Technically, the fiddle and violin are the same instruments. The difference between the two generally comes down to the style of music played. However, when it comes to the question of fiddle vs violin, there are sometimes some minor structural differences, too. In this list, we’ll take a closer look at some of the differences between a fiddle and a violin.
The Fiddle Vs Violin: What’s Different?
1. Style Of Music
The number one difference between a fiddle and violin is the type of music the instrument is used to play. Fiddle players typically use their instruments to play bluegrass, folk, and country music. This isn’t an exact definition, though — some classical violinists use “fiddle” as a colloquial term for their instruments. To hear an example of a traditional Appalachian fiddle tune, check out this video (below left) of contemporary fiddler Hillary Klug. As you can see, some fiddle players combine their performances with dancing.
On the other hand, this stringed instrument is typically called a violin when it’s used to play classical music. To get an idea of what classical violin playing sounds like, take a look at this video (below right) of world-famous violinist Itzhak Perlman playing a Bach arrangement for solo violin.
2. Setup And Structural Differences
As mentioned above, fiddles and violins are typically very structurally similar. Most have a hollow body with a spruce top and maple back and sides, and they have a fretless fingerboard. The hollow body is highly resonant — the spruce top is incredibly responsive, and maple is known for its impressive projection abilities.
Tuning a violin or fiddle is a little more complex than tuning a guitar. Like many other stringed instruments, they can be tuned using peg-style tuners at the top of the fingerboard. However, they also have fine tuners. These are little knobs on the tailpiece. Fine tuners are generally used when the violin or fiddle needs its pitch to be adjusted very slightly.
And of course, this instrument is played with a wooden bow. The bow’s strings are traditionally made of horsehair. For effect, players can sometimes strum or pluck the strings as well. If you’d like a detailed look at the parts of a violin and fiddle, check out this helpful video lesson.
While most of these instruments have four strings, some have an extra string. Five-string instruments are more commonly used in folk music and other fiddle-style genres, although many electric violins also have five (or more) strings. The usual four strings are tuned to G, D, A, and E. On a five-string fiddle, the additional string is tuned to a low C and expands the instrument’s low end.
And lastly, while the basic structure of a fiddle and a violin is essentially the same, a fiddle typically has a flatter bridge. This is because fiddle music tends to involve a lot of double stops. A “stop” is when you press a string down to the fretboard, so a double stop involves pressing down two strings. The flatter bridge makes it easier to bow two strings at once.
In classical music, the violin typically plays one note at a time. Violin music is typically played on an instrument with an arched bridge that makes it easier to bow a single string at one time.
3. String Types
One other major difference between a violin and a fiddle is the type of strings used. While this is not a hard and fast rule, violinists usually prefer synthetic strings. These tend to have a sound closer to that of traditional violins. These were made using sheep’s gut (which was called “catgut”). Gut strings created a rich, warm tone, and they were capable of showing off every nuance in the violin music being played.
However, gut strings didn’t have the best tuning stability. Modern synthetic-core and composite-core strings have been designed to closely emulate both the sound and feel of gut strings, but they keep pitch much more stable.
Synthetic core strings are older, and they tend to have a crisper, more focused sound. If you’re looking for something that sounds more like gut strings, composite-core strings are a good choice. They offer a complex, overtone-rich sound that many classical violinists love. It’s still possible for violinists to get gut-core strings, although they are not made entirely of the gut.
In bluegrass, folk, country, and similar genres, fiddlers play a role similar to that of lead guitarists. So it follows that they need a powerful, piercing tone that cuts easily through a mix. Steel-core strings are a favorite of fiddlers for that reason. Their sound could be described as being very “direct” with few overtones. Fiddlers looking for a richer and more complex sound might prefer wound steel strings for their fiddles. To get an idea of the tones preferred by fiddlers vs violinists, check out this video demonstrating the differences between steel strings and synthetic-core strings.
4. Technique Differences
Many fiddlers and violin players use different playing techniques to achieve their desired sound. Here are some of the major differences in playing techniques between the two.
Performance style — If you’ve ever seen a bluegrass fiddling performance, you might have heard a high-energy musical break. That’s because fiddle playing typically involves some degree of improvisation.
On the other hand, a classical violinist will typically stick to classical pieces as written. This isn’t to say they can’t improvise — after all, classical violinists are often highly trained. But when it comes to a live performance, a violinist isn’t likely to improvise.
Vibrato — In violin playing, mastering vibrato is essential. More advanced violin players will eventually master arm vibrato, hand vibrato, and finger vibrato. Vibrato can sometimes be used in fiddle music, but it isn’t essential. To listen to different types of vibrato on the violin, check out this interesting video.
Positions — Students new to fiddling or playing the violin typically start out with their fingers in what’s called the first position. Many fiddle tunes can be played in this position, and there may not be much of a need to learn other positions. On the other hand, classical violinists will need to be familiar with at least the second and third positions as well. More advanced players will also need to be able to play in the fourth through eighth positions.
Stops — As mentioned earlier, many violin players play only a single note at a time. However, fiddle players will more commonly use double stops, where they play two notes at once. In some cases, a fiddle player will even use a triple stop, when three strings are bowed at once.
Hopefully, this list has helped you better understand what sets the violin and fiddle apart. But what do you think? Is the difference clear? Let us know in the comments, and please don’t forget to like and share if you’ve found it