What’s the Difference between a Fiddle and a Violin?
When is a violin a fiddle? You only have to Google this question to see the enormous amount of discussion and debate that comes from this simple question!
We thought we’d add our voice to it as well and we ought to know a bit as we deal with both Irish fiddle players and classically trained violinists here at McNeela Instruments.
Irish Fiddle player Liam O’Connor playing The Holly Bush Reel
First things first, the fiddle and violin are basically the same instrument and to the untrained eye they may both appear identical. Look closely, however and you’ll notice differences in the set-up of each instrument.
In fact, if we make a fiddle vs violin comparison we’ll see more than one.
- Violin Bridge vs Fiddle Bridge
- High Action vs Low Action on an Irish Fiddle
- Difference in tone and sound on an Irish Fiddle
- Fiddle strings vs Violin Strings
- Fiddle bowing vs Violin Bowing
- Fiddles for Sale
Violin Bridge vs Fiddle Bridge
The first and probably most obvious difference is the height and shape of the bridge.
The bridge is the part of the violin or fiddle that helps position the strings and determines the tolerance or action of the strings.
Height of Bridge on Fiddle
On an Irish fiddle you’ll find that the bridge is lower in height than the violin and has a flatter arch.
Why is this? Well, Irish fiddle music including folk and traditional music often requires triple or double stop bowing, that is, playing three or two notes at the same time on multiple strings.
Advantages of a lower bridge on an Irish fiddle
The flatter and lower bridge of the Irish fiddle allows the player to press down with the bow on two or three strings with far greater ease than on a classical violin.
It also makes it a lot easier to play fourth finger drones while playing melody on the next string up.
Flatter bridges also reduce the right-arm movement when crossing strings and facilitate easier bow rocking and figure-8 bowing.
This greater ease of play is particularly important for playing Irish fiddle music at an Irish traditional session that can go on for hours!
High Action vs Low Action on an Irish Fiddle
The distance between the violin strings and the fingerboard determines the play action.
The greater the distance between the violin strings and the fingerboard, the higher the action, and vice versa, the smaller the distance between the strings and the fingerboard, the lower the action.
Alternatively, in order to achieve lower action play on a fiddle without interfering with the bridge you can heighten the fingerboard. Some players have a preference for this over flattening the bridge.
Still others say that you must lower both the bridge and the fingerboard to achieve lower action on the fiddle.
Dangers of high action on a violin
The downside is that if the violin action is too high for the player, fatigue and tension are likely to set in on the left hand.
This can be catastrophic for the player in the long term. However, it’s worth noting that we are talking about millimetres in the difference here.
Difference in tone and sound on an Irish Fiddle
Inevitably, both play set-ups produce different sound and tone. Lower action on an Irish fiddle produces a mellower, more open sound with some potential buzzing (if the wrong type of strings are used).
Whereas high action is by its nature more likely to produce articulate and crisp sounds.
Fiddle strings vs Violin Strings
In order to compensate for the gentler volume of low action playing, you are likely to find steel-core violin strings fitted in an Irish fiddle.
Steel-core strings produce a bright and sharply focused tone, one that can cut through the sound of a session and dominate if necessary.
Fiddle tuning vs violin tuning
Classical violins with a higher action tend to use catgut or synthetic core violin strings which require more tuning and care but produce a richer sound to round off a potentially over-loud tone.
By contrast, steel-core strings stay in tune longer and can better endure the sometimes exuberant and energetic playing that fiddle playing requires.
Fiddle bowing vs Violin Bowing
You’ll also see mentioned that fiddlers like to play with a loose violin bow, and classical violinists with a tight violin bow.
Of course you’ll find that there are extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Some fiddlers playing with the hair touching the stick of the bow, and some violinists playing with absolutely no camber (curve) left in the bow at all.
Of utmost importance to a fiddler ultimately is that the violin bow can endure energetic playing, is comfortable in the hand, easy to control and can produce a great sound.
Fiddles for Sale
We have a great range of both new and antique fiddles for sale over on our online store. We also sell violin bows both new and antique.
[Image: Martin Rochford & Martin ‘Junior’ Crehan, c.1990. Photo © Peter Laban]