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A Different Way of Looking at the Fiddle vs. Violin question

Posted by fiddlepogo on Thursday, June 3, 2010

I was just playing the Eastman VL100.  It takes a bit for me to get it sounding good. One reason may be that I neglect it.  And part of the reason I neglect is because I tend to pick up a fiddle and want to play fiddle tunes, and fiddle tunes just DO NOT sound good on this instrument.  So, chastened, I play waltzes, or do some stately sounding quasi-classical noodling.  And it sounds much better that way.  And as I was playing, I was pondering "Why?".  And it dawned on me:

I think it has to do with the attack and the shape of the "sound envelope".  Now, that may be "Greek" to some of you.

Some background:

In the early '90's, I had strained my left index finger in such a way that I couldn't play guitar for a few years. (I didn't even HAVE a fiddle at the time)  Instead, I got an electronic MIDI keyboard and worked on learning that. Actually I got several (we're talking pretty cheap Yamaha and Casio keyboards you could find in K-Mart and Montgomery Wards) One of them was a Yamaha with built in FM synthesis.  And you could take a tone, and tweak it, and I experimented with tweaking different sounds, and in the process I realized that I have a preference for a strong, sharp attack, to the point where I would take sounds that I otherwise liked, and change the attack from a soft or delayed one (like pipe organ sounds) and change them so they had more bite and definition at the beginning.

Later, about 1998, I got into electric guitar, mostly blues.  One day I was trying out guitars at a local music store, and there was a promising young blues player also trying out guitars.  We got to talking, and for some reason he showed me this thing he'd learned to do- imitating a violin!!!

What he'd do was put his pinky on the volume knob, and start the note with the volume backed off, and then start to swell the volume as the note went on.  And it did sound  surprisingly like a violin, considering it was an electric guitar.  I never learned to do that on a guitar, but it got filed in my memory, and at some point, playing waltzes, I tried with my bow to imitate the sound of the electric guitarist imitating a violin!  And it resulted in something different tonally, and it did sound more "violinny".

Now, switching between Booker the Knilling Bucharest and the Eastman VL100 (Esther the Eastman???;^)) as I was pondering why they invite me, nay, FORCE ME to play them so differently, all this came back to me.

Booker is a FIDDLE... he wants to be played rhythmically, and the thing that makes is so inviting is the attack.  It has a nice sharp bite to it, and shuffles just sound so cool on it.

Esther is a VIOLIN.... her attack is too non-violent!!!  It doesn't exactly lag like a pipe organ, but it's not any louder than the rest of the note, and shuffles sound... well, like why did I even bother???  No percussion, no punch!

BUT if you draw out the bow in a long note, it is SO easy to make that note swell.  And in contrast, I think that's part of what makes Booker unsatifying on waltzes is that the sound DOESN'T swell- after the sharp attack it stays constant.

So the two instruments are very expressive in different ways- if you want something bouncy and light, Booker is the one.  If you want something dramatic and emotive, it's Esther.

Someone said recently that "Most people want an instrument that sounds like their present one, only better. But Esther is definitely NOT Booker only better!!!  If I had tried the Eastman in person, I probably would have rejected it immediately.  However, as much as I play it, it seems to be teaching me a different way to play, and while it's uncomfortable and my confidence level is low on this approach, it's kind of exhilarating, and definitely not the "same ol', same ol'".  I think it's making me grow as a musician in unexpected ways.

Anyway, back to the topic.

To me, a violin with a sharp attack and not much swell to it is essentially a "fiddle" however sweet or rough the sound.

And a violin that's capable of the tone swelling with a long bow is essentially violinny.  And if it doesn't have much of an attack, it's not very fiddly. Probably good for waltzes and other more violin influenced kinds of fiddling like longbowing or bluegrass fills.

Perhaps a violin capable of concert violin solos would have both- a sharp immediate attack AND the capability of swelling the sound with a long bow.

I think the Scott Cao VST-600 I liked so much a while back is more in that direction-  I could definitely play fiddle tunes, but with more expression, I think due to that capability of getting a swelling sound, which I think is called a "crescendo" in classical... I think it means "growing" in Italian.

I think I would have been happier with the VST-600 right off the bat, but the Eastman is good for me, I think, because it's forcing me to play in a different way.  It's also possible that as it plays in, it will develop more of an attack... maybe!

