Introducing the fiddle

The older name for the violin - fiddle - is still used when playing folk music which uses techniques appropriate to playing for dancing - the most important original role of the instrument. Early fiddles were played with gut strings wound onto wooden pegs for tuning. The lowest and highest strings (usually tuned to G and E) are wound onto the nearest left and right outside pegs as in this photo. The D and A strings in the middle are wound onto the remaining pegs on the left and right respectively.

The bridge was positioned between the notches of the ƒ holes. It originally had a flatter arch than is common today. A flatter bridge is still preferred by many folk fiddlers because it makes it easier to play tunes which involve repeated string crossing and the playing of two strings simultaneously (two features of traditional folk fiddling).

Fiddles are usually tuned with a perfect fifth interval between adjacent strings. If you learn to recognise the sound of that interval you can tune the instrument by ear. Until you have the experience and confidence to tune by ear you can use an electronic tuner with A set to 440 Hz.

Today's fiddlers often choose steel strings which require accurate adjusters or fine tuners (or a tailpiece which incorporates fine tuners as in this photo). The best steel strings have several very fine strands of steel with a flat spiral winding around the core. This makes the string more flexible and responsive than a solid rod of steel. Alternatively some fiddlers choose to use strings of man-made fibres.

Choosing an instrument
In this photo you can just make out the close grain and the across-the-grain pattern typical of a well chosen pine top which is the favoured material for the belly of the instrument. Inside the instrument there is a bass bar under the belly and an upright sound post which needs to be fitted correctly. In choosing an instrument fine workmanship is always desirable and correct set-up of the bridge and sound post is essential, but you need to hear an instrument to be sure that it has a good tone, well balanced across all four strings.

Holding the instrument

When deciding how to hold the fiddle take extra care to ensure a comfortable and relaxed position. It is a good idea to start with some warm up exercises (including gentle head and neck movements and arm swinging). Then hold the instrument with your right hand and rest it on your left collar bone, as in this video clip and photos. Clench your left fist and then release it to discover its natural relaxed shape. Raise the hand to the neck of the fiddle and hold the neck between the thumb and base of your first finger. Press the instrument gently against your body, keep your head upright and well balanced, avoid gripping the fiddle with your chin and avoid tension in your neck and arm muscles.

In the photos below note the curved shape of the relaxed hand with fingers hooked over the strings. Also note the gap between fiddle and wrist and the gap at the base of the thumb below the fiddle neck.

Swing your leftarm under the instrument so that the tips of your fingers can hover above and close to each string in turn. Although the 4th finger is little used it needs to be always available - above the fingerboard not curled back into the palm of your hand.

Some players choose to fit a chin rest and shoulder rest to the instrument to make it easier to achieve a stable hold. I prefer the traditional unaided hold for its lighter weight and greater freedom of movement.

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