do impact the sound.
The Violin player
Violin players tend to prefer warmer sound strings. For the pros, this is often “Gut.” But these days, there are also synthetic nylon strings that produce warm and rich tones. And they are more durable and stay in tune longer.
Furthermore, most learners and intermediate Classical players prefer the gut or synthetic strings. They tend to suit the tone and the ambiance of the music they are playing.
The Fiddle player
Fiddle players, however, are different. They tend to prefer steel-core strings. Why do fiddles use steel strings? Well, because the sound is bright and sharp and will cut right through whatever else is going on. They are used because they suit the music they are playing. That might be clue one.
This is where some cosmetic changes are made to the instrument. Fiddle players prefer a lower, flatter bridge. Having it flatter will bring down the angle of the strings between each other. This allows more than one string to be played at a time. In fact, with some Fiddle players, two or three strings, which also means notes, at a time. Clue two?
The Classical player will usually prefer their higher bridge because of the articulation and accuracy achieved.
An easy change
It is not difficult to make the change. The bridge isn’t fixed. Its job is to hold the strings at a certain height from the body and neck of the instrument. It is easy just to make the changes. However, these are not set in stone rules between Violin and Fiddle. But they do seem to apply in the majority of cases.
Could it be the Skillset required?
Some will say that the Violinist is a better musician than the Fiddler. I am not sure I go along with that. They are just different. The skills required to play fast and rhythmic bluegrass or other similar styles are different from the Classical Violinist.
The Violinist isn’t necessarily going to make a great Fiddle player. Conversely, the Fiddle player won’t compare with the Classical Violinist in his genre. An advanced musician in either field will be a very competent and talented musician in their own right, but they will be different.
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You may also like our useful Tips For Tuning Your Violin, A Guide to Choosing the Right Violin Strings, How Many Different Types of Violins Are There, and How Can I Learn to Play the Violin on My Own.
Learn the Difference Between Violin and Fiddle – Final Thoughts
In my opinion, the difference between the Violin and the Fiddle is not in the instrument. It is the musical style and the setup. They are the same instrument. And apart from the setup changes, there is no difference. However, I will concede you are more likely to get beer on your Fiddle than on your Violin, but that is fine.
Enough of the talk. What about opening your case and playing a bit? Whether it is the Violin Sonata No. 9 by Beethoven, or the Bluegrass favorite Li’l Liza Jane, it is the same instrument. It’s just played differently.
So, until next time, let your music play.