The violin is an incredible versatile instrument, and can express itself a wide variety of musical styles, emotions, and contexts. A creative and competent player will pour all of her or his culture, ideas, and personality into the instrument. The simple physical motions of dragging a bow across strings can tell a story of where someone’s passions lie, what hard experiences they have survived, and what is beautiful about where they come from.
Here is a non-hiearchical list of 10 randomly selected violinists and fiddlers who have especially spoken to and inspired me.
Joshua Bell –
Classical violinists are not simply robots who follow the composition blindly. A great violinist can reinterpret a work, making 2, 3, or 5-hundred-year-old works come alive and speak to us in the present. I am especially inspired by how Joshua Bell brings passion and meaning into every note he plays – allowing each bow stroke to breathe and communicate so much.
Tracy Silverman –
With a special 7-string electric violin and a loop pedal, Tracy turns himself into a one-man band with a competence few can match. His performances exude a spirit of cool and playfulness that captures the joy of music, and a delight in surprising us with his awesomeness.
Lakshminarayana (L.) Shankar –
The violin has made a distinguished contribution to the Carnatic, or South Indian, musical tradition. L. Shankar was trained in that tradition, but pushed it to it limits with a custom-built, two-necked violin. This enables him to create unique sounds, that often seem impossible for just one soloist. His improvisations will often extend a single note to the point it becomes meditative, and then play a flurry of fast notes, creating a kind of mental whiplash that can some of the most exciting things you will ever hear.
Regina Carter –
Born in Detroit and classical trained, Regina has shown skeptics just how well the violin can fit into modern jazz. Her solos truly “sing” and demonstrates the wide variety of sounds that can be pulled out of the instrument. Each of her albums has explored a different musical world, from West African, to songs inspired by playing Paganini’s violin, to favorite songs of her mother’s.
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra –
Once upon a time, classical music and pop music occupied radically different worlds, were played on different instruments by different people, and represented radically different understandings of what a piece of music “should” be like. In the 1960s, these assumptions got challenged and these worlds were brought together in several significant ways. One of the forces doing this was the music coming out of Berry Gordy’s famous Motown studios. Conducted and led by first violinist and concertmaster Gordon Staples, members of the local orchestra joined the Funk Brothers in the “snake pit,” and crafted deceptively simple musical lines that added incalculable depth and beauty to some of the most popular songs of their time. Listen carefully to what’s going on in the background and instrumental breaks to “My Girl” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” to hear how the right line from bowed strings can totally change the way a song sounds.
Andrew Bird –
Chicago-based violinist and songwriter Andrew Bird is another performer who has used extensive classical training as a jumping off point to something totally new. He moves effortlessly back and forth between the fiddle and his voice, blending the two to create a unique form of violin-driven folk music that is both totally new and deeply tied to the unique place the fiddle has had in crafting the American music tradition.
John Hartford –
A musical personification of the Mississippi River, Hartford played with a gentle, but slightly scratchy sound and extensive plucking that generated far more drive then his relaxed style initially let on. Blending old-time fiddle with Celtic and Scottish flourishes, and with the ability to dance in the middle of playing, his performances were among the most captivating I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing in person.
Scarlet Rivera –
Scarlet Rivera is the stage name of Donna Shea who plays in a rock, Celtic, and New Age style. She has played with a wide variety of artists and bands, but most notably with Bob Dylan, playing an extensive role in his 1976 album Desire. She wails, scratches, and trills with a lot of sounds a conventional teacher might tell you not to do. It matches Dylan’s swagger and lazy energy perfectly, and adds so much to the album.
Lili Haydn –
Lili is a rock violinist and vocalist who has shown herself to be adapt at a wide variety of musical climates and emotional journeys – capturing both the transcending beauty and the complexity and ugliness in today’s world. Her lyrical beauty and often hard edge often speaks directly to the heart, and betrays a deep creativity and an empathy matched by her tireless activism on behalf of women’s rights, the environment, and other causes dear to her heart. She was unable to play for almost five years, due to neurological damage caused by exposure to a pesticide – but came back stronger than ever, crediting music as “how I got my brains back.”
Vassar Clements –
Vassar Clements combined elements of bluegrass and jazz in a dizzying display of virtuosity he dubbed “hillbilly jazz.” His long, relaxed bow strokes enabled him to play more notes than I can sometimes process, but hearing it again helps me see how these “hot licks” are an act of genius. Truly a real artist who could amaze with both his technique and a deep lyrical passion for his music.