By far, the question I’m asked most often by students and ordinary civilians is this: “What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle?”
There are the standard joke answers that string players are required by law to give (e.g., “About $15,000,” or “It’s a violin when you sell it and a fiddle when you buy it”), but the short answer to the question is that there is no difference.
When classical music is played on a high-pitched, four-stringed, bowed instrument, we call it a violin. When non-classical music (bluegrass, old-time, Irish, traditional country, Cajun) is played on the same instrument, we call it a fiddle.
And mind you, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule. For example, the classical violinist Itzhak Perlman famously refers to his 1714 Stradivarius as a fiddle. And many jazz players use violin and fiddle interchangeably. Same goes with pop musicians.
But in general, violin equals classical and fiddle equals non-classical.
Because although that’s the short answer, and the one I’ve been giving for decades, in recent years I’ve been tempted to add an asterisk to it.
Since I’ve been playing fiddle/violin (several decades), the differences between how fiddle players (especially bluegrass and country players) and violinists are having their instruments set up/made/voiced have become very dramatic. So much so, I’d argue, that the violin and fiddle are on the verge of evolving into two distinct instruments. Or at least different versions of the same instrument, like the nylon-string classical guitar and the steel-string acoustic guitar.
So, what are fiddle players doing to their instruments that makes them so different from violins?
For one, fiddle players often use a flatter, less arched bridge than violinists do. The flatter bridge makes playing double stops (two notes played together) and even triple stops (three notes played together) easier. And increasingly fiddle players are using steel strings instead of the nylon or synthetic gut strings that violinists prefer. But fiddlers have been flattening their bridges and using steel strings for a while.
The really crucial difference is in how fiddles are being voiced. In the last decade or so, luthiers like Jonathan Cooper, John Silakowski and Bob Kogut (who built my main fiddle) have been making instruments that are dramatically darker and fatter in tone than traditional classical violins. In the case of Bob Kogut’s instruments, the tone is almost viola-like.
In addition, fiddle players (e.g., Ron Stewart) and luthiers have been buying up old, mostly student-quality instruments and re-graduating or re-voicing them. This procedure is considered major surgery and involves removing the top of the instrument and thinning it out with a finger plane. When done effectively, re-voicing gives the instrument a deeper, darker, woodier tone — similar to the new fiddles by Cooper, Silakowski, Kogut, et al.
But as with most things in life, opting for one thing means forgoing something else. And what you give up when “going dark” tonally is having an instrument with a lot of projection and volume.
A good classical violin will have plenty of projection. Enough projection to be heard above the sound of an orchestra, or at least to be heard with little or no amplification in a concert hall. The most important measure of a classical violin may not be how it sounds under your ear but how it sounds to someone sitting in the audience fifty feet away. Under the player’s ear, a good classical violin might sound harsh and thin; at a distance, that same instrument might sound rich, sweet and three-dimensional.
For most fiddlers, projection isn’t critically important. Whether we’re playing live or in the studio, most of us play close to a microphone when we’re performing acoustically — generally within 8 inches to a foot away. And given that we’re playing so close to the mic, and that a mic responds to sound pretty much as your ear would, a fiddle needs to sound rich and warm close up, as if it were next to the player’s ear.
So the microphone seems to be changing the instrument. Just as it’s already changed the way singers sing. Case in point: compare a recording of Enrico Caruso singing to a concert hall at the beginning of the 20th century to Elliot Smith at the end of the 20th century whispering into a microphone from inches away and you’ll understand that the microphone is not the passive bystander we sometimes mistake it for. In fact, it’s anything but passive. Since Les Paul began experimenting with close-micing in the 1940s, it’s been an active participant in the music-making process.
And it may be bringing about the next stage in the evolution of this centuries-old instrument whose name we just can’t seem to agree on.