Bluegrass Your Fiddle Part 1

How to play Bluegrass Fiddle, easy guide by Rick Townend

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How to play bluegrass fiddle- easy guide by Rick Townend


This article by Rick Townend was first published in the British Bluegrass News Magazine as a series in 10 parts. In it, Rick describes the techniques, attitudes, and methods that make fiddling right for bluegrass. He covers such things as "licks", double stops & drones, shuffles, rhythms & syncopation, the mountain sound, decoration, improvisation and composition, bowing techniques, Nashville shuffle, Cajun-sound bow, Georgia bow, twin fiddles, and many tricks-of-the-trade.

To see the other parts use the NEXT> button at the bottom of the page or you can jump to them from the links below:

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10

Bluegrass your Fiddle Part 1

This is intended to be an occasional series of articles about the sort of techniques, licks and attitudes that make fiddling sound right for bluegrass.   I should state right here that my own tastes extend fairly widely, but centre round the 'classic' 40s - 60s sound of players like Chubby Wise, Tommy Jackson, Gordon Terry, 'Curly' Ray Cline, Joe Meadows, and Ralph Mayo. Today this style is still played by 'traditional' players such as Art Stamper, who came over here with Ralph Stanley a few years ago.

In this issue I'll talk about some licks (musical phrases) in the key of G that are typical bluegrass fiddle. G as a key feels a bit less 'old-timey' than A or D, but is popular with banjo-players and is right for many songs, and there are some sounds available which are central to the bluegrass sound. For the examples in the attached table I'm using standard musical notation; see [1] for a brief explanation - if you need more instruction in reading 'the dots', I suggest you visit a library or music-shop. Most of the notes in the examples are played in 'first position' (left hand at the far end of the neck). By the way, I won't talk much about bowing here - all the licks can be played 'saw-stroke', each note played with a separate right-hand movement, although as you get faster you may well find a smoother bowing style comes naturally.

Music examples 1

Perhaps here is the time to set out an axe I grind every now and then in workshops - and this applies to all instruments, not just the fiddle: the end is more important than the beginning! A break is usually much more exciting if it goes out on a high than if it starts on a high and then goes downhill; so let's start with some endings:

[2] is a typical last-two-bars of a four-bar tune like the first half of Cripple Creek. The last bar is the one I found the hardest to do when I learned it; the awkward bit is the need to keep the bow crossing from the A to the D string, which I found really difficult to play up to speed, even using 'saw-stroke'. In the end I found I just eased into it (after a long time) by relaxing my right arm and using a sort of flick of the wrist.  [3] is an alternative set of notes for the same position in the music, which (in typical bluegrass-fiddler attitude) apes bluegrass banjo-rolls by repeating a group of three notes (in the first bar).  Mess around and invent some licks of your own which fit this part of Cripple Creek.

[4] is a fairly standard last line of a sixteen-bar pattern such as 'Roll in my sweet baby's arms'. It's actually taken from the playing of Joe Meadows on the Stanley Bothers' Starday recording of 'Highway of Regret'.

[5] is a hotted up last line which somehow can't put on the brakes quick enough and spills over into the next bar. You use your left little finger to play the B note on the E-string in the first bar.

All of [2] to [5] can be improved in flavour by starting the first note before the bar actually starts, sort of 'leaning' into the end of the previous bar.

[6] and [7] are short repeated phrases which you can put into any bar of G - in backing up a singer for instance, where there's a gap in the song-words You'd probably play each group of four notes in one bow when playing at speed.

[8], [9] and [10] can all be tacked on to the end of a break. In [9] the first three notes are all on the D-string; after that all the double-stops are played on the G- and D-strings together. It's a more bouncy sound, used traditionally in 'Muleskinner Blues'.

[11] is a lick I'm really fond of, for really kicking in the next break or verse. I first heard it on Bill Clifton's 'Walking in my sleep' Starday track - 1 believe the fiddler was Carl Nelson or Cal Newman

Good luck! I'll try to be back with more in the next issue or so. To close, I'd like to thank the fiddlers who have helped me at various times to get over some of the difficulties I met in trying to learn this most exasperating of the bluegrass instruments - Roger Churchyard who was the first person I heard making the real bluegrass sound; Mike Seeger, who showed me how to play saw-stroke properly; Art Stamper, with whom I had the privilege of touring in the eighties, and especially Bob Winquist who put me right on a lot of things.


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