Thursday, May 3, 2007

Tuesday's Jam - Rain, Rain, Go Away - Violin vs. Fiddle

Tuesday's jam was another good one. Attendance was down slightly due to the rain. We had about 20 pickers and several more listeners. Several folks ran into very bad rain, lightning and wind on the way here. It seemed strange, because we had nothing more than a little bit of rain in New Athens. We were pleased to have newcomer, Jack, with us. He is a great singer and guitar picker. Ken is another newcomer that showed up. Ken and his daughter are taking guitar lessons from Mike. Larry was back; it had been several weeks since he had been able to attend. Terry played the infamous Celito Lindo on his banjo; better known as The Frito Bandito. That's a really cool song. Kelsey lead a song on her fiddle for the first time and did so well! She played Amazing Grace. No dobros -- which reminds me to make mention of Ben's father. He had a quadruple bypass earlier this week and Ben asked for us to keep him in prayer. Last I had heard, he was stable but not out of the woods.

I've been adding books to the website again this week. I plan on putting all of our normally in-stock items there, but I'm only able to do it a little bit at a time. Just remember, we can special order any Mel Bay or Hal Leonard (including Home Spun) items you would like! I'm still looking for a source from which to purchase bluegrass CDs for resale. If you've got any ideas, let me know!

It's another rainy day here. I think it's supposed to rain all day. Yesterday, I had the doors open all day because the temperature has been so nice. It's very humid, though. I kept having to tighten the hair on my fiddle bow all day.

I've been thinking about fiddle strings with this humid weather, and now seems like a fine time to discuss the topic. Many people ask me what is the difference between a fiddle and a violin. There are several differences in setup, but there's no difference in the actual instrument itself. Usually, folks who play classical music will refer to the instrument as a violin, and those who play country, folk and bluegrass will refer to the instrument as a fiddle. Here are some of the differences in setup:

1. Strings - Classical players usually prefer perlon strings, which mimic gut. Gut was what was always used in the past, but it is very expensive and much more subjective to the weather. Perlon strings are still more weather sensitive than steel, but since most classical players don't play inside, outside, inside, outside, in the sun, etc., that's not too much of an issue. Since perlon strings stretch so much, most classical players do not use four fine tuners either. They don't need them with perlon strings because the amount of stretch in the strings allows them to tune from the regular tuning pegs at the top of the instrument. There will be one fine tuner for the E string, which is usually steel. Perlon strings blend more with other instruments and are slightly more mellow. Dominant is the most popular of this type of string.

Bluegrass, folk and country players usually prefer steel strings. Steel strings don't stretch as much, aren't as subjective to the humidity and temperature, and are generally louder and more cutting. This is important because the fiddle is playing acoustically and needs to be able to be heard above the other instruments when taking a break (lead). Since this type of music is generally played all over the place, indoors, outdoors, etc., steel strings are more suitable because you don't have to tune so much. Steel string players will generally have four fine tuners on the tailpiece because steel strings don't have a lot of stretch in them and the fine tuners are needed to get the strings in tune. Popular string choices are Super Sensitive Red Label on the low end, then Prim, Pirastro Chromcor and Wondertone. Some "cross-over" players like Helicore.

2. Bridge - In general, classical players don't play as many double-stops (two notes at a time) as fiddle players, so they prefer a more curved bridge. A curved bridge makes it easier to play one string at a time. This is also the preferred bridge shape for beginners, regardless of style. A flatter bridge makes playing double-stops much easier. I've seen some old time fiddlers' bridges that looked almost completely flat! Just a note on bridges: bridges are usually cut to the curvature of the fingerboard, then refined based on player's preference.

3. Tone - The classical violist is looking for a tone that will blend well with the other instruments; something that is slightly more mellow than what a fiddle player would be likely to choose. A fiddler is looking for an instrument that will be able to stand out in an acoustic jam session. Once again -- these are just generalities and everyone will be looking for their own particular desired tone and volume.

4. Shoulder rests and Chinrest pads - I've noticed that all styles of players use shoulder rests about the same percentage-wise. Shoulder rests not only help hold the instrument, they also relieve neck tension, promote good left hand position (because you are not holding the instrument with your left hand so it is free), and helps to teach muscle memory to the right arm because the instrument will always be at the same angle, so the bow arm "learns" how high and what angle it needs to be to play each particular string.

I have noticed that classical players use chinrest pads far more frequently than fiddle players. At first, I could not figure this out, but after some discussions with a few other folks, we decided it is probably due to the fact that many orchestra pieces can be as long as 10 minutes or more, and the chinrest pad would be much more comfortable. Fiddle tunes generally do not last that long unless you are playing square dances, and most of the time the melody is passed off to other instruments so the fiddle player is not playing for 10 minutes solid.

Those are the major set-up differences that I can think of at this time. If I've missed something or you've got something else to say, feel free to comment.

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