I grew up in the "classic rock" era, but I love music of every genre. I love sharing my old favorites while still discovering new artists.
Is a Fiddle Different From a Violin?
The short answer is, not much. The body of the instrument is the same but the set-up may have some minor differences.
The main difference is in how they are played. Violinists precisely follow a written piece of music, where fiddlers tend to improvise. Fiddle players also use techniques such as string bending and different bowing techniques.
I have noticed in researching this article that many of these fiddle players started with violin lessons when they were children. Some still play both what sounds like what I would call violin tunes and what sounds like what I would call fiddle tunes.
My Top Ten List
These are some of the best contemporary fiddlers I know. Contemporary meaning that they are currently active. That's not to take anything away from the amazing fiddlers of the past. Vassar Clements was amazing, and I love Doug Kershaw, but he hasn't been very active in the past 20 years.
Sadly, we lost Charlie Daniels in July of 2020. These are current faces of the fiddle. Styles vary wildly, from Zydeco, blues, bluegrass, country. and traditional Celtic music to dubstep, pop, rock, and hip hop.
I have made no attempt to rank these. The order has more to do with my familiarity with each artist. I put them in as they occurred to me.
- Tom Rigney
- Alasdair Fraser
- Amanda Shaw
- Lindsey Stirling
- Natalie MacMaster
- Sara Watkins
- Martin Hayes
- Ron Stewart
- Jenee Fleenor
- Paul Anderson
1. Tom Rigney
A part of the San Francisco Bay Area roots music scene for more than thirty-five years, Tom Rigney is an electric violinist and Cajun fiddler. He is the leader of the American roots music band, Tom Rigney and Flambeau, one of the hottest bands in American Roots music today. A blend of Cajun, blues, and Zydeco, Tom Rigney's electrifying fiddle is the beating heart of the band.
Tom is a native of the Bay Area. His music career began when he became the leader and fiddler for Back in the Saddle, a Bluegrass/Western Swing band. He then toured the world with Queen Ida’s Bon Temps Zydeco Band in 1983 and 1984. That was when he fell in love with Louisiana dance music.
He went on to form his own band, The Sundogs. They played and recorded together for 15 years. They released seven CDs, including two on the Rounder label. Their last record, Dancing Room Only, spent eight weeks on the Americana Radio charts.
Tom, his violin, and his signature red cowboy boots have been leading Flambeau since about 1998. He has become one of the premier blues and roots music violinists in the world and is a prolific composer of powerful and compelling music for the violin.
"House of the Rising Sun" Performed by Tom Rigney and Flambeau
Tom Rigney Discography
- Unleashed (1989)
- Howlin' (1992)
- To the Bone (1994)
- Wild Season (1995)
- Heavy Petting 1996)
- Dancing Room Only (1998)
- Bon Temps Noel: Swamp Beat Christmas (1999)
- Red Boots and Rice (1999)
- Off the Hook (2006)
- Serious Fun (2009)
- You're the One (2012)
- Swamp Fever (2014)
2. Alasdair Fraser
Alasdair Fraser is a keeper of the flame for the Scottish fiddle music tradition. His mastery of his instrument and deep understanding of his native music is an inspiration to generations of musicians.
Alasdair was born in Clackmannan, a small town in the central lowlands of Scotland, on May 14, 1955. He began taking classical violin lessons at the age of eight; he had a natural aptitude for the instrument.
In his teens, Alasdair played with dance bands and learned the music of great traditional Scottish fiddlers including Niel and Nathaniel Gow, William Marshall, and James Scott Skinner.
He began a career with British Petroleum, and that job took him to northern California in 1981, but he was still drawn toward music. He left that job to follow his muse. Besides making music, Fraser feels compelled to pass on his passion and skills to others. In 1984 he founded the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle Camp, which he still directs today. He later established Sierra Fiddle Camp, near his current home in the Sierra Foothills.
Alasdair has collaborated with many talented musicians, including duos with pianist Paul Machlis, guitarist Tony McManus, and his acclaimed band Skyedance. He has played with The Chieftains, The Waterboys, and Itzhak Perlman; he has also been featured on broadcasts including A Prairie Home Companion and CBS TV’s Kennedy Center Honors. He contributed to film soundtracks including The Last of the Mohicans and Titanic.
Since 2003 Alasdair has been in a duo with cellist Natalie Haas. Their music pays homage to the wee fiddle and big fiddle partnership that flourished in eighteenth-century Scotland.
