Though many violin and viola players throughout the U.S. are classically trained, they are not often exposed to learning specialized fiddling techniques found in other genres. Many of these are scattered throughout the world, and some are even common right here in the U.S. For those of you who wish to venture a little outside of your classical comfort zone, here are a handful of genres with unique fiddling styles you may be excited to check out:
As the name indicates, Appalachian fiddling can be heard echoing throughout the Appalachian mountain region of the U.S. As immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales fled to America, their home-country styles mixed into each other, and into pre-existing American culture to form Appalachian music. At one time, it stretched up and down the entire east coast, as well as into the mainland. Later blending further in with show music and African American styles, Appalachian music, made with the banjo, dulcimer, fiddle, mandolin, and acoustic guitar, still retains its uniquely mountainous, front porch sound.
Inspired by elements of Appalachian, bluegrass has true American roots. It was named after the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, where the actual plant “bluegrass” grows, giving Kentucky its nickname “The Bluegrass State”. Fast strumming, rapid-fire picking, double stops, and slides combine to form this lively genre. Bluegrass is one of the only music genres that was created by one known individual – Bill Monroe. His band, the Blue Grass Boys, consisted of mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitar, banjo, and string bass players. Their style was later incorporated into other bands, like the Osborne Brothers, and expanded to include other instruments such as the dobro, harmonica, and accordion (the accordion was originally included in Monroe’s band, but got left out early on in their history to be reintroduced at a later time).
Blues / Jazz
The violin‘s soulful sound was incorporated into various country fiddling styles by African Americans to eventually form blues, and later jazz. Concerning everything from the harsh toils of slavery and life working in the fields in early blues, to feelings of delight in later blues, this genre encompasses all emotions. Though fiddle is no longer a common instrument in contemporary blues or jazz, it accompanied the guitar and other instruments during the early 19th century with its emotionally grasping sound effects including extenuated glissandos. Some early versions of blues had identifiably bluesy vocals, while the instrumental parts retained more of an Appalachian sound.
Predominantly immigrating to the bayou of South Louisiana, a group of Acadian French-Canadians called Cajuns infused their music styles (and spicy food) with pre-existing 1760s American styles, African music, and Caribbean influences. Often times, two instrumentalists, like a fiddle player and an accordion player, would simultaneously play the same melody, with each player putting their own little twist on things, to give a full, yet interesting sound. Other instruments used in this style include the acoustic guitar, harmonica, string bass, drums, t’fer bell (type of triangle), and spoons.
Another branch of Louisiana music, Creole was more heavily influenced by people of mixed races, including those with African American, Caribbean, Spanish, French, and Native American backgrounds. The Creole people blended their music styles to form their own unique flair, in addition to zydeco (a specific kind of Creole music that focused more on call and response similar to African music). While Creole is played with the same instruments as Cajun music, zydeco sometimes intertwines the use of more drums and a wash board.
Crowding the stages in many a honky-tonk, country music has roots in Appalachian and bluegrass. Always telling a story (surrounding anything from the toils of work to love, outlaws, and other, usually down-to-earth, aspects of daily life), country music was a kind of folk tale within a folk tune.
A wide group of instruments helped to form country, from acoustic guitar to electric guitar, bass, dobro, banjo, violin, string bass, steel guitar, autoharp, harmonica, piano, and drums. After mixing with rock ‘n’ roll, country branched off into the antique-piano sounding honky-tonk music, and eventually took on a very diverse array of new sounds, including its mix with modern day pop music.
Melding together Middle Eastern Jewish music styles with those of Greece, Romania, other Eastern European countries, Roma gypsies (originally from India), and America, klezmer‘s origins stretch back to the 16th century. Joyfully played at celebratory occasions, they can also feature a melancholy sound, depicting the strife of the Jewish people throughout their history. Elements from both of these klezmer types can be heard in the show “Fiddler on the Roof.” Though the violin or clarinet is often the star of the show in this genre, either one can be accompanied by cello, string bass, acoustic guitar, flute, dulcimer, brass horns, piano, and tambourine.
Irish / Scottish
The sister nations of Ireland and Scotland are full of jigs, reels, and more with similar playing techniques that give their music a Celtic sound – natural and in some cases, mythical. Though they each have their own distinctive rhythmic patterns and emphases, both focus on bowing patterns and accents, as well as multiple ornamental note combinations for specific notes and phrases. In addition to playing along to traditional dances, the main musician, many times a fiddler, can be joined by a variety of instruments including the Highland bagpipes, uileann pipes (Irish bagpipes), Irish pipe (also called a tin whistle, pennywhistle, or feadóg), bodhran, flute, acoustic guitar, and Celtic harp.
Norway, Finland, and Sweden are home to quite a unique fiddling style that actually has its very own fiddle – the Hardanger fiddle (hardingfele), named after its birthplace: Hardanger, Norway. With more strings than the traditional 4 on most violins, including sympathetic (drone) strings that resonate as the instrument is played, the Hardanger fiddle can be tuned in a variety of ways, and is usually decorated with great detail. Scandinavian folk music is teeming with these beautiful instruments. Full of double stops, ornamental notes, and trilling embellishments, the Hardanger fiddle playing style creates a characteristic sound that depicts the fjords and small towns throughout Scandinavia.
Parlor / Ballad
Drawing out the persevering themes of the American Revolution, as well as the somber sounds of the Civil War, parlor songs and ballads in America stretched from the 1700s to the 1800s. Derived from similar music styles as Appalachian and bluegrass, parlor songs took a slower, more “southerly” branch away from these genres, though they were played in the north as well. Sad, soft songs filled with tones that mimicked those who were struggling to survive the high mortality rates and on and off economic tribulations of the times were being played in the yards and parlors of those in small towns all across America, like “Hard Times Come Again No More” (you may have heard that one in Sid Meier’s Civilization VI). More upbeat, strict-tempo, colonial-style military music and a diverse assortment of ballads were heard across the battlegrounds, like “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.
Recalling the lively sounds of the American frontier, which encapsulated everything from traditional folk tunes to cowboy-filled towns, galloping horses, railroads, and old-time southwest dance gatherings, western swing took frontier music and mixed it with aspects of blues and jazz. Growing straight out of “The Lone Star State”, Texas, it soon spread through the Great Planes, gaining popularity in the 1930s. Western swing involves the fiddle, steel guitar, electric guitar, electric mandolin, string bass, piano, and drums. The beat literally follows a “swinging” rhythmic pattern – hence the name. Later influencing rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll, this genre eventually developed into the Glen Miller style swing which encompassed the “big band” brass sounds.