FIDDLE OR VIOLIN?
by Stewart Hendrickson

    As a fiddle player I am often asked the difference between a fiddle and a violin. The answer is both simple and complex, but I will get to that later. First I want to tell you about some fiddles or violins in my life – all of this prompted by my latest acquisition.
 
    My story should begin a few generations earlier. I have a picture of my father at age twelve standing in front of his house in rural western Wisconsin, dressed in knickers and playing the violin. He never became much of a player, I only remember him playing once or twice when I was young, but he told me that his maternal grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant who lived to the grand age of 102, played the violin. I don’t know what kind of music he played, whether Scandinavian dance tunes or something more classical, but I like to think I inherited some of his musical genes.

    When I was seven I showed an interest in music, and after a year of piano I started violin with my first ¾-size instrument. A few years later my dad bought a full-size violin, which I then began to play. I continued classical violin, competing with my friend for first chair in the school orchestra, until I gave it up in high school for a guitar and singing.

    In 1956, during my first year in college, I traded my ¾-size violin for a new Martin D18 guitar (at $100 it was a great investment) which I still have. I kept the full-size violin, but only played it occasionally in the following years. When my son started violin in the early 1970s he played that instrument. I always thought it was pretty good (although with an 18th century “Eberle” label, it was not what it claimed to be – a common practice which makes the label the least important indicator of value), but a little later when it failed to hold pitch due to a cracked peg box I gave it away to a neighbor, and bought a much nicer old violin ($300 in the late 1970s) for my son to play.

    After my son left for college without the violin, it sat in the closet unplayed for about ten years. I then sold it to a friend for $1,000 (a pretty good investment!). That is something which I now regret, because after I moved to Seattle from Minnesota in 1996 I wanted to try fiddle playing, but then needed to buy a fiddle. After looking around several shops I finally bought an old (late 19th century)  fiddle and bow from the Guitar Emporium in Ballard (an unlikely shop that doesn’t usually sell fiddles). This is a fiddle with great “character.” For instruments under $1,000 it is quite good, with a sweet but not strong sound. It is stamped on the heel with “Duke – London.”  Now, Duke made fine violins in the early 1800s, but this violin was made in the late 1800s and was of much lower quality. It has the style of a German-made instrument and was probably imported unfinished by the Duke shop as an inexpensive violin to be finished and sold in the mass market.

    To my pleasant surprise, when I began playing again about 6 years ago I found that the technique I had learned as a kid readily came back. Now I just had to learn all those tunes! As I continued to play, learned new tunes and better technique, I wanted a better instrument. I would play friends’ violins and frequent violin shops with more expensive instruments that I would try out. That is a dangerous thing to do since it only whets the appetite.

    So, that brings us up to the present time. I decided I could afford something up to $3,000 and began a serious quest. I visited several local violin shops looking at both old and new instruments. I played many old instruments (early 19th to early 20th century) and a few new ones. This is an interesting experience. The shop owner would pick out a couple dozen instruments in my price range and with the sound I preferred, and I would play them all, weeding out the dogs and ending up with the two or three best. I found some that were okay, but nothing that grabbed me. I decided to wait for the violin that told me I just had to buy it.

    Finding a violin in my price range is interesting. Old violins by prestigious makers can be quite expensive – tens of thousands of dollars or more, and those are not the rare Stradivari or Guarneri. Yet there are some good-sounding old instruments for under $3,000. Good new hand-made instruments usually begin at about $2,000 and can go up to tens of thousands of dollars.

    In my price range I think a new instrument may be a better value for the money, so that’s what I began to look for. There are many good violin makers today. In Seattle, Armin Barnett and David Van Zandt are well known and respected. They make fine instruments, but are considerably above my price range.

    I had played a new violin by an Arkansas luthier that I liked, but when I went back to the shop it was out on approval. I then walked into David Stone’s shop in the Seattle U district as he just opened a FedEx box containing a new violin from that same luthier, Fairfax Abraham. After playing over a dozen instruments, I took the Fairfax home on approval. It was beautifully finished and had a strong, rich sound that I liked. That was the beginning of my violin love affair, so a week later I returned to David with a check.

    Before I settled the bill I talked to Fairfax on the phone. He made this violin in 2001, copied after an early (Amati)  Antonio Stradivari. It has the high arch and more narrow shape of that design, and a brilliant rich tone. He told me the back was made from one piece of Bosnian maple and the top and sides of Northern Italian spruce. These are very strong woods and should take at least a year to play in. The finish is slightly antiqued varnish with a moderate gloss, and it has attractive boxwood pegs, tail-piece and chin rest. Fairfax makes mostly violas now at the rate of about one a month. He was very talkative and proud of his craft, and explained in great detail the building of my violin. He has been building violins for over twenty years, and David Stone has sold many of his instruments.

    Now my new love affair is just beginning, and I look forward to its deepening as my violin improves with age. Already I am spending more time with it. Oh, and to answer my first question as to the difference between a fiddle and violin, the simple answer is there is no difference, they are the same instrument. The complex answer is in the way the instrument is played. A violin player usually plays highly structured classical music, while a fiddle player plays in a much freer traditional folk style. I prefer the latter but still appreciate the former.

Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus  University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; http://www.stolaf.edu/people/hend/music.html ).