Instruments | Fiddle-Type Instruments | Stringed

Fiddles, generically, are bowed lutes. The term ‘fiddle’ denotes a stringed instrument with a neck, bearing strings that are sounded by the use of friction rather than plucking or striking.

Playing the Fiddle

In almost all fiddles the world over, friction is provided by a bow strung with rosined horsehair. The hair is tensioned by the springiness of the bow, or held in tension by the fingers of the player, or by tightening a screw mechanism.

The most common playing position for fiddles is to hold them not under the chin like a violin, but vertically, with the soundbox resting either on the knee or the ground, and bow them in a cello-like fashion (the bow-hand palm facing variously upward or downward). A few of the smaller ones are held horizontal on the arm, and a very few are played with the soundbox resting on the shoulder, the neck downward, and the strings stopped with the joints of the fingers of the left hand, held palm-inwards.


Spike-fiddles are essentially spike-lutes that are bowed instead of plucked. These instruments are found all over China. The most common is the erhu, a member of the huqin family. It has a small soundbox, cylindrical, hexagonal, or octagonal in shape, open at the back, with a snakeskin soundboard supporting a small wooden bridge. Its thin stick-neck is cylindrical with no fingerboard, and has two large wooden friction-pegs at the top. Below this, the two strings run through a loop of silk or nylon to form an adjustable nut, then onward across the bridge to the stub of the spike. The strings are stopped with the fingers, not pressed against the neck. The bow hair runs between the two strings, which are normally tuned to a perfect fifth apart – one feature that is significantly different from western fiddles.

The zhuihu or zhuiqin is descended from the Chinese lute sanxian, with the strings stopped by being pressed down on a flat fingerboard on its neck. Japan’s four-stringed kokyu is likewise a bowed version of that country’s lute, the shamisen, with a rounded-rectangular soundbox and neck bearing a fretless fingerboard, played with an unusually long bow.

Regional Variations

Other countries of East and Southeast Asia and Indonesia have spike-fiddles closely related to the huqin family. Korea has the haegum, Japan the kokin, Tibet the piwang, Tuva the four-stringed byzaanchy. Vietnam’s equivalents are the dan nhi or dan co and the deeper-pitched dan gao or dan ho, and Cambodia’s include the tro u, larger tro sau and, with bow-hair not passing between the strings, the three-stringed tro khmer. The Okinawan kucho, traditionally three-stringed, has recently gained a fourth. Thailand’s saw u and saw duang are very like an erhu, but the three-stringed saw sam sai is a rather different shape, with a rounded-triangular soundbox and long lower spike.

Indonesia also has spike-fiddles, which include the chunky two-stringed geso-geso and an...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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