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American fiddle

Fiddler in Wichita Riverfest

American fiddle playing began with the early settlers who found that the small viol family instruments were portable and rugged. According to Ron Yule, "John Utie, a 1620 immigrant, settled in the North and is credited as being the first known fiddler on American soil".[1] Early influences were Irish fiddle styles as well as Scottish and the more refined traditions of classical violin playing. Popular tunes included Soldier's Joy, for which Robert Burns had written lyrics, and other such tunes as Flowers of Edinburgh and Tamlin which were claimed by both Scottish and Irish lineages. Soon these tunes were Americanized and local variations developed in Northern and Southern colonies. In contemporary American fiddle styles, the New England states are heavily influenced by all Celtic styles including Cape Breton fiddle playing whereas Southern or Dixie fiddle styles have tended to develop their own traditions which emphasize double stops and in some instances incorporation of dance calls or simple lyrics.[2]


  • Contemporary fusionist trends 1
  • Fiddle playing distinguished from violin playing 2
    • Instrument 2.1
    • Playing technique 2.2
    • Fiddle repertoire distinguished 2.3
  • Types of tunes 3
    • Canonical Tunes 3.1
      • Orange Blossom Special 3.1.1
      • The Devil Went Down to Georgia 3.1.2
  • Blues fiddle 4
    • Blues fiddle discography 4.1
  • Old time fiddle 5
  • Bluegrass fiddle 6
  • Cajun fiddle 7
  • Rock fiddle 8
  • American Jazz fiddle 9
  • Texas swing 10
  • New England, "Down East", Yankee or Boston fiddle 11
  • Canadian and other international influence 12
  • Scottish style American fiddlers 13
  • See also 14
  • References 15
  • External links 16
  • Additional reading 17

Contemporary fusionist trends

In a radical departure from tradition, groups such as Trio Chipontepec are cropping up at American fiddle festivals.[3] Rock is fusing with country, jazz with rock, and classical violinists are retooling in an era characterized by home recording studios and the easy availability of new media such as MP3 downloads.

Fiddle playing distinguished from violin playing

Some folk fiddlers distinguish "fiddle" from "violin", though this is far from universal - many classical violinists refer to their "fiddle". Nevertheless a few common differences may be observed;


Generally, the setup of the instruments is different:

  • Fiddle bridge is flatter
  • Strings may be lower at the nut
  • Strings heavier and more often steel rather than synthetic or gut
  • Instruments may be hand made by amateur luthiers
  • Fiddle more commonly set up with pickup
  • Fiddle more commonly set up with individual string tuners; violinists who use tuners more likely to use tailpiece tuners

Playing technique

Fiddle playing generally avoids vibrato except for occasional slow tempo pieces and even then uses less vibrato. Shorter bowstrokes are also consistent with the fiddle players' tendency to use less legato and more detache bow strokes. Some, but not all, styles use double stops and open tunings. Trick fiddling is employed, often built upon cross bowing technique such as used in Orange Blossom Special or Beaumont Rag. Bowing by fiddle players is quite different in that they may intentionally grip the frog in a crude manner and typically choke up on the bow. See for instance Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops Massachusetts performance of Genuine Negro Jig in May 2010.

Fiddle repertoire distinguished

Fiddle players tend to play fiddle "tunes" rather than sonatas and other classical types of compositions. There are exceptions. For instance, partitas have been popular with fiddle players, particularly since publication of the Open House CD by Kevin Burke, an Irish style player based in Portland, Oregon. Fiddles are typically associated with country and other genres of popular music while violins are usually associated with classical and other genres of art music.

Types of tunes

Woman playing fiddle (right) with her family in a California migrant camp, 1939

Canonical Tunes

Orange Blossom Special

Also known as "OBS", Orange Blossom Special exploits the capacity of fiddle or violin to imitate various mechanical tones. Authorship is controversial.

The Devil Went Down to Georgia

The canonical American fiddle tune, Charlie Daniels as an interpretation the Lonesome Fiddle Blues by Vassar Clements and has been covered innumerable times. Although classified as country rock, the tune uses licks based on old time fiddle playing and rock guitar riffs. Unlike most old time playing, the instrument ranges high up the neck, exploiting both the legendary association of the fiddle as "the devil's instrument" and the intensity of rapid sixteenth or thirty-second notes. These effects are achieved through rapid detache bowing bordering on outright tremolo. The motif of a deal with the Devil may have been influenced by Cross Road Blues by Delta Blues singer Robert Johnson.

Blues fiddle

According to London-based music writer Chris Haigh, fiddle " was among the primary instruments used by the rural blacks..." [4] He contends that by 1930 over 50 different black blues fiddle players had recordings. Many musicians who were guitar stars also played fiddle including:

Blues fiddle uses the pentatonic blues scale to create riffs for breaks and over guitar chords typically in the standard blues progression. Vibrato is not often used, although may occasionally be used in an exaggerated manner for special effect.

