Violin or Fiddle, That is The Question

By: Patrick Clark

The single most asked question I get from non-musicians is this; “What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle?” The first few times I heard it, as a very young boy, I thought, “really?  Are you REALLY, asking me that?” But then it started happening all the time.  That’s when I realized, many people really DON’T know.  So, here’s what many “fiddle” players, who are untrained, say.

Although it technically is EXACTLY the same instrument, which it is, fiddle players flatten their bridge so that string crossings are easier.

To this, I say, “hmmmmm”.  For those of you who may be insulted by this, please, don’t take offense.  You may not understand how tension works in relationship to the string heights.  So, allow me to elaborate a bit.

Let’s start with some questions.

Q:  Which string, of the four strings on your fiddle, do you think has the highest tension?

A:  Your highest (sounding) string, the E string.

Q:  Which string, of the four strings on your fiddle, do you think should be closest to the fingerboard?

A:  Your highest (sounding) string, the E string.

Now, let’s explain the relationship.  The higher pitch, the thinner the string, the higher the tension, the closer to the fingerboard it has to be.  Within reason of course.  Imagine for a minute, a trampoline. If your trampoline is not tight enough, when you bounce, you bottom out and your feet hit the ground.  If you’re trampoline is too tight, you might as well be jumping on concrete.  The same principle applies for strings and their heights in relationship to their pitch.

As you go from your highest to lowest string, you will encounter increasingly thicker strings, with decreasing tension, respectively.  Additionally, the wave length of the vibrating string is increasingly larger, string by string.  So, more room needs to be allowed for the larger diameter, lower tension, and larger wave length.  So, on my fiddle and any professional violinists instrument, you will see a gradual increase in bridge height as the strings get lower in pitch.

This gradual compensation is also critical to the consistency in the feel of the instrument across the board.  The biggest issue with flattening the bridge is that the two middle strings, the A and D, sit much lower than they should.  The result is not only a difference in the feel and overall response of the instrument, but the wear on the fingerboard itself can result in frequent, costly trips to the luthier to have the fingerboard planed.  There are other issues that accompany such alterations but they are slower to present themselves.  Ultimately, you can see that I personally feel that it’s a bad idea.

So, the big answer to the big question is this;

The difference between the violin and the fiddle is nothing when it comes to the instrument itself.  They are one in the same.  The word “Fiddle,” implies that the style of music being played on the “violin,” has its roots in some sort of ethnic or folk music.  It could be Swedish, Irish, Scottish, Country, Jazz, Bluegrass, Appalachian, or any other stye that is not rooted in what is generally referred to as “classical,” music, or it’s categorical derivatives.

More information about fiddling can be found in my book, “Fiddling, The Basics and Beyond.”