So, I'm thinking that we tend to make a distinction between fiddle and violin based on how you play them, but how you play them may have a whole lot to do with the instruments character.

Now, if you're a beginner, and just trying to keep from squeaking and squawking, I don't think you have the bow control for it to matter anyway.  However, once you get to intermediate status, it seems that if you are trying to play a rhythmic fiddling style and you're instrument is more violinny, you will probably be frustrated.  And if you love slow waltzes, and your instrument doesn't due the swells very well, you will also be frustrated.

So, whaddya think???

10 comments on “A Different Way of Looking at the Fiddle vs. Violin question”

bsed55 Says:
Thursday, June 3, 2010 @7:11:58 PM

Michael wrote: "Someone said recently that "Most people want an instrument that sounds like their present one, only better..." Well I had a fiddle made for me and I spent a pretty good sum on it. The fiddle was/is beautiful. A sheer work of art and craftmanship. But I was disappointed when it didn't sound as good as my $150 fiddle!! It's softer in tone, doesn't project as well. I tried tuning it down Cajun style and loved the sound it produced. It was more resonent, definitely! But in any other tuning I still couldn't get attached to this fiddle. Until I put it into AEAE and I just kept it there (and it is still in that tuning as we speak).....and I have been playing it a lot more and I have to say I'm getting used to the sound and even liking it a bit. So for me it seemed to be a simple matter of training myself or making an adjustment. I'd have a hard time understanding why you can't use any given violin for fiddling. You just change strings or tunings or even the setup to try to get the sound you want.

bsed55 Says:
Thursday, June 3, 2010 @7:16:21 PM

I didn't mean to sound so callous. I think time is another important ingredient. And over a period of time I think I have established a relationship with my fiddle "partner". So maybe that will be your experience too.

fiddlepogo Says:
Thursday, June 3, 2010 @7:50:14 PM

Well, it IS dead stock. The bridge is rather nicely carved, so I'm a little reluctant to start filing on it!
And my experience is in tweaking thin sounding fiddles to sound fuller, not tweaking full sounding fiddles to sound thinner!!! I've changed the E, D, and G strings to my favored steel on steel Thomastik Precision Lights- and it hasn't changed the essentially violinny tone any.
I may take the Prims off of "Stinky" who has a dropped soundpost AGAIN!!!
Just to see what happens.
And I'm not sure but what it isn't a good thing that the Eastman sounds so different from my main Romanian Knilling. It's stretching me. I'm happy that "Booker" sounds so good on Old Time fiddle tunes, but "Esther" is encouraging me to get more experimental, to try some things that I haven't done much before like waltzes, Klezmer, swing, stuff like that.

Yes, I would say I've established a relationship of sorts with Booker the Bucharest.
Especially now that the tailpiece adjustment tweak worked so well, I'm having a hard time imagining how it could sound better, but who knows???

You should try that tailpiece adjustment tweak on your expensive fiddle.
(See the previous blogpost for the link)

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Thursday, June 3, 2010 @7:59:12 PM

What do I think? Think I need the Cliff notes version! JK. When I've the time I'll check and see what you wrote.

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Thursday, June 3, 2010 @9:57:56 PM

Okay, read it. Strings can make a difference--and you know more about this than I--but Helicores for me seem to allow me to play distinct rhythym, a sharp attack if you will, AND yet give me the sweet sound I want for whole notes. I use them on my Eastman (often) and my Gligas and Silver Creeks. Yet after visiting the barn at the Father's Day Festival in Grass Valley and trying an array of fiddles, some costing fifteen grand, I found that there're some which just don't work--for me. Just will not do. Yet I have to agree that of the fiddles I've tried, the Eastman seems to like a Classical tone perhaps, or at least kind of makes you want to play more waltzes and Irishy stuff...and I hadn't noticed that before. Thanks Michael.

fiddlepogo Says:
Friday, June 4, 2010 @12:23:05 AM

Cliff Notes version??? LOL!!!
Yeah, now that I really look at it, it WAS a long one, wasn't it!!!!
Treatisitis (the habit of writing irritatingly long treatises on stuff) strikes again!!!

