I remember watching an episode of “Little House on The Prairie” on television many years ago. Commonly during the show, the Ingalls family was struggling for money and Pa Ingalls was trying to sell his beloved instrument for cash. During the haggling process, the storekeeper declared that the instrument was a country item called a “fiddle”. While on the other hand Mr. Ingalls insisted that the instrument was a “fine violin”. The distinction between the two has been a topic of many a shade tree conversion and most still today struggle to understand the difference between the two, if any.
Just like most, I grew up hearing all the stories that describe the difference between the two. I was told that the difference was in the strings. A violin is played with “strings” and a fiddle has “strangs’. I was also instructed that a violin was carried in a case and a fiddle was carried in a sack. I guess we could go forever with the stories and jokes that have been told over centuries about the beloved violin or fiddle. So, what is the difference? Does it depend on a certain musical style or is there a physical difference between the two instruments?
Over the years I have grown to love this instrument. Even though my playing skill still suffers greatly today I love to hear its warm tones and the soft touch of someone who can play it well. One of the best in my area is a good friend of mine, Mr. Ben Probus. He amazes me every time I hear him play. His skill on this instrument is a testimony to the beauty that can be found in this complex little instrument. When Ben plays along with other great players in their field I believe that the instrument becomes both the violin and the fiddle because of their skill, gentle touch, and style. In fact, there is little or no physical difference between the two instruments that I can find.
Both the fiddle and the violin have the same main components: a body, neck, and peghead with scroll work. The scroll work may differ from one maker to another. You will find anything from human faces to animals carved in the peghead to replace the scroll work but the construction of the two is still the same. Both have their strings supported by a bone or wooden nut at the top of the neck and a wooden bridge between the two F shaped sound holes. You will find that both use a sound post inside the instrument to carry the vibration of the strings from the bridge and out of the sound holes. The tuning pegs may differ from the more original ones, just basic friction pegs to more modern ones with bearings or gears. The chin rest and the tail pieces can be replaced with more modern and fancy ones but they still serve the same purpose. So, we now know it's not the components that differ. It must be something else.
I have found over the years with a lot of reading and research that the only difference between a violin and a fiddle is in the setup and the style of music that is played on them. The setup is definitely different depending on the style of music played. A classical violinist often plays a musical piece written by another composer. Therefore their playing will be very precise and accurate with very little or no freestyle playing and usually playing only one string at a time. So the bridge of a violin used for classical music will have more arch to the top or angle than its close relative the fiddle. Fiddle players like myself often change the angle at the top of a bridge to flatten it down so we can easily play double strings or notes called double stops and drones.
The bowing styles between a fiddler and a violinist may also differ as well as fingering techniques. A fiddler may play very fast but never leaving what is known as the first position. A violinist is more likely to utilize the instrument’s entire range of sound playing in all positions of the neck. Another definite difference between the two might be the position it is held. A trained violinist will always hold the violin under the chin in a proper playing position while a fiddler player may also hold it against their chest area or free from resting it at all. None of these differences can be considered better than the other. All of these setups and techniques are just distinct ways to perform on the instrument.
Call it what you may, violin, fiddle, or even the devils box; this wonderful instrument has touched our lives and has helped form music into what it is today. No matter what style is played or how it’s played the violin or fiddle has and always will contribute to the musical worlds rich diversity and wonderful sound.
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