“Is that a violin or a fiddle?” It’s something string players are asked all the time, and the answer, somewhat confusingly, is yes! They’re the same instrument.
So why do we have two words for this one instrument, and just what is the difference between playing violin and playing fiddle?
It all comes down to style. Both the style of music being performed and the style in which it is played are what determine whether that four-stringed instrument is called a violin or a fiddle.
In the most simplistic breakdown, the term “violin” is primarily used in Western classical music (orchestras, chamber music), and sometimes in jazz and rock, too. “Fiddle” is most often associated with bluegrass, folk, country, Appalachian, Cajun, and Celtic music.
Karla Colahan, violinist/fiddler for new-classical crossover duo The OK Factor, says it best: “I like to tell this joke to folks who ask about the difference between a violin and a fiddle: ‘It depends on what shoes I’m wearing! Black heels? It’s a violin. Chunky boots? It’s a fiddle.’ Jokes aside, the context in which the instrument is being played, whether that’s the venue, the collaborations, the musical origins, etc., definitely plays a role in the perception of fiddle vs. violin.”
Playing techniques can vary between violin and fiddle. While classical violinists are likely to be very focused on the complex technical elements of playing, fiddle-playing can be technically less complex (but more complex in other ways, like the production of constant rhythmic drive, the use of string bending, and bowing chords). Classical violinists typically perform music explicitly as written and intended by the composer, while fiddlers are less tied to written music, utilizing improvisation and embellishments to add their own creative flair to the arrangement. Fiddlers often stay in first position, with fingers closest to the scroll, while violinists make full use of the fingerboard and the violin’s entire sonic range.
Physically, though, we’re talking about the same wooden, four-stringed instrument, regardless of whether it’s referred to as a violin or a fiddle: same body, neck, fingerboard, pegbox, and scroll.
Sometimes violin and fiddle players do choose to set up their instrument differently. Some fiddle players may choose to use a modified bridge that makes traditional fiddle techniques like double-stops (playing two notes at once) easier to play. Violinists typically choose traditional strings like gut core or synthetic core, while fiddle players may prefer to use steel strings for a brighter, focused sound. Finally, fiddlers often use fine-tuners on all four strings, while seasoned violinists are likely to only use a single fine tuner on the E string. (There are some exceptions such as beginner-level violins, who usually do use four fine tuners).
Says Colahan of The OK Factor, “Fiddlers are also more likely to use 5 or 6-string instruments to expand their sound and function in a group setting, whereas classical violinists will typically play music written specifically for four strings.”
Now that you know the basics, let’s mix it up. Classical violinists sometimes refer to their instrument colloquially as a “fiddle,” almost as a term of endearment and affection. And, all string instruments played in a folk style can be referred to as “fiddles.” Double bass playing bluegrass music? Bass fiddle. Traditional Scottish duo of violin and cello? Violin and big fiddle.
In fact, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians says “fiddle” is “a generic term for any chordophone [stringed instrument] played with a bow.”
In the end, then, the player gets to decide whether they’re playing a violin or a fiddle. It’s their performance, and the distinction is theirs to make.