"Farley Bridge" Performed by Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas with Nic Gareiss
Alasdair Fraser Discography
- Portrait of a Scottish Fiddler (1982)
- Skyedance, with Paul Machlis (1985)
- The Road North, with Paul Machlis (1987)
- The Driven Bow, with Jody Stecher (1989)
- Dawn Dance (1996)
- Way Out to Hope Street, with Skyedance Band (1997)
- Return to Kintail, with Tony McManus (1999)
- Labyrinth, with Skyedance Band (2000)
- Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle, Vol 1, with Paul Machlis (2002)
- Live in Spain, with Skyedance Band (2002)
- Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle, Vol 2, with Muriel Johnstone and Natalie Haas (2004)
- Fire and Grace, Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas (2004)
- In the Moment, Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas (2007)
- Highlander's Farewell, Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas (2011)
- Abundance, Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas (2014)
- Ports of Call, Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas (2017)
3. Amanda Shaw
This New Orleans-based singer and songwriter has a blazing fiddle style all her own, bold and edgy, with the emotion and passion of Cajun fiddle music, influenced by rock, traditional, country, blues, and pop.
Born August 2, 1990, and classically trained in the violin from the age of three, Amanda Shaw switched to playing a diverse amalgam of Cajun-rooted music before she reached her teens, and was soon leading her own band, "The Cute Guys," a seasoned group of country/bluegrass veterans the youngest of whom is three decades her senior.
Amanda Shaw's spirited performances draw record crowds when she makes her yearly appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Her first two CDs which are self-produced, Little Black Dog and I’m Not a Bubblegum Pop Princess, have been among the festival's top sellers. Amanda Shaw received a Big Easy Award for Best Female Entertainer at the tender age of 14.
She appeared in two Disney movies, Stuck in the Suburbs and Now You See It, in 2004 and 2005. Disney offered Amanda Shaw the title role in Hannah Montana, but she had other ideas. Following her musical dreams instead, Shaw accepted an offer to join Rounder Records. Two years later she debuted her third album, Pretty Runs Out. Billboard Magazine listed it as one of their “Best Bets of 2008.”
After Shaw's home was damaged in Hurricane Katrina she was one of the narrators in the film Hurricane on the Bayou, released in 2006. The film captured the culture and music of Louisiana and also features some of Amanda Shaw's music.
"Should I Stay or Should I Go" Performed by Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys
Amanda Shaw Discography
- Little Black Dog (2001)
- I'm Not a Bubble Gum Pop Princess (2004)
- Pretty Runs Out (2008)
- Good Southern Girl (2010)
- Please, Call Me Miss Shaw (2018)
4. Lindsey Stirling
I'm late to the party on this one. Apparently, Lindsey Stirling is a huge star, but I only recently learned about her. She probably the most currently popular musician on this list. She's the young rock star of the violin. She seems to always refer to herself as a "violinist," but it sounds a lot like a fiddle to me.
She plays a variety of music styles ranging from classical to pop, rock, and hip hop. She plays covers and original songs. She also performs elaborate and dynamic dances while playing. Lindsey has attracted a young audience who would not usually have been interested in violin music.
This musician, songwriter, and dancer was born on September 21, 1986. She grew up in Gilbert, Arizona, and began taking violin lessons when she was five-years-old. When she was 16, she and four friends formed a rock band called "Stomp on Melvin." Stirling also played with Charley Jenkins Band for about a year.
In 2010, she was a quarter-finalist on America's Got Talent. That got her noticed by cinematographer Devin Graham. They collaborated on a YouTube video together. They did a music video for her song, "Spontaneous Me." The video increased her popularity, and she began regular posting of music videos on her YouTube channel, Lindseystomp. She has 11 million subscribers on YouTube.
In January of 2015, she was featured on the Forbes list '30 Under 30'. She was one of the few musicians featured in the list of top thirty recognized celebrities under the age of thirty.
She has collaborated with many other popular musicians and singers and released five albums.
"Roundtable Rival" Performed by Lindsey Stirling
Lindsey Stirling Discography
- Lindsey Stirling (2012)
- Shatter Me (2014)
- Lindsey Stirling: Live from London (2015)
- Brave Enough (2016)
- Warmer in the Winter (2017)
- Artemis (2019)
5. Natalie MacMaster
Natalie MacMaster was born on June 13, 1972, in Troy, Nova Scotia, Canada.
She was born into a family of fiddle players and she is married to fiddler Donnell Leahy of the Leahy Family Band. She has often played with him as a duo and they sometimes include some of their seven children in the act.
Her main musical focus has been Cape Breton fiddle music, but she has expanded her musical repertoire to include the music of Scotland and Ireland, as well as American bluegrass.
She has toured with many artists including The Chieftains, Faith Hill, Carlos Santana and Alison Krauss, and has recorded with Yo-Yo Ma. She has appeared at the Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton, Celtic Connections in Scotland, and MerleFest in the US.
