Whether you’re a fiddler or a violinist, you will inevitably get asked what the difference is between a violin and a fiddle. The easy answer is that there is no difference. But as a fiddler, it’s nice to know a little more about the history of the instrument. You may be surprised to learn that fiddles were popular long before the violin was even invented, although early fiddles and violins were very different from what we play today.
In the fifteenth century professional musicians in Europe switched from plucking string instruments to using a bow. There were two families of these bowed instruments: the viol da gamba, or viol of the leg (played like a cello) and the viol da braccio, or viol of the arm (played like a violin). The viol da gamba was the more popular and highly respected of the two.
In the sixteenth century, the first makers of the violin borrowed from the viol da braccio, the rebec, and the fiddle (already a folk instrument in use throughout Europe). Andrea Amati built violins in Northern Italy that were an instant hit, spreading throughout Europe and widely seen both on the street and in the houses of nobility. These violins had a different design from the modern violin with short, wide fingerboards, straight necks, and decorations carved into the body and scroll. The modern violin developed in the late 19th century and many of the older models were taken apart and put back together again in the new design.
The word “fiddle” is English, as opposed to violin, which is from the Italian “violino”. Musicians referred to bowed instruments as fiddles all over Northern Europe and the fiddle was the instrument of choice among gentry and commoners in Ireland, Scotland, France, and England. As many left those countries to settle in North America, fiddles were brought over to the English and French colonies and are mentioned at parties and weddings as early as the seventeenth century. As the modern violin caught on in orchestras throughout Europe and America, it slowly infiltrated the folk music world and came to replace older, makeshift fiddles.