Standard violins are small, wooden, four-stringed instruments which are played with a bow. They were first developed in the 16th century and largely retain their original form, although some features have been modified over time. There are several types of violin which differ significantly from the modern standard model, as well as historical violins (e.g. baroque), different violin sizes, and alternative violin set-ups (string tunings, bridge height etc..).
If you’re interested in learning more about different types of violin, then this is an article for you. We take you through key violin features and the main violin types you’re likely to encounter, as well as touching on alternative violin sizes and orchestral roles.
What is a violin?
The violin is the smallest and highest pitched string instrument. It has a versatility and range which suit a variety of musical genres, and it is one of the most important instruments in the classical orchestra.
Origin of the violin
The violin was developed as part of the “viole da braccio” (“viols for the arm”) family of musical instruments in 16th century Italy. Their name distinguished them from the superficially similar “viola da gamba” (“viols for the leg”) family of instruments which were all played in an upright mode similar to the modern ‘cello.
Invention of the violin is usually attributed to Andrea Amati, founder of the renowned Cremona school of violin making, although its exact origins are not completely clear.
Violin family members
The modern violin family members are the violin, the viola, the violincello / ‘cello, and (sometimes) the double bass. The instrument family names derive from the Medieval Latin root word “vitula”, which has become “viola”, and translates as “stringed instrument”. The violin is therefore a “little viola”.
Physical description of a violin
A violin is typically a hollow, hourglass-shaped wooden instrument with four strings, usually tuned in perfect fifths across the notes G3, D4, A4 and E5. Violin construction is a complex art which takes many years to master. Normally played using a bow drawn across the strings, the strings may also be plucked with the fingers (pizzicato) or struck with the wooden part of the bow (col legno).
Variations on this typical violin model also exist, including a five-string violin, and electric violins of diverse shapes and materials.
What are the main types of violin?
While we can certainly talk about a “typical” violin, not all violins are identical and there are several ways of arranging violins by type. For ease of thinking, we will consider the following violin divisions and models in this article:
- baroque vs modern
- electric vs acoustic
- fiddle vs classical
- five string vs four string
- Hardanger fiddle
- Stroh violin vs standard violin
- different sizes of violin
- orchestral violins
NB Some instruments will fall into several categories or somewhere in between (e.g. an electro-acoustic violin).
What is a baroque violin?
Violins as played between the 16th and 18th centuries are called baroque violins. Many of the world’s most highly-prized violins were constructed during the baroque era by famed violin makers including Amati, Stradivari, and Guarneri.
While they can be considered a distinct type, instruments from the baroque era do look very similar to modern violins at first glance.
What are the differences between a baroque and modern violin?
Differences between the modern and baroque violin can be subtle and inconsistent between individual instruments. The distinctions below provide a general guide to baroque violin features:
- Neck: the neck may be longer and angled differently.
- Fingerboard: the fingerboard is longer to facilitate playing in higher positions.
- Bridge: the bridge is higher and thinner.
- Strings: Until the 20th century metal strings were prohibitively expensive and gut strings were the norm for violins and other instruments.
- Bow: baroque bows tended to be shorter, and held by players in a slightly different position.
- Wood: ebony may be used for the fingerboard rather than maple, to better handle the higher string tension and neck angle.
- Chin-rest and shoulder-rest: Chin-rests and shoulder-rests were not a feature of early violins, which may have been held in a slightly different position to modern violins.
Taken together these physical differences make the sound of a baroque violin softer but also more resonant. Typically, a baroque violin is played in a “historical manner”, using a technique and musical style intended to resemble actual baroque performance as far as possible.
The modern violin’s shape and sound is the result of instruments being slowly adjusted to styles of music and performance in successive eras. Playing on a historical instrument, or a recent copy with historical shape and dimensions, can give you a better feel for how the music of its day might have sounded.
Once electric amplification was invented in the early twentieth-century, instrument makers and engineers began converting instruments to electric forms. The electric violin seems to have made its first appearance around 1920, coming onto the commercial market in the 1930s and 40s.
Like electric guitars, electric violins are generally solid-bodied, built with pickups that transmit string vibrations to an amplifier for broadcast of the sound.
A traditional wooden violin may be equipped with removable pickups to create a semi-electric or electro-acoustic violin. This option gives players an amplified sound with more acoustic tone than a normal electric violin.
Fiddles are essentially identical to standard violins but with characteristic differences in the instrument setup which give a distinctive sound. For example, fiddles are likely to include all-steel strings, fine-tuners for each string, and a flatter bridge.
Fiddlers might also choose an alternate tuning for their strings rather than the traditional GDAE, especially in traditional American folk music. Common alternatives include AEAE, FCGD and DDAD.
While most classical violins have four strings tuned to GDAE, there is also a five-stringed violin with an additional C string. The body of a five-string violin will typically be larger, giving greater resonance. This violin type is not generally used for playing classical music but might be found in more improvisational genres where the expanded pitch is useful (e.g. jazz, bluegrass or rock).
The Hardanger fiddle / Hardingfele
The Hardanger fiddle is a traditional Norwegian stringed instrument and close cousin of the standard violin. First appearing in the 16th century, it is thought to have been developed by combining features of the old Norse “fiðla” with early relatives of the violin family.
Structurally, the Hardanger fiddle has no interior linings, an almost flat fingerboard and bridge which enable easier playing of multiple strings, and a bass bar which is carved into the soundboard rather than glued.
Uniquely, this fiddle has eight strings but only four are bowed, with the other four vibrating sympathetically. The instrument can be played in a variety of tunings including the classical violin GDAE (with sympathetic strings tuned DEGA).
The Stroh violin
The Stroh violin is an unusual musical instrument which was developed by German engineer John Stroh in 1899. In appearance like a cross between a violin and a trumpet, the Stroh violin channels its string vibrations into a metal chamber connected to a horn. This gives an output with the volume of a trumpet.
The Stroh violin design was particularly compatible with the early years of musical recording. It produced a loud sound which could be easily directed towards microphones via the horn.
As well as coming in different varieties, standard classical violins also come in nine different sizes: 4/4 (full size), 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/10, 1/16, and 1/32. Violin size corresponds to the length of its body excluding scroll and neck, with a full size violin being 14 inches long.
Full-size violins are suitable for the vast majority of adults and teenagers, while smaller violins can be chosen to best fit children at different ages right down to 1-3 year olds.
While symphony orchestras include divisions of “first violins” and “second violins”, these are all the same instruments. First violins generally play melodies and higher-register lines of a score while second violins often play harmonies, textural passages and lower-register lines of a score.
The violin is a versatile instrument whose music can be varied and beautiful across a range of genres, no matter what type of violin is used. We hope our article has given you a good grasp of the different types of violin you might encounter in your musical journeys, and that you will enjoy playing or listening all the more with your new knowledge.