One of the things I occasionally get asked by those interested in playing Irish fiddle, is: ‘What is the normal Irish fiddle tuning?’.

I think this can sometimes cause some confusion. Perhaps because people aren’t always sure about the difference between a fiddle and a violin. (Spoiler – there is no difference between a violin and a fiddle!). So, the simplest answer is: Irish fiddle tuning is normally the same as for a violin tuned to standard classical tuning.

So, for playing Irish fiddle the strings are tuned to the notes G, D, A and E, from lowest pitched string to highest. The interval between the strings is a perfect 5th.

The G string is the lowest note on a standard tuned fiddle. It is tuned to the G below middle C (or G3) and its frequency is 196hz. The D is middle D (or D4) and its frequency is 293.7Hz. The A string is middle A, or A4, and is tuned to a frequency of 440hz. The E string (E5) is the highest pitched string. It is tuned to 659.3hz.

There are some exceptions, which I’ll discuss in more detail below. But first let us look at the tuning we would normally use for Irish fiddle playing.

Standard Irish fiddle tuning

In general, then, when you are starting out playing Irish fiddle, tuning the strings to G, D, A, and E is the normal practice. That is, from lowest pitch string to highest pitch string as shown in the image below – G being the lowest pitch string, and E the highest.

This means that the strings are tuned at intervals of a fifth (5th) apart. This allows the fiddle player to play a continuous scale without changing position, and without using fourth fingers for melody notes. (Compared to classical violin playing, in Irish fiddle playing, fourth fingers are used more rarely for melody notes. They are used routinely for ornamentation like rolls, cuts, casadhs, however).

So each string is tuned in turn to the following notes (also given as frequencies in Hz as is common on many tuners and tuning apps). Again, this is from lowest pitch string to highest pitch string.

The G string is tuned to G3 (or 196 Hz)

the D string is tuned to D4 (or 293.7 Hz)

The A string is tuned to A4 (or 440Hz)

Finally the E string is tuned to E5 (or 659.3 Hz)

Irish fiddle tuning is normally GDAE

Tuning the fiddle for Irish music

Before you start playing, it is very important to tune the fiddle accurately. You can do this by tuning to another instrument, listening to make sure you are in tune. Or you can use a tuner or a tuning app.

Now that you know the correct pitch for each string (as above), you can tune your fiddle to the correct tuning for Irish fiddle music.

If you watch an experienced fiddle player you may see that they don’t tune all of the strings to another instrument (like an accordian, which should be in tune!) or tuner. Rather, it is common for an experienced fiddle player to tune just the A string (or sometimes the D string). Then, once the A (or D) is in tune, each of the other strings is tuned from the A (or D) string by listening to the interval.

Sometimes the fiddler will play the two strings together as a chord to listen to check that the tuning is correct.

When you are just starting out playing Irish fiddle, tuning in this way (just using your ears to judge the intervals) may not be easy, as the intervals will not be so familiar. In which case a tuner or a tuning app is a good idea to make sure that the strings are in tune.

Cross tuning and other tunings

Of course, the strings do not have to be tuned to these notes. In other traditions of fiddle playing other tunings are often used. In American Old Time and Bluegrass fiddle music, for example.

Bluegrass and Old Time fiddle have some things in common with Irish music. But many of the techniques — and tunings — are also quite different from those used to play Irish fiddle. Tuning the strings to other intervals is commonplace in Old Time and Bluegrass fiddle playing, for example.

The most common alternative tunings, sometimes called ‘cross tuning’, are AEAE and ADAE (again from low string to high string). But others are also possible.

Cajun tuning is another alternative tuning. In Cajun tuning all of the strings are tuned down one tone, to F, C, D, G. This is generally done to get a slighted blue-sier sound.

Tuning down

The cross tuning of Old Time and Bluegrass fiddle is rare in Irish fiddle playing. But something more like Cajun tuning is a little more common alternative in Irish fiddle playing. This keeps the intervals set at a 5th apart, but gives a slightly different sound.

Some Irish fiddlers tune all of the strings down (or more rarely, up) one or more semi-tones. This is most often done in order to play together with uilleann pipers who are playing a ‘flat set’. A flat set is one where the drones and chanter are tuned to B or even Bb (B flat).

To do this, all of the strings are tuned down the same amount. For example, to play with a set of B pipes, the strings on the fiddle would be tuned down 3 semitones. This means the strings would be E, B, F# and C# respectively.

You can hear this effect on Mick O’Brien and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s albums (although here Caoimhín is not playing an Irish fiddle, but his own unique instrument, a Hardanger D’amore).

Sometime fiddlers tune down the strings just to find a mellower tone which can come from looser strings. You can hear Nathan Gourley and Laura Federson playing traditional Irish fiddle, tuning down the strings, on some of the tracks on their albums. Aidan Connolly, a fine Irish fiddle player, often tunes his strings lower. You can hear this on many of the tunes recorded for his albums Be Off and The Portland Bow.

Very very low Irish Fiddle Tuning!

I have always enjoyed playing Irish fiddle with lower tunings in the manner discussed above. I’ve even taken it a stage further by using Octave strings on an old fiddle to play Irish fiddle — tuning the strings to a full octave lower than standard tuning!

You can hear this in the video below. I am playing a wonderful reel The Morning Thrush by the great piper James Ennis, father of Seamus Ennis.

You can find more of my videos on Irish fiddle playing on Youtube page. And do also look at my Irish fiddle courses, for lots of free online fiddle lessons on Irish fiddle.

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