The Pick Vs.The Bow

The Pick Vs.The Bow

I guess this question is geared towards anyone who plays fiddle after coming from a plucked instrument, but I am wondering if the fiddle is just inherently easier to play faster. I listen to reels fly by me and I know I will never be able to pick that fast. The fiddlers aren’t even breaking a sweat. All of the other pickers at my session are strummers, so it’s no good asking them about it. I’m not at all trying to discount the amount of effort that goes into being able to play reels at session speed, but am just wondering if the fiddle is naturally a faster playing instrument than a mandolin or banjo.

Re: The Pick Vs.The Bow

I can play stuff on the fiddle that I can’t even get close to on the mandolin, which I sometimes use for practising or working out positions. Admittedly I’m not very competent with a pick, but I would tend to agree with you.

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Well, the fiddle is much easier to play faster, simply because you can play many notes in one single bow action, and are only limited by the speed of your left hand. Plucked stringed intrument - one note per RH action, generally speaking.

That’s the simple answer from a technical viewpoint, of course. Not taking into account the quality of the sound at this time🙂

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I play with some excellent mandolin, banjo and guitar players who can whizz through most tunes as fast as I can on the fiddle, particularly Irish reels, but I think that Worldfiddler is right: it’s inherently easier to play faster on the fiddle because plucked instruments rely on "attack" rather than "slide". I’ve tried unsuccessfully to play mandolin, and have always given up because I can’t get the pick to work in the way I want it to. Obviously, some people are just meant to play fiddle, and others are meant to play plucked instruments.
On the other hand, there’s often a temptation to play too fast, and lose the feel of the rhythm and "guts" of a tune completely, so maybe speed isn’t everything…….My son, who plays concertina and melodeon, often has to give me a meaningful look when I get carried away and take off into the stratosphere.

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The physical top speed for distinct and cleanly bowed separate notes on the violin is somewhere in the region of 13-15 notes per second. The top speed on the viola and cello will be a little less because of the inertia of the heavier strings. To put this in perspective, in Irish trad the fastest notes in a dance tune are usually 1/8 notes played at about 8 notes per second at the top of the speed range. In some traditions these may be played as separate bowed notes. Anything faster is almost certain to be played as two or more notes to the bow, unless it’s a bowed triple.

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If Trevor is right we are really just splitting hairs. 15 notes a second is 16th notes at 225bpm. I play bebop jazz and applalachian grass and that’s cutting the rug pretty much anywhere you go

What instrument is faster is what one you have spent the most time practicing as far as I can tell.

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It is certainly possible to play at high speeds on plucked instruments. Also, analogous to the slurring with a bow, it is possible to slur (pulls and hammers) with the left hand on plucked instruments.

I think the problem has more to do with volume than speed. Without amplification, it is more difficult to generate volume from plucking. A bow continues to provide energy into the note, while plucking needs to put all the energy in a much shorter time. The need to add power to the plucking slows the playing for most people. But consider the speeds achieved by players of electric guitars, or the speeds of tremolo in classical guitar. It is certainly possible, with practice to match the speeds of bowed instruments.

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Personally, and we could never really test this,… but I feel like I could pick faster than somebody can bow because I have less distance to move the pick than they have to move their arm. I’m also moving much less mass over that smaller distance, too

so I think the physics favors the pick, but the truth is that it is precision that makes the attack, so it just is a matter of practice. So while I know I can play fast and I might have the physics on my side, some old farmer from West Virginia could rosin up his bow and blow me away tommorrow

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I play mandolin but have just started learning fiddle because i am frustrated at not being able to do certain things on a mando which can be accomplished on a violin. The problem is partly volume, but mainly sustain. I can play very fast on a mando and do hammer-ons and pull-offs, but the notes die very quickly so some ornamentation does not really work.

Playing fiddle is more like playing electric lead guitar where you can play multiple notes just using your left hand, as opposed to acoustic guitar where sooner or later you have to pluck or tap a string with your right hand.

Re: The Pick Vs.The Bow

Based on your argument, Nate, I would say that the physics favours the bow for speed over the pick any day. This is because you can move the bow a much shorter distance than a pick and still make plenty of volume, plus you have the advantage of much less resistance from the string than having to actually pluck it. Oh, and the mass isn’t an issue because it supported by the strings - another advantage over a pick, as far as speed goes.