Blues fiddle discography

Violin, Sing The Blues For Me


African-American Fiddlers 1926-1949 Old Hat CD-1002

Old time fiddle

Old time fiddle uses a profusion of double stops and authentic players typically tune their instruments in "open tunings" or cross tunings. The set ups often include flattened bridges and in some cases no chin rest. The most popular tuning ia AEAE for the key of A, but the instrument can be down tuned to GDGD, which may put less tension on the neck when playing solo. ADAE is also popular for the key of D, and standard (GDAE) is often used for G. Some of the earliest popular repertoire includes Turkey in the Straw, Arkansas Traveler, Billy in the Lowground. Accompanying instruments include washboard, jug bass, banjo, dulcimer, guitar, and occasionally kazoo. But according to some sources, Old Time music is actually the "early recorded country music of the 1920s and 1930s, particularly of the southeastern states" thus narrowing the definition considerably.[5] Nevertheless, a broader definition usually prevails which incorporates unrecorded music with roots long before radio and recording. Within old time music there are regional subgenres particularly emphasized in certain regions such as the Deep South and Appalachia where fiddle music is often intertwined with cultural phenomena such as coal mining.

A comprehensive review of Old Time fiddle styles was written by David Reiner and Peter Anick and published in 1989.[6]

Bluegrass fiddle

Bluegrass music originated in the person of Bill Monroe. According to Haigh, "Monroe always considered the fiddle to be the key instrument of bluegrass".[7]

  • Chubby Wise Played with Monroe. Also a Texas Swing player [7]
  • Byron Berline a bluegrass player, has appeared with the Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers
  • Richard Green Played with Monroe. Classical training, old time. Band: Seatrain. tric violin. COMPOSITION: "What if Mozart had played with Bill Monroe; a concerto for violin and orchestra"

Cajun fiddle

According to Ron Yule "Louisiana fiddling had its birthroots in Europe, with fiddling being noted as early as the 1400s in Scotland".[1] The most widely known Cajun fiddler is Doug Kershaw. Zydeco music is closely related.

Rock fiddle

Rock fiddle, like rock music in general, owes much to American blues. Incorporation of fiddle or violin into rock, as with jazz, has been a slow process, resisted by some critics as an"unlikeliest and perverse misuse of an instrument".[8] Rock has roots in folk music particularly the American folk revival of the 1960s, and thus as a matter of usage some writers refer to "rock fiddle" when discussing playing by classically trained musicians who join rock bands and thus import classical style rather than fiddle style into their playing.

Rock violinists often use solid body electric violins to reduce feedback. Rock is an international phenomenon, and rock violin is consequently influenced by cross fertilizations from rock players such as Ashley MacIsaac[9] Nevertheless American rockers continue to experiment. For instance, eclectic rocker Natalie Stovall,[10] a graduate of Berkelee Conservatory,[11] covers Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, The White Stripes, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimi Hendrix, all the while alternating between standard rock vocals and fiddle/violin riffs.[12]

Other rock fiddle or violin players include

American Jazz fiddle

Jazz playing on the fiddle is often called jazz violin but there are some instances in which "jazz fiddle" is discussed. For instance Mel Bay contributor Martin Norgard presents jazz fiddle in numerous media (book, website).[13] Nevertheless, instructional jazz playing was preceded by the highly influential 1992 Oak Publications volume Jazz Violin" by Matt Glaser and Stephane Grapelli.[14] The topic is indeed covered on the WorldHeritage online encyclopedia at the article page entitled Jazz violin. Australian jazz player Ian Cooper is presented as a violinist.[15] Dutch eclectic player Tim Kliphuis presents his jazz instructional material as "Jazz Swing Violin Fiddle" but his website quotes the Glasgow Herald review which denominates hims as a "splendid young...violinist".

Mark O'Connor is among other distinctions of French jazz masterStephane Grappelli, in whose memory O'Connor recently conducted a performance tour demonstrating that his roots in Texas swing did not inhibit formi

Texas swing

This music, usually considered to be synonymous with Western swing, is bona fide fiddle music and is deeply intertwined with country music as played by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Dale Watson, the Wheel's Jason Roberts, Jesse Dayton, and Garrison Keillor.[16] A well-known example of this music is "Faded Love", which despite some controversy is generally attributed to Bob Wills.:[17]*Mark O'Connor is a legendary performer who also plays bluegrass and jazz but got started as a youth contender in fiddle contests. Benny Thomasson

Johnny Gimble, who is in some circles championed as America's leading fiddler.[18]

