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The fiddle is the same musical instrument as the violin. The word "fiddle" applies when the player is producing folk music, country music, or jazz. Many people do not realize that fiddle and violin are, in fact, the same instrument, perhaps because the folk music emanating from fiddles is very different from the classical music sounds emanating from violins. Since the instrument is physically the same, see violin for a description of fiddles; the following article concerns primarily the different styles and history of folk fiddle playing, or "fiddling."

The different styles of fiddle playing

One of the most striking features of fiddle playing, as compared to classical violin playing, are the enormously diverse styles. Just among folk or traditional fiddling, one can identify broad styles in Ireland (and many substyles, such as the Donegal fiddle tradition) and Scotland. Immigrant communities have adopted the fiddle styles of their homelands and developed the styles further. The plentiful fiddle styles of the United States, from Appalachian old-timey to Texas swing to New England contradance, are genetically based on the styles brought over especially by Scots-Irish settlers. Of course, the fiddle is played in folk music all over Europe, most famously perhaps among the gypsies of Eastern Europe, but also notable are Norway's hardanger fiddle or hardingfele and the fiddle in French, Italian, and Spanish folk music.

History of the fiddle in North America

The fiddle came to the New World with the first colonists and was "soon mastered by nearly every folk group in North America, from the French habitants of Acadia to the blacks of the South, and was taken to the farthest reaches of the frontier."[1] It was "the instrument most favored by rural folk, and for a long time virturally the defining instrument of country music." [2] The fiddle remained the dominant instrument in country (or "old time") music until the 1930s, when it was challenged first by the mandolin and the guitar and then, a decade later, by the five-string banjo.[3] As late as the 1960s, however, the well-known country star Ray Price created his own characteristic sound by using pedal steel guitars and fiddles in the lead passages, "played in the single-string rather than double-stop style."[4]

How fiddle music is learned

One of the most striking aspects of fiddling is that, as part of folk or improvisational music, one often learns "by ear," that is, by listening and imitating what one hears, and then usually varying that, at least a little. A good many fiddlers do not know how to read music, and have little desire to learn--though many others do know how, and learn many tunes that way. Perhaps the main reason that fiddlers do not emphasize learning music from "the dots" is that they often pride themselves on having a traditional or authentic style, and such a style cannot be learned only by reading music, but must involve some imitation of what is heard.

Tradition is an important part of folk fiddling in particular, where fiddlers are often judged not so much by their technical mastery of the instrument but by their expressiveness and understanding--or representativeness--of the nuances of a particular tradition. Often, the music of an older fiddler is prized because he, or she, represents a link to the past, closer to an age before the homogenizing influence of recorded music.

Holding the fiddle

Many fiddlers hold their instrument in about the same way the violin is held by classical musicians. But many do not, particularly but not only in the United States of America. Instead, they hold it with the neck cradled in the collapsed palm of the left hand, or against the chest, or in the crook of the left arm. They hold it that way for various reasons: their teacher held it that way, perhaps, or it just seemed more comfortable. There is no denying that good fiddle music can be made with any of these holds, but violinists often find this aspect of fiddling to be especially, for lack of a better word, heretical.

Similarly, the way some fiddlers hold the bow conforms to the violinist standard, but not all. Some hold it with the thumb underneath the frog; some hold it on the stick itself, as far as halfway up; some even seem to grip the whole frog in their fist.


  1. Malone, page 17
  2. Malone, page 17
  3. Malone, page 126
  4. Malone, page 289