I can’t imagine anyone being able to move a pick as fast as any average fiddler can move the bow.

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I was thinking about the mass of the arm and bow versus the mass of a pick and some finger bone.

but I also was saying that anybody can wiggle thier fingers at the same speed as anybody else, its the precision, which means there is more to it than just the mass and distance


but I am just some guy in the states, and this is the internet, so of course YMMV

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Yes, but you don’t move the bow with your arm. You move it with your fingers. And you can move it, if you want to play fast, with the merest, tiny, little wiggle of your fingers. Quite a bit of the time, I hardly move my arm at all. Johnny Cunningham told me once that his dad used to strap his arm to a chair back and make him practice like that, so that he *couldn’t* move his arm and had to use his fingers and wrist.

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Ditto eb’s points.

Brian Conway likes to tell his students to keep the motion "as close to the stick as possible." Meaning that much of the time, you move the bow with the thumb and forefinger, right where they contact the stick.

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Except, of course, when you don’t. 😉

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Yep. 😀

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Bowing is faster/easier

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I’m gonna have to say Duh. For the vast majority of people it would be easier to develop speed on the fiddle than on a plectrum instrument. There is simply a lot more physical labor and rapid coordination involved in playing fast on the banjo, mandolin or guitar than on the fiddle. I took up the fiddle after about twenty years on guitar and within a few years was easily matching my guitar speed on the fiddle. Several friends had the same experience. As we get (ahem) older, that plectrum speed can become difficult to maintain. Speed on a plectrum instrument is sort of like running. Speed on the fiddle is more like dancing.

Re: The Pick Vs.The Bow

Championing the obvious here, but one hitch with a pick is that it has to physically push through the string, while the bow hair, though gripping the string, really glides over it. Yes, a well-developed picking motion minimizes time digging into the strings, and likewise a good bowing motion feels like you’re playing *in* the string, not merely grazing its surface. But the difference in effort needed to get a sound (when playing at typical session volumes) is huge. Fiddle requires much less.

Somewhere there’s an interview with Chris Thile where somebody asks him if he regrets not playing fiddle. He says the mandolin is a beautiful instrument, that it’s the pick that’s the limiting factor. (Not that you’d notice in Thile’s playing….)

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Interesting discussion. It seems like we’ve gotten as near a consensus as could reasonable be expected. Hopeful I can trade my slow hand for a bow hand at some point.

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>>What instrument is faster is what one you have spent the most time practicing as far as I can tell.

I’ve been playing the fiddle for one year and the mandolin for 30, and I’m already as quick on the fiddle as the mandolin, of not more so. I agree, volume is the devil - as soon as you need to fight to be heard, the speed and refinement just evaporate on the mandolin.

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Got back all right then? 🙂

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Back home at just before 9.00 - even the M25 was kind… Thanks for lunch 🙂

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And tunes!

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Welcome.

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Another way to think about it (assuming we’re still only talking about which is easier to play faster, and that was the only consideration) :

On mandolin or guitar, what’s the minimum actions required to sound two notes on one string (or string pair)?

pick approaches the string (admittedly, you could start with the pick resting on the string)

hit the string

leave the string

reverse pick direction

approach the string

hit the string

leave the string


On fiddle, to sound two notes :

move the bow 🙂

As mentioned before, on plucked instruments you could get more than one note from a single pick action, as many notes as you have playing fingers, by hammer-ons and pull offs, but the volume decays incrementaly as each note is hit, doesn’t it?
That doesn’t happen on fiddle.

Well, we could on and on, and analyse deeper, but it would end up just getting silly. Gut feeling tells me the fiddle actions with left/right hand are less, and everything is lighter, including finger pressure on the strings.

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I definitely consider hammer ons and pull offs to be useless on mandolin. I think Bob himself had the money shot here when he wrote that "Speed on a plectrum instrument is sort of like running. Speed on the fiddle is more like dancing." That’s enough to get me to up my practice time on the fiddle. Now if I can just have as productive a year as Ian!