New England, "Down East", Yankee or Boston fiddle

New England fiddle playing is exemplified by Rounder Records artist Frank Ferrel.[19] He refers to the style as "Down East" in his volume Boston Fiddle.[20] Unlike other fiddle traditions, piano accompaniment is common, and, he notes occasionally saxophone or clarinet would join in.[21] Another feature is frequent use of minor keys particularly G minor and also the "flat keys" of F Major and B flat Major, which are not typically used in Old Time and other indigenous music traditions. Ferrell traces his roots into the 1800s Boston Scottish and Irish cultures as typified in musicians such as William Bradbury Ryan.[22] Like all Celtic American fiddle traditions, his is influenced by the publication of Chief O'Neil's massive directory of fiddle tunes in 1903 [23] Thus, Ferrel and others in the North East tradition use the full panoply of Irish fiddle ornamentation.

  • Bowed Triple
  • The Cut
  • The Double Cut
  • The Long Roll
  • The Short Roll
  • The Slide

Other influences include Scottish fiddling and Cape Breton style, which has its own blend of Celtic traditions which include also Normandy styles.

Canadian and other international influence

American fiddle traditions are deeply influenced by international influence from numerous immigrations and ordinary commerce particularly from Anglo-Celtic and Canadian sources. Québécois French, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. [24] folk music tradition but has distinct features found only in the Western hemisphere[25] This influence is largely due to immigration and cross-border commerce.[26] Some observers categorize Maritime influence as a cosmopolitan trend of its own blending otherwise distinct styles which outlines several influences on what they call Northeastern Fiddling Styles: Cape Breton, French-Canadian (Québécois) and Maritime.[27]

Scottish style American fiddlers

See also


  1. ^ a b "Living Traditions: Articles and Essays". Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  2. ^ E.g., Rye Whiskey, fiddle tune
  3. ^ "Early Look at 2011 Festival of American Fiddle Tunes Faculty - Fiddle Tunes at Centrum". Archived from the original on 5 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  4. ^ name=Haigh
  5. ^ Ahmet Baycu. "Roots of American Fiddle Music". Archived from the original on 7 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  6. ^ Oldtime Fiddling Across America, by David Reiner and Peter Anick (1989), Mel Bay Publications. ISBN 0-87166-766-5
  7. ^ a b "Bluegrass Fiddle". Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  8. ^ "Rock Violin". Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  9. ^ Brad Wheeler (2011-06-20). "Why Ashley MacIsaac decided to rock his fiddle". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  10. ^ "News – Amarillo Globe-News Article « Natalie Stovall". 2011-01-29. Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  11. ^ "Natalie Stovall - Indie Artist Spotlight on". Archived from the original on 4 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  12. ^ "Natalie Stovall - Crazy Rock/Fiddle Medley - Chicago". YouTube. 2010-03-13. Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  13. ^ "A Practical Guide To Jazz Improvising For Strings". Jazz Fiddle Wizard. 2011-07-13. Archived from the original on 19 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  14. ^ Jazz Violin| Grappelli and Glaser| Publisher: Music Sales America |(January 1, 1992)|ISBN 0-8256-0194-0|ISBN 978-0-8256-0194-1
  15. ^ "Biography". Ian Cooper. Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  16. ^ "Welcome to Johnny Gimble's world of Texas Swing!". Archived from the original on 24 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  17. ^ ^ Wolff, Country Music, p. 112: "It ['Faded Love'] originated with western swing pioneer Bob Wills, who grew up in the 1910s and '20s fiddling in rural Texas with his father, John Wills. They wrote the melody together when Bob was very young; it wasn't until 1950 that the song gained lyrics, courtesy of Bob's younger brother, Billy Jack.
  18. ^ "Swing Festival to Honor Best American Fiddle Player". Texas Music Journal. Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  19. ^ Notable as heard on A Prairie Home Companion. In the Boston Globe he was referred to as "one of the finest living masters," of that genre.
  20. ^ "Official Website". Frank Ferrel. Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  21. ^
  22. ^ Ryan's Mammoth Collection
  23. ^ "Irish Fiddle". Retrieved 2011-08-18. 
  24. ^ Mel Bay Danse Ce Soir: Fiddle And Accordion Music Of Quebec Book/CD Set [Paperback] Laurie Hart (Author), Greg Sandell
  25. ^ ref name=Reiner |David Reiner and Peter Anick|Mel Bays' Old Time Fiddling Across America|1989
  26. ^ Frank Ferrel|Boston Fiddle|Mel Bay|1999
  27. ^ ref name=Reiner|David Reiner and Peter Anick}Mel Bays' Old Time Fiddling Across America|1989

External links

  • The Digital Library of Appalachia

Additional reading

  • 'North American Fiddle Music: a research and information guide by Drew Beisswenger (2011) Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-99454
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