"Volcanic Jig" Performed by Natalie MacMaster
Natalie MacMaster Discography
- Fit as a Fiddle (1997)
- No Boundaries (1997)
- In My Hands (1999)
- My Roots are Showing (2000)
- Live in Cape Breton (2002)
- Blueprint (2003)
- Yours Truly (2006)
- Cape Breton Girl (2013)
- One (2015)
- A Celtic Family Christmas (2016)
- Traditional Music from Cape Breton Island (2017)
- Sketches (2019)
6. Sara Watkins
Born in Vista, CA, on June 8, 1981, Sara Watkins sings and writes songs as well as playing the fiddle. In 1989, she and her brother Sean, along with their friend Chris Thile started the band, Nickle Creek.
Sara was only 8 years old when they started the band. Since Sean was 12 and Chris was also 8, the band members were home-schooled to accommodate their tour schedule. Sara literally grew up on the road.
The young band got a lot of support from established musicians. They met Alison Krauss when they were both performing at a music festival. Krauss offered guidance to the young band, and she produced their next album. They went on tour opening for Lyle Lovett in the summer of 2000 and Nickel Creek was Dolly Parton's backup band at the 2001 Grammy Awards.
Nickel Creek broke up in 2007. Sara signed as a solo artist with Nonesuch Records in fall 2008. She won "Instrumentalist of the Year" at the Americana Music Honors & Awards in 2016.
"Miles of Desert Sand" Performed by Sara and Sean Watkins
Sara Watkins Discography
With Nickle Creek
- Little Cowpoke (1993)
- Here to There (1997)
- Nickel Creek (2000)
- This Side (2002)
- Why Should the Fire Die? (2005)
- A Dotted Line (2014)
- Reasons Why: The Very Best (2006)
- I'll Fly Away: Country Hymns and Songs of Faith (2007)
With Watkins Family Hour
- Watkins Family Hour (2015)
- Brother Sister (2020)
With I'm With Her
- See You Around (2018)
- Sara Watkins (2009)
- Sun Midnight Sun (2012)
- Young in all the Wrong Ways (2016)
7. Martin Hayes
On July 4, 1962, Martin Hayes was born into a musical family in County Clare, Ireland. His father, P.J. Hayes, and his uncle Paddy Canny were both influential fiddle players
P.J Hayes began teaching his son to play the fiddle at the age of seven. At 13, he won his first All-Ireland Fiddle Competition, and he went on to win 5 more. As a teen, he joined his father's band the Tulla Céilí Band, and played in with them for seven years before making a move to the US in 1985.
He became active in the Irish traditional music scene in Chicago. He worked in bars playing any kind of music he could to earn a living. In the late '80s, he led a band called the Celtic Aires. In 1989 he joined with guitarist Dennis Cahill to form Midnight Court. They combined traditional Irish music and rock. The band was active until 1992.
Hayes and Cahill, are now members of The Gloaming, whose first album was released in 2014. He also performs and records with the group Tríur, and is a member of the Martin Hayes Quartet.
He has also played on many recordings with other musicians and still plays regularly with The Tulla Céilí Band, which his late father founded.
"The Sailor's Bonnet" Performed by The Gloaming Featuring Martin Hayes
Martin Haynes Discography
With P. J. Hayes
- The Shores of Lough Graney (1990)
Martin Hayes albums
- Martin Hayes (1992)
- Under the Moon (1995)
Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill albums
- The Lonesome Touch (1997)
- Live in Seattle (1999)
- Welcome Here Again (2008)
As a member of the Tulla Céilí Band
- A Celebration of 50 Years (1996)
- 60th Anniversary Celebration (2007)
Martin Hayes Quartet
- The Blue Room (2017)
With The Gloaming
- The Gloaming (2014)
- 2 (2016)
- Live at the NCH (2018)
8. Ron Stewart
Born on December 11, 1968, in Paoli, Indiana, Ron Stewart plays fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin in the bluegrass style.
Stewart began playing the fiddle at the age of 3. From 1977 until 1990, Stewart played in the Stewart Family Band with his parents.
He has won the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) award for Fiddle Player of the Year in 2000 and Banjo Player of the Year in 2011.