bj Says:
Friday, June 4, 2010 @9:07:54 AM

If you're a fiddler, what good is a violin? Next we'll be hearing you play with a classical accent . . . ;-)

bsed55 Says:
Friday, June 4, 2010 @8:35:06 PM

Somewhat along the same line as bj, my suggestion is you don't need to necessarily do anything PHYSICAL to the instrument. All's ya gotta do is play it with that OT attitude! It's in how you play, not what you're playing it on. (smiley face)

fiddlepogo Says:
Friday, June 4, 2010 @8:56:15 PM

Ah, but what kind of fiddler???
"Esther" is better for klezmer, mariachi, Bluegrass improv, and waltz fiddling, maybe good for Swedish fiddling too.
If I'm playing Booker, it'll sound Old Time. Booker might be better for Scottish stuff too, except slow airs.
It's like this.
Old Time was the first fiddle style I learned, and know it the best by far.
It was far enough back that it's practically part of my roots.
I think the Old Time interest in college was an expression of all the bagpipe and some fiddle music I heard as a kid.
It's a part of me, always will be. Aside from playing fiddle myself, I think I played Old Time music on LP's and cassettes for hours nearly every day for about 4 years.
But it's not ALL of me. Any tune that comes into my brain, and I like it, I want to play it.
Wednesday as I was setting up for a gig, they were playing a Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass album... the same album my dad had!! Hearing that album again sure brought back memories.
Anyway, when I got home, I wanted to play an approximation of the Tijuana Brass version of
"A Taste of Honey". And I think I used the Eastman to do it. No point using Booker, since I DID NOT want it to sound Old Timey. However, chances are, just as when classical players dabble, they play stuff with a classical accent, very likely anything I play on fiddle has at least a slight Old Time accent- first position, little to no vibrato, and probably a somewhat more rhythmic use of the bow. But I keep the tone and intonation as sweet as possible.

At this point in time, I have no desire to narrow my focus to exclusively Old Time... there's no point... I did that already, learned the language, got the hat!
I do want to learn some more Old Time tunes, but I'm picky about which ones...
they have to be tunes that are as good or better than my best tunes, and priority is given to ones I already halfway know.

I suppose it might be different if I were part of a vibrant Old Time community like you are.
I've tried hosting Old Time jams for something like 3 or 4 years now, and it's anything but vibrant.... it's like I've got it on life support. If I quit, it's like pulling the plug- it's over, most likely.
Something about this town is just not Old Time friendly, don't know why.
Also, if the right guitarist and banjo player were to show up (similar playing level and personally compatible) and wanted to form a band, I could see a stronger Old Time focus.

One place I might be going with all this is some kind of Swing. I think I can hear a lot of Swing influence on my electric guitar playing, and now I think SOME of my fiddling is following in the path my guitar playing blazed. That's definitely true as far as improvising.

I also could see being part of some kind of hybrid band. Like a band that could do both Old Time and Western Swing, or Old Time and Jug Band, or even Old Time and Bluegrass.
Except I'm not talking about hybridizing the music, rather more like doing two different sets the same evening with different instrumentation. Part of this is because as a singer, I may be as versatile, or even a little more than I am as a fiddler. I do some songs Old Time style, but can also sing in a Bluegrass style or a more modern Country style, and I can even sing swingy stuff.

Hmmm.... classical accent... actually, I think what I'd like to do is FAKE some classical stuff.
Classical pieces, but not try too hard to get rid of the Old Time phrasing!
Give the classical types some of their own medicine. Then, when they throw up their hands in horror, say "How do you think other people feel about violinists "faking" Irish, Old Time, or Bluegrass??? It could be a Teaching Moment!!!

fiddlepogo Says:
Friday, June 4, 2010 @11:15:32 PM

Alas, for me it's not that simple.
I gotta have a certain kind of fiddle for Old time-
it's gotta do the percussive thing, playing drums with the bow, ya know.
Some fiddles just have it, some you can tweak into that territory,and some
are just too hopelessly rich and sweet sounding!
Weeelllllll, maybe Woodwiz could make a special bridge and make such a fiddle sound fiddley!!!
But I'm not going to pay him to do that on Esther...
I might have him do it to Stinky, since she needs a new bridge and a soundpost reset anyway.

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