Violins vs. Fiddles... any difference?

October 17, 2008 at 05:06 AM · I very often refer to violins as fiddles. That is what my Grandfather called them, so it has been a part of my vocabulary from a very young age. Many people seem to be put off by the use of the word. The word fiddle is often associated with an instrument of inferior quality. This is absolutely untrue. Fiddles are made to the same standards as violins. Usually the only difference between them is the shape of the bridge. Some fiddles are fitted with a flatter bridge than classical violinists use. The difference between a round and flat bridge is not more than about a quarter, or a half millimeter variation in the height of two strings. The small variation is enough to reduce the range of right-arm motion required for the rapid string-crossings found in some styles. Fiddle players contend that it makes playing double stops and shuffles easier. And, that it can make triple stops possible, and allows them to also play chords.

Almost all classical players prefer a more curved top on their bridge, allowing them to articulate each note in a more precise manner. I have made several “fiddles” for people that insisted their bridge be cut round (probably because they had some classical training in their formative years). An instrument with a flat, or round bridge installed does not define its quality of construction, or intended use.

One of the early lessons a maker learns in his career is that “fiddlers” are looking for the same quality as their classically trained counterparts. Really fine fiddles are not student violins, or substandard in any way.

The word “fFiddle” has a more generalized meaning than “violin.” The descriptor Violin refers to a specific instrument, fiddle may be used to refer to a violin or any member of a general category of similarly stringed instruments played with a horsehair bow, such as the Hardanger Fiddle, the Chinese erhu, the Welsh crwth, the Apache Tzii’edo’ a’tl, the cello in the context of a Scottish violin/cello duo ("wee fiddle and big fiddle"), the contra bass ("bull fiddle" or "bass fiddle"), and so on.

The origin of the word fiddle is uncertain. The “Germanic Fiddle” may be derived from the same early Romance word that was applied to the violin, or it may be uniquely Germanic. Like the violin, it had four strings, but came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Another family of instruments which contributed to the development of the modern fiddle were known as “Viols”, which were held between the legs and played vertically, and have fretted fingerboards.

Common distinctions between violins and fiddles reflect the differences in the instruments used to play classical and folk music. However, it is not uncommon for classically trained violinists to play fiddle music, and today many fiddle players have some classical training. As might be expected from the differences between the classical and folk music cultures, more musicians with no formal training play fiddle music than play classical music.

So, don't be offended if someone refers to your instrument as a fiddle. They are not wrong, and mean no offense.

Replies (13)

October 17, 2008 at 08:26 AM · I enjoyed reading this. I am often asked the difference between the violin and the fiddle. I have to tell them that there is no difference, just in how the player plays the instrument. It also means the style of music that is played, but I think that tends to get too defined. Along with the explaination, I also tell them a little of the history of the word "fiddle". Along with the fine historical information that you stated, but in brevity, I always add the story that in the past,the fiddle was used to divert the attention of persons in the street, due to its novelity and hypnotic sound, in order for a confederate to pick-pocket the unsuspecting listener. If this happened, one could say they have been "fiddled". I know of some instances that it has happened to this day. In the past the violin, and those who played them, had a bad reputation of being con-artists,thieves and beggars. We have come a long way to earn our respect, I must say.

October 17, 2008 at 07:20 PM · So, does that mean that my walleet is secure if I get withing 10 feet of a fiddler today? Hey, who's got my wallet???? Damn fiddlers... they'll never change!!!! The Gypsies were known for this very thing throughout Europe. Occassionally, a child would go missing, and a common reaction to it was, "the Gypsies took 'em." I think I might have just destroyed the point of my original posting? ;-(

October 17, 2008 at 11:22 PM · For what it is worth, I have heard several owners of Strads and other such high-end instruments refer to their violin as "a fiddle".

October 18, 2008 at 06:08 PM · Itzaak Perlman refers to his "fiddle" and to me that can be considered definitive.


October 18, 2008 at 08:09 PM · fiddle & violin are merely labels and not too much more than labels.

labels serve as a helper in understanding the world around us.

labels tend to make us secure in our own psyches,

but in the final analysis,the way you play rules the response of listeners.

if you can tell a story when you play,then others

will 'read' your tale and become one with your message.

moments as these to create are the function of a string player.if others can read you,then they might say "that really got to me" or some such remark.

one of the tasks is to remove the listener from their own realm and lead them into your particular string story [a love story,perhaps].


fiddle faddle / a mere signpost on another short voyage into the land on the other side of your brain---where your fingers do the talking and reflect the exact thoughts you wish to convey.

October 20, 2008 at 03:19 PM · This talk of a fiddle having a flatter bridge is a bit silly! Surely that's just a setup preference. There's probably a lot of 'fiddle' players who are using a conventional setup and maybe even a few 'violinists' that have a setup they prefer.

October 20, 2008 at 08:16 PM · I personally always think of and refer to my instrument as a violin, but a lot of older musicians refer to it as a fiddle and I never thought it was strange (I actually wonder how much of an age factor there is involved...) I also was thinking "Itzhak Perlman does that" when I saw this thread. I remember thinking it was weird when Shar Music started selling a "fiddle" separately from their violins...

oh, but has anybody noticed that many fiddlers have 5-string instruments but very few classical violinists have them (at least, as their primary instrument...and probably with good reason)?

October 21, 2008 at 02:48 AM · I guess the use of the word fiddle does date me a bit!!!!! It is a word more commonly used in europe than here.

October 22, 2008 at 10:47 AM · Isn't one of the instruments the violin evolved from called a fidel ?? This may be where the word fiddle came from ??

David B

October 22, 2008 at 12:24 PM · You refer to the medievel instrument. I believe it had 3 strings and I would venture to say that the word itself had it derivation from this instrument. The violin from the "viol". The details of the history are readily available on many music history sites, but sometimes when one gets into instrument name origins, it can get very opinioniated and confusing. The terms used could be regional and cultural, and thus change spellings profoundly and instrument family associations.

October 25, 2008 at 02:25 PM · when people refer to the instrument as a fiddle, they are speaking more stylistically than anything. its no different than calling someone a classical musician, even though a player may also play baroque, renaissance, modern, etc. classical, just like violin or fiddle, become catch-all labels.


ross christopher

October 26, 2008 at 01:51 PM · There is really no basic difference in the instrument itself. Some of the "old time" fiddlers like flatter arching in the bridge, but with many of the younger, classically trained musicians that play "fiddle music" they require very little change in the set up. Unless a customer specifically ask for a flatter arch on the bridge, I use a basis classical set up, only with lower string height.

October 27, 2008 at 02:57 AM · Variations of the word "fiddle" occur in Old English, German, Middle Dutch and Old Norse. All of which, except German, predate the violin. Middle Latin had the word "vitula" which referred to a stringed instrument, and it takes very few well known phonic changes to get from "vitula" to "fiddle". In any case I call my bowed instrument a fiddle because that's what everyone called it when I was a kid. "Violin" sounds so pretentious to me, and my playing does not lend itself to pretension.

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