Thursday, April 10, 2008

Violin and Fiddle Setup Differences

I had a phone call from Coy yesterday asking me about different bridge curvatures for fiddles. He had mentioned taking his fiddle to a violin shop for a repair, and the repairman commented on the curvature of his bridge. Coy told the luthier that he was learning bluegrass, and that was probably why his bridge was curved a little bit differently. Coy wanted to know a little bit more information about this, and since this isn't the first time someone has asked me about this, I thought it would be a good time to elaborate on this. It is one of those areas where people have some very specific likings; many times it depends upon what kind of music they play.

Let me start out by saying that a fiddle and a violin are the same instrument, but that the setup on them can vary depending upon what kind of music you will be playing. Here are some very general and common differences:

Classical Violin -
More curved bridge, which helps with playing individual strings.
Perlon or gut strings, which produce a softer (not necessarily quieter) sound than steel strings, that blends better with all the other stringed instruments in an orchestral setting.
Classical players generally look for an instrument that will blend well with others, with no hint of harshness.

Bluegrass, Country & Folk Fiddle -
Flatter bridge, which makes it easier to play two strings at the same time (double stops).
Steel strings, which produce a sharper tone that helps cut through in acoustic settings. Steel strings also stretch less, which is a good thing since most of these musicians will be playing in many different settings that include indoor, outdoor, high humidity, sun, high heat, cold, etc.
Non-classical players will many times desire an instrument that has a bit of an edge to it and is loud. This allows the instrument to be heard over the rest of the instruments in an acoustic setting.

Now, having said all this, it does not mean that everyone who plays will agree 100% with what I have said. This is certainly not meant to be a blanket label that will fit all musicians.

Common strings for classical players include Dominant (which is probably the most common) and Helicore. Some players still use gut, though I haven't personally met anyone yet. Probably because I don't play classical music much.

Common strings for bluegrass players include Super Sensitive Red Label (the most economical string and probably the string of choice for many old time fiddlers), Pirastro Chromcor, and Prim. I have met bluegrass players who also use Helicore, Zyex and Dominant. So you see, there can be a lot of different strings that many people like.

Too bad fiddle strings cost so much. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to try a bunch of different brands? It isn't fair that you can purchase a set of guitar strings that are actually decent strings for $5.00 or less, but you certainly could not purchase a decent set of fiddle strings for that. (Mom always told me life wasn't fair!)

As far as bridge curvature goes, there is a "proper" curvature that is taught in violin making school and also listed in violin repair books. They even sell templates to help create this ideal curvature. The height of the bridge is also an exact science, though I like mine lower so that the strings are closer to the fingerboard. The height of the bridge will be in direct proportion to the neck angle of the instrument and thickness of the fingerboard. (Of course, there are "ideal" heights for all of these, too!)

Many instruments will not fit these exact measurements, but that does not mean that they are not decent instruments. In fact, they can sound mighty good! Setup can also be a personal preference, but that is usually more for non-classical players. If you have taken your instrument to a nice violin shop and had someone "shoot it down" so-to-speak, don't worry. As long as you are not preparing for your solo debut with the orchestra, your instrument will probably do just fine!

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