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My Fiddles

My Fiddles

I cleaned my fiddles today. I should say I wipe them down with a soft cloth after every practice session so rosin doesn’t cake up on the fiddle or the strings, but now and then I also use a violin cleaner and polish and try to do a better job of it.

The fiddle on the right is the family fiddle. It was given to my brother by our grandpa on our dad’s side, when my brother was a young tyke. Our grandpa used to make fiddles (this was not one of those, unfortunately) and repair fiddles as well, and he passed that skill on to Uncle Gene (yes I was named after him), who went on to make a name for himself making stringed instruments in the Chicago area.

The fiddle my brother was gifted is a German copy of a Giovanni Paolo Maggini violin. Apparently there were quite a number of Maggini copies made in Germany between 1880 and 1900 and I imagine this is one of those, although it could be a later copy as well. My brother took lessons for a while, from a teacher who was less than encouraging (I think my brother may have used the term sadist to describe him) and so the violin stayed in its case for over 60 years. We had a little bit of work done on this violin and I started to learn to play on it. It’s a loud fiddle with a somewhat harsh tone, but I’ve discovered that tuned to low cross-tuning – GDGD – it sounds pretty good and so I often play A tunes in G using that tuning. There are plenty of possible fiddle tunings:

  • FCGD = Cajun Tuning (one whole step down from GDAE)
  • GDGB = Open G Tuning
  • GDGD = Sawmill Tuning or “Cross G”
  • GDAD = “Gee-Dad”
  • DDAD = Dead Man’s Tuning, or Open D Tuning, or Bonaparte’s Retreat Tuning, or “Dee-Dad”
  • ADAE = High Bass Tuning, Old-Timey D Tuning
  • AEAE = Cross Tuning, “Cross A”, “High Bass, High Counter” (or “High Bass, High Tenor”), Cross Chord; similar to Sawmill Tuning
  • AEAC♯ = Black Mountain Rag Tuning, Calico Tuning, Open A Tuning, or Drunken Hiccups Tuning
  • AEAD for Old Sledge, Silver Lake
  • EDAE for Glory in the Meeting House
  • EEAE for Get up in the Cool

At this point, as I learn to play, I’ve been using cross-G, cross-A, standard tuning and high-bass tuning. I imagine I’ll eventually explore some of the other old time tunings. The biggest reason fiddlers use alternate tunings is to make satisfactory drone strings available beside the string the melody is on. Old time fiddle uses a lot of drones (compared to violinists but also compared to some other fiddle styles such as Canadian Old Time).

My other fiddle (I want to say my new fiddle, but it’s just new to me) has a much sweeter tone, and it’s an instrument I really love. It’s a Vuillaume á Paris violin. Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume lived from 1798 to 1875. His workshop made over 3,000 instruments. My instrument has been restored. It has a new fingerboard and tailpiece and pegs and it’s been refinished as well.

These days most of my playing time has been devoted to learning fiddle. In fact I have to make a point of playing banjo just to keep all the tunes I know top-of-mind. As I’m improving on fiddle, I want to play it more and more, so you might say I’ve been fiddling my way through the pandemic. I wish I had started as a kid! Starting to learn a difficult instrument at 60 is not easy, and when I started I was plenty enough discouraged by the steep learning curve. At the rate I’m learning, though, I hold some hope that after a couple more years I’ll be playing fiddle tunes decently well.

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