Fascinating Facts About Fiddles

The recurrent presence of the fiddle might take aback those who listen closely to music. This versatile instrument lends its voice to an array of tunes, be it Patti Smith’s evocative rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the melancholy strains of “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, or even the hip-hop anthem “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio. It is interesting that the same instrument that adds haunting sounds to those and many other popular songs is played and known in classical music by a different moniker: the violin.

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Yet, while the distinction might seem pedantic to the untrained ear, practitioners of the art hold the terms in particular reverence. Confuse a fiddler with a violinist or mistakenly use the words interchangeably, and the artist is apt to offer a swift correction. This nuance is not rooted in mere semantics; instead, it is born from the respect musicians have for the unique stylistic traditions and genres associated with each term.

The fiddle, often celebrated in genres such as bluegrass, country, folk, and other contemporary styles, might appear, on the surface, identical to the violin. However, each term’s cultural contexts, playing techniques, and musical histories are distinct. Although the following factoids are mainly about the fiddle and its role in popular music, many points include its classical counterpart, the violin.

[RELATED: Fiddlin’ Phenoms: 10 Incredible Fiddle Performances in Bluegrass Music]

  • Although fiddle players could play classical violins—they are basically the same instrument—fiddles have flatter bridges. That distinction allows the player to play chords more easily. It also allows them to move quickly from one string to another.
  • Just as there are various types of guitars with different sounds, styles and sizes, fiddles also come in multiple shapes and sizes. Other distinctions can include the neck, fingerboard, tuning pegs, bass bar, and back plate.
  • Fiddle players generally use all steel strings. Violinists usually use synthetic strings with unwrapped steel E strings on the end.
  • Fiddles first became popular in the 10th century in Medieval Europe. Today’s fiddles and arguably fiddle players’ playing style developed in Ireland during the 17th century. The instrument was popular because it was inexpensive and easy to learn to play. When Irish people fled their country during the Irish Famine (1845-1851), many brought fiddles with them. Some found work as fiddling minstrels and in vaudeville.
  • At one time fiddle players were more often than not male, but today’s music scene includes an array of successful and much-lauded female fiddlers. Some include Alison Krauss, Natalie MacMaster, Lucia Micarelli (fun fact: She occasionally guests with Jethro Tull) and Sara Watkins.
  • Violin bows were initially shaped like hunting bows. Modern bows are generally made of wood. Some bows are crafted with synthetic materials, including Brazilwood, Pernambuco, Carbon Fibre, and Fibreglass.
  • The most expensive fiddle publicly known is the Messiah violin by Antonio Stradivarius, valued at $20 million. It was made in 1716 and remains in almost new condition, reports MyLuthier. It’s on display at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford, U.K.
  • Fiddlers often have their instruments crafted with carved animal heads on the scrolls above the pegboard; other ornate carvings, unusual F-hole designs, and black ink decorations that are often floral also set fiddlers’ instruments apart from the pack.

Interested in learning more about violins? Here is a list about the best violins for beginners!

Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images

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