Fiddle Rules!

Fiddle Rules!

Just kidding, A.B.! Although I don’t play flute, I love the sound for ITM, and it’s been interesting to read about the wonders and mysteries behind different wooden flute designs and models in some recent posts. But enough already with the flutes! Just kidding again….

On the other hand, as an aspiring fiddle player, I’m interested in what makes a particular fiddle a good instrument for playing Irish music.

Compared to flute, a fiddle’s voice can be tweaked in numerous ways (e.g. type of strings,, sound post position, even regraduating the top/bass bar to change the sound, and of course choice of bow). But just with my two modest instruments, set up very similarly, there is a very different sound and I’m finding I prefer one over the other for Irish tunes.

So fiddle players, come out of the woodwork and tell your fiddle stories! How did you come across your ‘go to’ instrument, and what is special about its sound? How have you set it up to get the most out of ornamentation, tone, and/or volume? Is there a particular sound you covet and emulate? Or is it all about the player’s drive & the nyah and ornamentation, and any old instrument will do?

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I am primarily a flute player but I’m also interested in what fiddlers have to say on this! I own a fiddle myself and I can scratch out a few tunes very poorly but I have yet to sit down and dedicate myself to playing everyday. As an aspiring fiddler I’m always interested in hearing about this kind of stuff from better players.

My own fiddle is an inexpensive Hungarian made Strad-style fiddle that was my cousins when she was learning classical violin in the school orchestra. She hasn’t played it in 15 years or so, so when I saw it at her house I asked her about it and she told me I could have it. I put a set of Dominant strings with a Pirastro Gold E string after I read they were a decent middle-of-the-road set. I also got an inexpensive Fiddlerman Carbon Fiber bow to use for now.

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Well, the player is much more important than the instrument. That’s always true really for any kind of music.

And more of the tone etc… comes from how the thing is being bowed than adjustments to the bridge height or whatever.

I think most of the qualities of a good violin for trad are the same as for any other genre. Responsiveness would be the first thing I’d look for. A certain amount of projection/volume. You might not be playing over an orchestra, and you can mic up for big gigs, but you still might end up between a banjo and an accordion in a session.

And a nice/ interesting tone. This can be subjective of course. But it’s nice to have a certain amount of sweetness. I like a nice dark bottom end, even if a lot of my actual playing comes out rather bright and clean sounding.

You could potentially argue that the top end is less important than in classical music or lots of jazz etc… trad players spend a lot less time up in the higher registers than people in some other genres. But having played on instruments that were a bit unbalanced that way, I think I’d rather have a nice loud, sweet e string if at all possible.

That would be my opinion anyway.

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Absolutely agree with outwesht. The first thing I look for is a very strong and very sweet E string. Critically important as far as I’m concerned. You can find lots of cheapish fiddles with a lovely seductive sound down low but a weak or screechy top string. Don’t be seduced. Beyond that, it’s whatever else seduces you. 🙂 (But at some point you’ll realise you don’t sound much different on fiddles that you were thought were chalk and cheese.)

And yes, as 1970s skinhead graffiti might have had it, Fiddles rule OK!

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I have two. One was my husband’s grandfather’s and we got it from the flat in a sorry state. A minimal touchup from my luthier, new case and a new carbon bow later, I am as happy with it as my other instrument worth a few thousand. It’s been in the family for over 100 years now and has his initials.


I always give the same advice:
Buy what is in your price range but from a luthier. they will give it the best setup.
If you’re uncomfortable judging the available instruments in your range bring a good player or teacher. I second the recommendation that it has to have a good tone across the range and the rest comes from the player but a relative beginner will struggle to find out.

Violins generally don’t depreciate except for very badly made ones. Talk to your luthier about trade in before you buy.

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My nicest violin is a made-in-Saxony Vuillaume copy that my Da got at auction for $125 US. Great tone and it projects well for noisy sessions. My favourite is one I got at a garage sale for $35. It has no label, but the varnish and appearance seemed to me to be very similar to one of John Juzek’s cheap Czech imports—not a real made-by-Juzek, but he had high standards for the "budget models" he imported. Not as much punch on the E string, but plays easily and has a nice tone. I fitted them both up with Wittner pegs and Thomastik "Precision" strings. Trying for a Kevin Burke sound. I have a couple wood bows, but mostly I use those cheap carbon-fiber bows that retail anywhere from $35-$100.

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I’ve got a nice instrument, I think (music store people make me offers on it…it’s appreciated significantly). It sounds better on the low strings than the E. It looks old and scratched-up, and is 150+ years old.

I think sounding "Irish" though, seems to be mostly in the bow handling. A lighter touch (not bowing to fill a concert hall), trying to get the slurs and the accents to have that right feel. Even with the perfect-sounding fiddle, I still couldn’t get there without studying the Irish "way"of it …

If I was to trade mine in, I’d look for one that sounds a bit more "moody" and "melancholy" maybe. Mine doesn’t have much personality to its sound.

