If you’re a beginner and would like to learn how to play the fiddle, read on below for everything you need to know about playing the fiddle.
How to play the fiddle
It doesn’t matter here what style of fiddle playing we are talking about. Irish fiddle or Scottish fiddle (sometime lumped together as Celtic fiddle). Bluegrass or Old Time. English folk style; Shetland, Orkney, Cape Breton.
The basic principles remain pretty much the same. So here is my guide to what you need to know to learn how to play the fiddle.
What follows here is based on my experience teaching people how to play the fiddle. In the past 4 years alone, I’ve taught 2000+ fidde lessons. I’ve taught beginner fiddle players from the ages of 5 to 75 years old.
I’ve taught professional and semi-professional classical violinists, who wanted to learn how to play Irish fiddle with that authentic sound. And I’ve taught people who have never picked up a fiddle before.
No matter where you are starting from, I can help you with some of the fundamentals of how to play the fiddle.
What is a fiddle?
The first question you might have is, what makes a fiddle a fiddle? I’ve written a post to try to answer the questions ‘what is a fiddle?’. It turns out the answer is both complicated and simple!
On the one hand, we can think of the fiddle as any bowed stringed instrument. As such, it has a long and complex history, going back probably as far as the 7th Century in some form or other. But the fiddle has changed considerably over this time. Sometimes it has had 3 strings, sometimes 4 or 5. And it has had many variations in shape. It has normally been made of wood, but tin fiddles have also been popular, especially in Ireland, where they were cheap to make and easy to repair.
But more simply, the fiddle as we know it today is a violin. What is the difference between a fiddle and a violin? Nothing at all. The fiddle (at least in its modern version) is the same exact instrument as a violin.
It all comes down to the style of playing. A fiddle player and a violinist play in different styles. But a fiddler and violinist are playing the same instrument. I play the fiddle. But the instrument I play normally for performance is a violin made in Germany in about 1810, which would have been played as a classical violin most of its life (and still is, sometimes!).
For a complete beginner fiddle player, I would advise renting a fiddle, if you can find somewhere that offers rentals. This allows you to try out playing and learning before committing to buying an instrument. As a rough figure, I rent out student fiddles for around £15-20/month.
How to play the fiddle – holding the fiddle
To start out with, as you are working out how to play the fiddle, I suggest you start off holding the fiddle by the body (the shoulder) of the instrument, rather than the neck.
Sit, or stand, upright and comfortable. Your shoulders are side-to-side, your eyes are looking forwards. When you put the fiddle on your shoulder, it will be somewhere (roughly 45 degrees) between the line of your shoulders, and your eyes.
The fiddle rests on the top and front of your left shoulder, on your collarbone. The button on the end of the body of the fiddle rests into the side of your neck, and your jawline under your cheek rests gently on the chinrest of the fiddle.
Most people find it useful to use a shoulder rest of some kind, but you can you use a rolled up cloth or a large sponge. This can help you to hold the fiddle between your shoulder and your cheek. You don’t need to be able to hold the fiddle up just using your shoulder (i.e. without holding it with your left hand). But it is useful to be able to support it with your shoulder, so you aren’t holding on to the neck tightly with your left hand.
If you can hold the fiddle comfortably without a shoulder rest, you don’t need to use one.
How to play the fiddle – the bow hold
When I teach people how to play the fiddle, I start out suggesting they use a ‘standard’ bow hold. At least at first. It’s useful to start off with this bow hold and then you can adapt it further down the line. (Many fiddlers hold the bow higher up the stick, for example).
So let’s learn how to hold the bow.
Make a circle with your thumb and middle finger of your right hand. The tips of this finger and thumb meet between the stick and the hair of the bow just above the notch at the bottom of the bow.
Then tip, or lean, your whole hand over towards the tip of the bow (pointy end) until the side of your index finger touches the stick of the bow. Gently wrap the finger around the stick. It ends up lying more along, and around, than across the stick.
The side of the 2nd knuckle rests on top of stick. ‘Leaning’ on the finger on the top of the bow creates any pressure or power required by the fiddle player.
Notice how the fingers are now lying at about a 45degree angle to the stick of the bow, and loosely curled, not straight, or rigid.
The 4th (ring) finger drops down alongside the 3rd finger, with its tip resting somewhere on or towards the frog of the bow. (See my Part of a violin bow page.) It’s tip is pointed towards the inlaid ‘dot’ on the frog but doesn’t need to lie on top of it.
The little finger’s tip rests, completely relaxed, on the flat top (on most bows) of the bow. Gently curled, not pressing down.
The bow is quite deep in the fingers. Cradled, rather then held – and certainly never gripped. It weighs about 62 grams, so you don’t need to hold tight! The fingers are loose, relaxed; the wrist relaxed too.
That’s how you hold your fiddle bow!
How to play the fiddle – Left hand position
The left hand holds the neck of the fiddle. When you are learning how to play the fiddle there are some common mistakes beginners fall into. So let’s make sure you know how to hold the fiddle properly!
The left thumb goes on one side of the neck, touching the neck with the side of the middle knuckle of the thumb.
The base of the forefinger goes on the other side, touching the neck with the bony part at the bottom of the finger. The neck rests on these two bony parts – not in the ‘crook’ of the thumb, and not on the palm of the hand.
See the little bit of a gap under the neck of the fiddle in the photo below.
Keep your wrist relaxed and away from the neck of the fiddle. The arm should be loose, and near enough straight all the way from the back of the hand to the tip of the elbow. Don’t cock your wrist either in or out.
A slight bend as below is OK, but not too much – stay loose!
Don’t grip the neck, it rests on those bony bits, or is very gently pinched between them. Try to keep your thumb in particular relaxed – wobble it about to check that it’s loose.
The finger go up first, curl over and come down on the strings. They should come down from above — not flat, but pointy. Use the very tip of the finger on the string. Try to bring down the final knuckle as vertically as possible.
Don’t press down hard! Use minimal pressure. Keep your fingers light!
Part 2 coming soon. Check back, or sign up to my mailing list to be notified when I put out new articles or videos.