Violin and Fiddle: Are They the Same?

Fiddle players get a lot a lot of flack for being lazy violinists while violinists get teased for being snobby fiddle players. There’s even a joke: “What the difference between a violin and a fiddle? A fiddle is fun to listen to.”

So, what is the difference between a fiddle and a violin? At it’s core, nothing. Violin and fiddle players use the exact same instrument. The only difference that could occur is in the “set-up” of the instrument.

Itzhak Perlman, world famous violinist
Itzhak Perlman, world famous violinist.

Amplification set-up: Violinist tend to play in orchestras, quartets, trios and do not often have to use a mic to be amplified over other instruments. Fiddle players, on the other hand often play with bass, guitar and drums and often need a “pick-up” or microphone of some kind to amplify themselves over the other instruments.

String set-up: There are hundreds of kinds of violin strings. Each violinist or fiddle player will have their particular kind of string they like to use best. In general though, fiddle players prefer a steel string for their direct and clear sound. Violinists can talk for hours about different kinds of strings and why they use the type of string they do. It might be one of the reasons why violinists are considered snobby.

Bridge set-up: Often fiddle players have their bridge shaved down because fiddle playing has a lot of chords and double stops. Having a lower bridge helps to keep the strings on a more level plane, making it easier to hit chords. The classical violin style is associated more with single notes so having a more arched bridge is preferred.

So, what’s harder the violin or the fiddle? Violin players and fiddles players, while using basically the same instruments, have entirely different skill sets. A fiddle player is striving to often play super tricky rhythms and lots of doubles stops (playing two notes at once) and chords (playing three to four notes at once). A classical violinist, will be striving to produce clear tone, vibrato and learning the different positions on the violin.

I travel often and without fail whenever I am walking through an airport with my violin on my back a get the questions, “Is that an instrument?”. My response is always the same, “Yes, a violin.” I would say about five out of ten times the response back is, “Oh, my grandfather played the fiddle. Do you fiddle?” I always want to respond yes to this question, but instead I say, “I can fiddle.” I can fiddle and in fact I enjoy fiddle music but I was trained to play classical violin and know that my fiddle playing methods fall short compared to the great fiddle players.

The reality is that In whatever genre of music you play, being proficient at it requires practice, dedication and skill. This has very little to do with the instrument and more to do with the heart, focus and love of the genre of music you are playing.

Mark O'Connor-world famous fiddler.
Mark O’Connor, world famous fiddler.

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