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My ‘go-to’ fiddle was given to me in an act of spontaneous generosity by a friend at a session in London (I won’t say who, in case everyone wants one). I had recently starting learning on a borrowed fiddle and was looking for something more permanent. Not a fiddle player, he had recently acquired this fiddle, set it up to a ‘functioning’ level and were keen to hear it played. I asked to have a try of it and scraped out a couple of tunes . I didn’t have much to go on, but it seemed to do what it was supposed to – and that is all I was really looking for at the time, anyway. As I handed it back to its owner, I asked "How much do you want for it?". "It’s yours,", he said, placing it in my lap.

I’ve had a few other fiddles pass through my hands as restoration projects, and given them test runs for a couple of weeks, but have not come upon one that would take the place of the old one – or even sit alongside it as a companion. I’ve tried some ‘better’ fiddles as well; I notice that these have a more ‘focused’ or ‘refined’ tone with richer overtones and a greater dynamic responsiveness – and I have admittedly experienced ‘tone envy’ from time to time. Yet I struggle to get them to respond in the way I want.  I know my fiddle’s quirks. Corny as it sounds, when I play it, it is part of me and I am part of it.

As a relative latecomer to the fiddle (I was 30) with no formal tuition, I am rather short on technique. Had I started younger or had more technical training, perhaps I could pick up any fiddle and test its limits, discover its strengths and weaknesses, every nuance of its character, and make an informed choice based on that. But with my limited palette, all I have to go on is how easily I can get music out of it and, by that criterion, I have not found a better fiddle than the one I have.

P.S. One August at the Feakle Festival, previously having known nothing of its history, I discovered two interesting bits of information about my fiddle:
1. I met a professional fiddle restorer who told me with ‘95% certainty’ that it was a Caussin fiddle – a French maker operating from the mid 19th Century, who was among the first to set up a violin production line. This would have been one of his bottom-end fiddles (No surprise here, as it is made out of ‘firewood’ – wild grain and knots in the belly and neck, no figure in the back and ribs).
2. I was in a session sitting next to Bart Carty (John & James’* uncle), who recognised my fiddle. It turned out that he had been the previous owner to the one that gave it to me.

I refer to John Carty’s brother James, not his son, of course.

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Nice story CMO.

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I’d just like to add that a good bridge protector for the E-string helps enormously with the tone. Not the little plastic tube on the E string, but the piece of glued parchment/vellum. You can see a pic of it here :

https://www.thestringzone.co.uk/bridge-vellum

Also, for the actual E string, I’ve personally found the Pirastro Goldstahl and Pirastro Wondertone to be superlative.

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Thanks for the stories and advice. CMO, your fiddle’s provenance reminds me of a college friend’s brother who spontaneously gave me my first guitar many years ago — an act of generosity that led to a lifetime’s playing. I’ve done the same several times since — pay it forward, as they say!

I’ve tamed my somewhat shrill e string on both fiddles by adjusting the sound post in closer, and also with small magnets sandwiched on the treble site of the bridge. I’ll check out the vellum Jim. Of my two fiddles, the one I prefer has a better, stronger tone on octave notes played with the pinky — not that I always use these, but it’s a definite thing I will be looking for. The other advantage is a more forward midrange which makes something like an E or B roll capable of lots of snarl (not that I’m good at these, but improving!). I have more trouble with e string rolls - they don’t have the requisite snap — maybe it is an action issue? Or my lame fingers more likely.

Could be my bouzouki background, but I also love to hear some open string resonance going on as opposed to a very clean note-by-note sound. I will listen all day to Julia Clifford and Denis Murphy’s recordings, or some of the other older fiddlers who just ‘let it ring’. That’s when you can really hear some of the character of the fiddle come out.

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I’m not a fiddle player, but my understanding of Fiddle Rules are the following:

1. Hold the fiddle under your chin with one hand.
2. Hold the bow with the other hand and scrape it along the string(s).
3. With the hand holding the fiddle, put your fingers down on the strings corresponding to that or those which you are scraping with the bow. A noise should come out.
4. In order not to make the resulting noise sound like the screech of an iguana being boiled alive, it is best to hold your finger(s) in such a position that the noise comes out as a musical note.
It should be noted that there is an infinite variety of wrong notes that can be played and only one right one. This last point sounds like advice but is in fact a Rule.
5. Do not play too loud.
6. Do not play for too long. Let other players get a chance to make noises.

(These last 2 Rules are often ignored by fiddle players, but thankfully there are usually accordion and banjo players in attendance who can make even louder noises.)

