A fiddleharpa is a variation on the Swedish Nyckelharpa: a stringed instrument dating back to the fourteenth century. It consists of sixteen total strings: four are bowed, and twelve are resonant. A keybox is used in place of the fretboard, with keys in half-step intervals.
Unlike the traditional nyckelharpa, a fiddleharpa has four rows of keys and is tuned like a violin (G-D-A-E). This expands the range and allows fiddle players to maintain familiar finger patterns. Fiddleharpas are rare, even in Sweden, and they are nearly non-existent in the United States, with numbers barely reaching double-digits. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful-sounding instrument with plenty of untapped potential.
Fiddleharpa or Nyckelharpa?
The term fiddleharpa is actually a bit redundant. Nyckelharpa translates roughly to “key fiddle” in English. That makes fiddleharpa a “fiddle fiddle” in its most literal translation. Nevertheless, the term has stuck and 4-row harpas with fiddle tuning have become known as fiddleharpas. For discussion purposes, it is correct to refer to all of these instruments as nyckelharpas.
I chose fiddleharpa for my website in an attempt to stand out. As one of the only fiddleharpa players in the country, there is little competition and the title is unique.When I started, there were less than 200 Google hits for fiddleharpa. Perhaps someday that number will increase…
For more information on the Nyckelharpa, visit the American Nyckelharpa Association’s excellent website: http://www.nyckelharpa.org/
The Four-Row Nyckelharpa
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, there were a few people (Tord Johanssons, Erik Olsson, Karl Svensk, Lundin) who developed 4-fow nyckelharpas. These are essentially of two different kinds. Olsson and Svensk simply added a 4th row of keys, stopping the low C(4) string on a modern chromatic nyckelharpa ([second] picture). Johansson and his followers have inverted the rows of the keys, so that the highest string is stopped by the 4th row of keys, and the lowest string by the top row of keys ([first] picture). They also tune the 4 strings the same as a fiddle (G-D-A-E, from lowest to highest). This makes it easier for fiddle players to quickly pick up the nyckelharpa, as the fingerings are the same — leading some to call this variant the ‘fiddleharpa’.
Mechanically, it’s difficult to make a tangent on the 4th row stiff enough to produce good tone — it gets too long and gives too much. Johansson solved this problem by placing 2 rows underneath the strings, and 2 rows above the strings. It looks complicated, but isn’t really.
Despite these innovations, the 4-row nyckelharpa has failed to gain much popularity in Sweden during its first 30 years of existance. In contrast, the modern chromatic ‘harpa was already the dominant form in use by 1955, 30 years after that innovation. Perhaps 5% of the nyckelharpa players in Sweden today play the 4-row harpa.
Source: American Nyckelharpa Association