5 Female Fiddle Players Breaking Barriers

Fiddle players are commonly thought of as players of folk, country, Celtic, and similar genres of music. The best players can use the instrument to elicit any number of emotions, from tender to whimsical to dark. Consider the difference in fiddle tones between the dark, almost menacing fiddle interlude on Patti Smith’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” to the jazz-filled Dixieland tones heard on the streets of New Orleans. 

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Yet, for much of history, the world of fiddling, like many other musical realms, has been dominated by male figures. Women, though always present and often at the forefront of innovation with the instrument, have been frequently forgotten when great players are listed. And that’s a shame, because many female fiddle players have advanced the musical form by adding elements, fusing genres, and mastering classic techniques. 

As more female fiddle players are showcased in rock, bluegrass, and other genres, it’s clear the best players have broken boundaries in both down-home “fiddle” playing and the more commonly considered and traditional “violin” playing. 

So call it fiddling or violin-playing—either way, here are five women who have made their presence known in the diverse world of the instrument.

1. Eileen Ivers

Talk to almost any fan of fiddle music, and the name Eileen Ivers will surely be mentioned. Ivers is a virtuoso whose work significantly influenced Celtic music as well as other genres. The reason for her prowess is her mastery of traditional Irish fiddling, which carries on the Celtic story-telling tradition. Her intricate, technically excellent playing allows her to use the fiddle to tell homespun Irish stories. She also fuses jazz, African, Caribbean, and other sounds into her music, creating a vibrant sound that is open to fans of many different genres. 

Consider that she’s played with everyone from the London Symphony Orchestra to the contemporary pop star Sting, and you begin to understand the breadth of her playing. She also won kudos for her playing during Riverdance, which helped expose Irish fiddling to a worldwide audience.

2. Brittany Haas

When fans of fiddle music think of Brittany Haas, they often think of American old-time music and folk. Haas shows her technical excellence at playing those and other genres as a member of the Boston-based alternative bluegrass/folk band Crooked Still. The band is well-loved and much-lauded for taking uncommon yet respectful approaches to traditional tunes, including “Old Virginia.”

Not only is Haas’ technical proficiency outstanding, but she also has a deep knowledge and respect for American “old-timey” music. That’s obvious in the raw, emotional sounds she plays that are significant parts of that classic music. She and her bandmates are experts at combining fiddle, banjo, cello, and vocals to add new sounds to old-time music.

Haas’ versatility has allowed her to collaborate with various artists, including Dave Rawlings, Béla Fleck, Chris Thile, and Steve Martin. She’s at the forefront of a group of young musicians who respect traditional music but aren’t afraid to push its boundaries. 

3. Sara Watkins

Sara Watkins made a name for herself as an expert fiddler in contemporary folk and bluegrass music as a founding member of Nickel Creek. The group is known for its intricate arrangements and tight harmonies. Watkins’ fiddle-playing is a crucial element of the group’s sound. Perhaps that’s because Watkins is a multi-instrumentalist who isn’t afraid to integrate different techniques and styles into her work. 

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Nickel Creek has gone on hiatus at various times, which allowed Watkins to expand her offerings, including showcasing experimental folk sounds. Her versatility and proficiency have led to her playing with artists from many different genres, and she’s particularly made a name for herself in the indie world as a member of I’m with Her and a frequent guest of artists like The Decemberists and Fiona Apple.

4. Alison Krauss

The first thing that comes to many people’s minds when they think of Alison Krauss is her angelic vocals, but she is a virtuoso fiddle player who’s had a major impact on bluegrass, country, and folk music as evidenced by her many honors and awards, including 27 Grammy Awards as of this writing. (By the time she’d turned 50, she was the fourth-most-awarded artist in Grammy history.)

Krauss was considered a prodigy as a young child, and has only deepened the technical precision, clarity, and emotion of her playing as her career has progressed. As fans know, she is often considered a bluegrass and country artist, but she is just as adept at Americana, pop, rock, and pretty much any other genre she cares to tackle.

Through the years, she has played with her own band, Union Station, and has collaborated with many other artists, including Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. Their 2007 album Raising Sand won them multiple Grammy Awards, including Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album and Record of the Year.

5. Lucia Micarelli

What sets Lucia Micarelli apart is her work as both a fiddle player and a classically trained violinist. As a graduate of the Julliard School of Music, there’s little doubt her playing is technically superb. What makes her stand out, though, is how she effortlessly adapts her approach to suit jazz, rock, pop, folk, and many other genres, constantly adding new intensity and emotional depth to the music she’s playing. Her solo work, specifically the album Interlude, mixes classical songs with traditional folk tunes and contemporary pieces.

Micarelli’s versatility has made her a much-sought-after collaborator, as she’s teamed with Josh Groban, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Chris Botti, and Jethro Tull. She also played a street musician on the HBO series Treme, which exposed her talent to an even more comprehensive range of music lovers.

Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

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