In his long career, Ron Stewart has played in many bands including:
- Curly Seckler (1989)
- Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers (1991-1994)
- Lynn Morris Band (1997-2003)
- J. D. Crowe and the New South (2003)
- Dan Tyminski Band (2007)
- Longview (2008)
- The Boxcars (2009)
- The Seldom Scene (2017)
"Blue Fiddler" Performed by Ron Stewart
Ron Stewart Discography
- Talkin' Fiddle Blues as Fiddlin' Ronnie Stewart (1979)
- Walking In The Moonlight as Fiddlin' Ronnie Stewart and the Stewart Family (1982)
- Time Stands Still (2001)
With Seckler and Spears
- Tribute to Lester Flatt (1989)
- Bluegrass Gospel (1989)
With Gary Brewer
- Guitar (1996)
- Nearing Jordan's Crossing (1996)
The Lynn Morris Band
- You'll Never Be the Sun (1999)
- Shape of a Tear (2003)
With J. D. Crowe and the New South
- Lefty's Old Guitar (2007)
- Deep in the Mountains (2008)
With the Boxcars
- The Boxcars (2010)
- All In (2012)
- It’s Just a Road (2013)
- Familiar With The Ground (2016)
With Seldom Scene
- Long Time... Seldom Scene (2014)
- Changes (2019)
9. Jenee Fleenor
In 2019, Jenee Fleenor was named the Country Music Association's "Musician of the Year." She was the first woman ever, and the first fiddle player in two decades, to win the coveted award.
Jenee was born in Springdale, Arkansas on February 27, 1993. She started violin lessons when she was three-years-old, but when she heard the western swing music of Bob Wills, she was drawn to the less formal fiddle sound. She became a fiddle player for the band at a local opry house when she was ten. That's when she became a huge fan of Mark O'Connor.
She moved to Nashville for college, but when Larry Cordle heard her playing with a bluegrass band, he invited Jenee to play with him. It was while playing with Cordle, that she began to sing and write songs. She quit college so she could tour, first with Terri Clark, then Martina McBride.
She loved doing session work in the studio, even more than performing on stage, but there wasn't much demand for fiddle players. At that time country music was heavily influenced by pop and rock, so she picked up the mandolin and acoustic guitar to help her find work. She got her big break when Jon Pardi asked her to play with him.
He was trying to land a major label deal with a hard country sound. Pardi and his co-producer, Bart Butler, urged her to take an aggressive approach on recordings. They wanted the fiddle to be a prominent part of the music. On his album Heartache Medication, the title track became a hit. It was his third album to feature Jenee.
In 2019, she released her own solo album, Fiddle & Steel. Jenee Fleenor now splits her time between working in the studio and backing Blake Shelton and Steven Tyler. She also performs regularly in the house band on The Voice.
"Good Ol' Girls" Performed by Jenee Fleenor
Jenee Fleenor Discography
With Jon Pardi
- Heartache Medication (2019)
- Fiddle & Steel (2019)
10. Paul Anderson
Paul Anderson is from Tarland, a village in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He learned to play on a fiddle he found under his grandparents' spare bed. It’s a French fiddle, made by Colin Mezin of Paris in 1893. It's the same fiddle he still plays.
Nobody in his household played. At first, the fiddle was just a toy, but by the time he was 9 years old, he really started to play. He had a teacher at school who taught him classical violin music, but he was never really excited by it. It was the Scottish music he had a feel for. He was inspired by TV and radio, and his parents had records of some of the great fiddle players, like Hector MacAndrew and Angus Cameron. He learned quickly and started winning competitions at the age of ten. That excited him and gave him the sense that he had found his calling.
Before long, he got a private tutor in traditional Scottish fiddle music. His teacher's name is Douglas Lawrence. He was regarded as the best traditional player of his era. Paul was so focused on his music, he gave up working on the family farm. His family supported his decision. Over the years, Paul Anderson has become a prolific composer, he has written over 300 pieces in the Scots style. He is also a dedicated teacher who takes pleasure in the accomplishments of his pupils.
Paul has been receiving cancer treatment after being diagnosed with high-grade Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in September of 2019.
As someone who has rarely had a day off due to illness in his life, the diagnosis was a shock, but the cancer was caught early and Paul has been told the prognosis is good.
He has said, “What I didn’t want to do was dwell on being ill. I have felt tired, and sometimes the last thing I have felt like doing is going and playing a concert, but once I start it gives me a noticeable lift, both in spirits and energy. The music certainly seems to help invigorate me."
I hope Paul Anderson will be playing his fiddle for a long time to come.
"Niel Gow's Lament For the Death of His Second Wife" Performed by Paul Anderson
Paul Anderson Discography
- Land of the Standing Stone (2013)
- The High Summit (2019)
- Beauties of the North (2019)
I hope you have enjoyed my list of some of my favorite contemporary fiddlers. I think the fiddle is such an expressive instrument, and it adds so much to a musical composition.
© 2020 Sherry Hewins
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 22, 2020:
While I am not a huge fan of blue grass music, I do like "fiddle" music. I think that takes a lot of talent. I enjoyed this article, Sherry. The videos were great also. This was very interesting.