How to Shop for a Fiddle

Finding Your Fit on the Fiddle

In skilled hands, a fiddle can deliver the sustain of an electric guitar, the warm, throaty tone of a great singer, and articulations ranging from percussion spank to pure silk.

“There’s a reason the fiddle is often equated with the voice,” says Sara Milonovich of the alt-rock band Daisy Cutter, whose fiddling credits include Pete Seeger’s GRAMMY-winning album At 89. “It’s an amazing world of possibility — with unlimited potential for making it your own.”

Yet if you’re new to the instrument — or are returning after years away — making a fiddle your own can seem pretty daunting. It’s not an instrument you can just pick up, even you’re a whiz on the fingerboard.

The challenge of playing a bowed instrument with no frets is dramatic.”

“The challenge of playing a bowed instrument with no frets is dramatic,” Milonovich says. “The physical act of holding the instrument and bow are anything but intuitive. It can feel incredibly awkward.”

So how can you get past that awkwardness and add a fiddle to your instrumental arsenal? We posed those questions to Milonovich and Jarvis Benson of the luthiery and violin shop DZ Strad in White Plains, NY.

Fiddle vs. Violin

To builders and retailers, “fiddle” and “violin” mean the same thing. The difference lies more in the way the instrument is played and set up than the way it’s built.

“Some fiddlers like a flatter bridge to assist with double-stops,” Milonovich says. “But I’ve always used the typical classical violin bridge shape, and it's been fine for all the styles I play. When in doubt, a standard classical violin bridge shape and setup always work to start with.”

Most acoustic fiddles are made from the same basic materials — bodies of maple and spruce, with maple necks with ebony fingerboards and floating maple bridges. “Entry-level [student] models will use ‘factory wood’,” Benson says. “It’s thicker because they’re designed to be ‘indestructible.’”

The higher quality wood and more refined construction of intermediate and professional instruments not only influences their “new” tone, but sets the stage for that tone to develop over time as the fiddle is played.


Setting a Budget

Assuming you’re not about to plunk down several million on a Stradivarius, how much will a fiddle set you back? “The budget really depends on your level of commitment to the instrument and what you want to get out of it,” Milonovich says.

“If you just want to mess around as a hobby on weekends, you could find a starter package for a couple hundred dollars. If you’re starting to get serious about it, you’re looking at $800 to $1,000.”

Benson puts the range closer to $2,000 to $4,000, but says more expensive doesn’t always mean better. “An instrument changes over the years. A $1,600 to $2,000 fiddle may take on a totally different personality and become more valuable. If it’s played, it really opens up.”

Acoustic, Electric and Five-String Fiddles

With pro-quality acoustic violins starting at a few grand and rising to many times that, a good electric violin ($800 to $3,000) is a relative bargain. That doesn’t make one a good first instrument.

“I don't necessarily see [electric violins] as great for beginners,” Milonovich says. “You want to get feedback on your tone and how things feel under your fingers and bow, and the best way to do this is acoustically.”

Make sure the muscle memory, tone production, and overall familiarity are in place before trying something new.”

Five-string fiddles also are gaining popularity with experienced players and extend the violin down into viola range by adding the latter’s low C to the standard fiddle’s G, D, A, E stringing. But as with electrics, they’re not an ideal starting point.

“I would recommend becoming well versed and comfortable in playing a four-string, conventional violin before exploring any of these other instruments,” Milonovich says. “Make sure the muscle memory, tone production, and overall familiarity are in place before trying something new.”


Fretted Fiddles and Fine Tuners

If the traditional violin seems too daunting, you can find high-quality fretted fiddles from specialty builders. Yet sonically, the absence of frets has always been among the fiddle’s greatest assets.

While some players seem to frown on visual aids, both Benson and Milonovich said it was fine to use fingerboard tape to help develop your muscle memory and intonation — as long as you also work on your ear.

“It’s one less thing to think about as you’re learning,” Benson says. Beginners can also use tailpiece-mounted fine tuners for all four strings. Pros tend to use one and only one — on the high E — but Benson says this more about saving weight.

Take a Bow

Don’t forget to include the bow in your budget. This can run into the thousands for professional models, though Benson says beginners should be fine in the $60 to $100 range. Student-level kits, or “outfits” often include a bow. If you’re spending on a better instrument, Milonovich places the bow budget at $350 and up.

A lot of focus tends to be on the violin, with the bow treated as an afterthought. That’s like buying a BMW with broken power steering and bald tires."

“Don’t skimp! A lot of focus tends to be on the violin, with the bow treated as an afterthought,” Milonovich says. “That’s like buying a BMW with broken power steering and bald tires. Carbon fiber bows from reputable companies like Coda are good investments; they give comparable performance to wood bows at a lower price tag, and are way more durable when dealing with changes in environmental conditions.”


The Test

When evaluating a fiddle, both Benson and Milonovich put sound ahead of string action, finish and other indicators. Bring a friend who plays or have someone at the shop play a few fiddles in your price range. It also helps to walk in with an idea of what sounds you want.

“Do you prefer a mellow, darker sounding instrument?” Milonovich says. “Or do you want a louder, brighter one that will project better at jam sessions?”

Once you’ve heard a few you like, it's time to hold the instrument. “Feel really counts,” Milonovich says. “Some fiddles may just feel more subjectively comfortable. The same applies to bows.”

As you listen, ask about the instrument’s history. “If a fiddle hasn’t been played a lot, its sound may open up later,” Benson says. “A new instrument has greater potential to change. An older instrument may be at its best already.”

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About the Author:

Barry Cleveland
Barry Cleveland

Emile Menasche the former editor-in-chief of In Tune Monthly magazine and author of five books on music production. His composing credits include original music for the award-winning documentary “Silenced” and the Academy-award nominated documentary short “Incident in New Baghdad.”

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