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@Someone at The Session: That is precisely how I approach playing the fiddle. You should try it

I am still working on rule #4 but getting closer.

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CMO, you obviously don’t need the screech, but you must have the scratch !

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CMO: "You should try it"
- Fiddle? Me?
Flute, whistle and box are quite enough, thank you. Though I have of late been tormenting the neighbours with my forays into other noise machines, stringy ones at that. Give me a decade and I might be able to come up with a tune or two….and torment folks at the local session….

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One thing fiddles have going for them that many of our instruments don’t is that, if you’re willing to spend a little time, you can easily play dozens of them in search of the one that sweet talks you into taking it home. I’m always a little stumped when people don’t advantage of that.

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Yes, I think buying a fiddle is a bit like buying a horse - they’re all different!

No disparagement to other instruments but with some you can say, I want an "Acme Instruments Co. XZ335" and be pretty sure what you’ll get, but not with fiddles.

When I bought my electrified fiddle from Tich at Sonic Violins he had two, brand new "identical" instruments for me to try. He said, "I know which one you’ll have," and he was right.

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Fiddles (violins) are more or less standardized as to shape and materials, but the variation in sound quality/quantity is astounding! With guitars, you can shop for that ‘dry and punchy D-18 sound’ and get in the right ballpark by sight (shape, materials, bracing), but with fiddles you have no idea until you play the instrument. At least that’s my impression. I know there is a range of classic design templates (e.g. Strad, Amati, Maggini, Stainer) but how predictable is the sound is from given examples of these? I look forward to the day when I can play well enough to do what Cheeky Elf mentioned and try a couple dozen in one sitting.

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Jond, I think there is, maybe, possibly, some degree of predictability to patterns, but there are a few problems there.

Firstly, a lot of the time all you’ll get is strad patterns. Maybe the odd guarnerius.

The second is that, a lot of the time a “Stainer model” for example, has feck all to do with Stainer. It’s a kind of pastiche based on vague descriptions that was adopted back in the old days when no-one was actually going to get accurate dimensions or thicknesses. Or the guarnerius is just the usual factory model with slightly different f holes or something.

Then, there’s the issue that all these makers evolved over time. So it’s a Stainer model. Cool. What Stainer? Because the early ones are basically an Amati model. On a side note, it’s an Amati model. Which Amati? Niccolò? The brothers? Big daddy Andrea?

Then there’s all the other fantastic makers who no-one ever copies, or maybe we should say claims to copy. Like a “strad pattern” isn’t a strad anyway, so why not get a “gagliano pattern” or a “klotz pattern” or I dunno, whatever.

So, for me, any individual fiddle is just going to have to stand on its own merits. Most of the time I don’t know exactly what a “Guarneri pattern” actually means in practice, or how faithfully it’s being followed.

Maybe if someone very good made a faithful copy of a specific fiddle, say the ole bull, it might tell you something. But I’ve never moved in the kind of circles where you get to try out the ole bull, so it wouldn’t help me much.

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That’s my, possibly rather uninformed, opinion anyway.

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I know you’re asking about the fiddle, but I want to add something here. The most important part of the fiddle is the bow.

OK. A bit of hyperbole. But it hits on the truth. Take a decent fiddle and try out a dozen bows and you’ll find some big differences in tone and playability.

My fiddle is a nice American one, made in the 1890’s, that I bought for $2500, though it’s probably worth more by now. I have two bows (I’ve tried many, but ended up with these): a $3000 German bow, very fine, and a $200 Brazilian bow. They’re both quite good, but the Brazilian is better - for touch, feel and sound.

So whatever you do, keep this in mind.

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I agree with Ergo - the bow is incredibly important to the sound of the fiddle. I have several bows and none of them sound exactly like any of the others.

Of almost equal importance are the strings. After not having played my fiddle for an extended period of time (~20 years), I started playing again about 4 years ago. My local violin technician put a set of Prim’s on the fiddle and I thought they sounded ok, but not great with my impression that the reason they didn’t sound great was due largely to my extended layoff from the instrument. 2 string changes later, I was getting my chops back and was still using Prim’s. They sounded better, but still not great. I started thinking about upgrading my instrument (an early 20th Century German instrument made by Heinrich Heberlein - i.e. nothing terribly special). Before embarking on fiddle quest, I put on a set of much more expensive Pirastro Evah Pirazzi violin strings and oh my goodness the difference was amazing - volume, harmonics, richness, tone etc. all were vastly improved by simply putting on a better set of strings. Granted, they were twice the price of the Prims, but I’m now so satisfied with my fiddle that I’m no longer looking to upgrade it, which would have been a much more expensive proposition.

I am looking to upgrade my bow however, so any suggestions are welcome. I’m planning of trialing some Arcus Carbon Fiber bows, but I’m open to recommendations.

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Thanks for the recommendation Jim!