With Mark O'Connor's workshop and concert in Ann Arbor fast approaching, we thought we'd share a quick blog post that answers the most timeless question of them all: What exactly is the difference between a violin and a fiddle?
Nothing, essentially, except for the type of music that is played on the instrument. (Of course, these styles of music have extensive histories and cultures of their own. It brings up a philosophical question: Is an instrument simply a thing we play or does the way we see the instrument also make it what it is? For example, if a bluesman and a classical guitarist look at the same guitar, are they seeing the same thing? Anyways.) So, leaving that rarified talk behind, “violin” and “fiddle” are just two different names, each with their own associations, for the same instrument.
That said, there are a few subtle differences between the way that violins and fiddles are set up. Every player has his or her own very individual preferences with their set up, but in general there are a few differences that we can take note of.
The vast majority of classical violinists use either gut or synthetic strings. Gut strings are the traditional choice, but over the past few decades synthetic strings – designed to retain some sound characteristics of gut strings but with greater stability and longer life – have become the most popular choice. Brand-wise, many classical violinists prefer Dominant, Evah Pirazzi, or Obligato strings.
Fiddle players, on the other hand, tend to prefer a much brighter sound and quicker response that is to be found among steel strings. In general, these tend to be louder, less nuanced, and not as warm as synthetic strings. Popular brand choices include Helicore, Prim, and Super Sensitive.
Fiddle players often find it desirable to use flatter bridges than traditional classical players do. A flatter bridge makes it a little easier to play double and triple stops. Further, sometimes fiddle players prefer a lower bridge (and/ or nut) so that the instrument has a “lower action” – the strings will be slightly closer to the fingerboard, making it easier to perform quick left hand passages with alacrity.
Less frequently, fiddles can be designed or selected to have a slightly lower neck angle than a traditional violin would have. This causes less tension on the strings which, in turn, can make it easier to play fast passages with clarity.
But, in the end, a fiddle player could play a violin and a violinist could use a fiddle. The main difference is genre.