Luthiers, the proper name for stringed-instrument makers, experimented for centuries to find a shape that would allow for the most beautiful violin sound possible. In the 1500’s, the traditional, elegant shape still used today was developed, and over the next two centuries the instrument was perfected by legendary violin makers including The Amati Family, Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, The Guarneri Family, and Antonio Stradivari.
In addition to the traditional violin known today, many modern violinists play other variations including Baroque violins, electric violins, rare regional instruments, and even five string violins. In this post, we’ll take a look at the different types of violin and their similarities and differences.
The Modern Violin (Classical)
The modern violin (also referred to as the classical violin) is one of the most iconic instruments of all time.
The one we’re familiar of today was developed at the end of the 1700s having evolved from older string instruments like Rabab and the Rebec.
Today, most violins are modeled after instruments from the 1500s-1800s, and many violinists can expect to see “Stradivarius,” “Guarneri del Jesu,” or “Guadagnini” on their instruments’ labels, as most modern makers pick one of these master-templates to emulate.
At the height of the classical music period, François Xavier Tourte, a French bow-maker, forever changed the world of violin playing.
His new bow, designed with a stick curved gently down towards the hair, allowed violinists to accomplish a huge number of new bow-strokes, particularly those involving the bow bouncing off the string.
Several other innovations changed the way violinists played their instruments, for example the invention of the chin-rest by Louis Spohr in the 1820’s, the invention of shoulder rests in the 1900’s, and the incorporation of metal strings to replace gut options.
The Baroque Violin
Baroque violins have a slightly different set-up than modern violins, though structurally they are very similar to violins used today.
The main difference was that they used gut strings, made from animal intestines, and had flatter bridges and fingerboards than is typically seen today.
Baroque bows were also different being curved outwards, and looked more like something to launch an arrow with than what we’ve come to expect in a violin bow.
Today, there are many musicians who enjoy playing in the baroque style, using a traditional baroque bow and a violin set up in the old style.
Even on a modern violin, performers interested in playing in a Baroque style can tune their violin all the way down to A415 Hz (way lower than the standard A440 Hz pitch ), achieving the low, settled sound of a Baroque violin.
For the most part, violinists will use the term “fiddle” to mean one of two things: a style of playing the violin, most commonly associated with Celtic, Bluegrass, or Country music, or just a casual way of referring to a violin (it is not uncommon to hear a classical violinist refer to their fiddle, or a fiddle-shop).
In fiddle music, musicians typically improvise on top of traditional tunes and chord progressions, joining ensembles which center on a common songbook.
Many fiddlers incorporate classical technique, while leaning on a strong harmonic knowledge to lead or accompany their band.
Most fiddlers play traditional violins, many use electric or electro-acoustic violins, and some even perform on rustic country violins, made by amateur luthiers.
Typically lacking a hollow body, an electric violin makes its sound by connecting a pick-up (small microphone) to the bridge, and collecting all the vibrations caused by the string, like an electric guitar.
The sound is transferred to an amplifier which sends the loud, electric sound out to the audience.
Many electric violinists try to make their instruments sound like an electric guitar, others use it simply to project their sound to a larger audience at greater distances.
Here’s a video of String Fever, a string quartet that plays on electric instruments.
Semi-acoustic violins are typically regular violins with either a pickup attached to the bridge, or a fully-customized instrument with electronics embedded in the body.
Some musicians use instruments outfitted with internal electronics.
Other string-players prefer to use external pick-ups, such as contact-mics which stick to the outside of their bridge or on the face of the instruments like the one below.
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The main advantage to semi-acoustic violins over electric instruments is the ability to maintain a smooth, well-rounded violin sound even while amplified.
With electric instruments, many musicians find that they have to change their approach drastically to find the sound they like.
The Hardanger Fiddle (Hardingfele)
The Hardanger Fiddle or Hardingfele is a Norwegian instrument that has 5 strings underneath the bridge that ring sympathetically if you play notes that relate to them, such as unisons, octaves, or perfect fifths.
When played properly, they have the exciting property of ringing independently to the violinist’s fingers, creating a drone underneath the tune.
One interesting note about the tuning on the hardingfele: the sympathetic strings’ notes provided Edvard Grieg with the opening to Morning from the Peer Gynt Suite.
Five-string violins bring the performer the powerful C string of the viola while maintaining the ease of the violin’s upper register on the E string.
While they have gained recent popularity, especially with electric violinists, five stringed instruments have long been members of the violin family.
During the Baroque era, five string cellos were not altogether rare, and even informed some of the compositional choices in Bach’s Cello Suites.
The Stroh Violin
Another oddity of the music world, the Stroh violin is the bright, brassy combination of a violin and a trumpet.
The Stroh violin was developed by John Matthias Augustus Stroh, a German engineer based in London.
The instrument was originally billed as a good option for recording violinists, as they could aim their sound more directly at the microphone.
Instead of generating sound in a hollow body, or using an electric pickup, the Stroh violin feeds the vibrations into a metal chamber connected to a horn.
The resulting sound has the of a trumpet’s blast, perfect for street performers or anyone who wants a volume edge in a large space.
Here’s a video of it being played so you can see how it sounds.
That’s it for the Different Violin Types
That about wraps up our article on all the violin types we know about, we hope you found it helpful.
Whether you play classical violin, bluegrass or Celtic fiddle, or another genre entirely, a violinist’s pursuit of individual sound is universal.
The more you know about the violin’s many forms, the more you can alter your sound to try to meet the instrument’s potential.
Even inside the beginner’s most basic violin, there lies the potential for the electric violinist’s buzz, the Baroque violin’s nostalgic touch, the Stroh Violin’s brassy fanfare, or the fiddler’s twang.
All that it takes is a keen ear, a bit of imagination, and practice!