Bluegrass Your Fiddle Part 4

Bluegrass Fiddle Tuition by Rick Townend

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Bluegrass your Fiddle Part 4

The "Mountain" sound

Last time I suggested a few ideas using double-stopping, but there are also a lot of good bluegrass sounds to be got out of just one string at a time , and these mainly revolve around the bluesy/mountain/high-and-lonesome elements of the music, although there are also places where a brighter or sweeter sound or even vibrato is just the right thing. It depends a lot on your personality and taste. As you play more and more, and with different people as well as on your own, you will develop your listening ability, and get better at concentrating on the actual sound you are producing and how it blends with the other sounds the rest of the band are making and how well it fits your idea of what the song or tune is about.

Traditionally, bluegrass lead instruments - including the fiddle - like on occasion to keep playing the notes of the main key-chord, even when the backing instruments change chord. For example [4.1] is the first half of an improvised break to a tune which has chords similar to, say, Earl's Breakdown: in fact the whole thing could be played with a G backing as far as the fiddle is concerned!

Many players also like to play the notes of the minor scale while the back-up is a major chord played by the guitarist - e.g. a Bb when the chord is G-major; this gives a nice rebellious feeling characteristic of the music and the people who originated it. [4.2] is the second half- throwing in a few minor notes for a bluesy effect.

Additionally you can, in contrast to the fretted instruments, play notes which aren't actually in the standard scale:  for instance, you can get a very wild, mountain feeling on a song like Little Maggie, by using a note somewhere between F and F# - you decide just where - instead of either of those notes, and also a note somewhere between C and C# - see [4.3] where I've used an 'X" to denote this 'half-sharp' note. Again this sounds fine - to my ear at least - on top of standard major chords on a guitar. You might experiment with playing the B notes slightly flat as well - not as Bb, but just a little way towards it.

If you're a real beginner I expect you have been playing scales in G and D as a way of getting to know the fiddle. You might like to try freeing up a bit by playing 'Reuben's Train' just with one left-hand finger, all on the D string, using your ear to tell you when you hit the right sound - whether it's a note in the standard scale or not! Try and play the open A string throughout, as well as the tune on the D-string: it'll help to keep you in tune and will sound good anyway. It might help you to get the feel of how some of these 'dirty' notes work, and how sliding up or down while bowing a note is a real part of the bluegrass sound.

Do remember, by the way, that learning the fiddle is largely a mental activity. There are obviously some physical aspects - you may develop some small muscles here and there, and thinking about posture may help your playing.  However, the main development you'll go through as you learn is in control of the muscles which make your fingers and bow-arm move, and in expanding the bit of your brain which deals with the musical ideas and creativity which you are taking on. So - respect your nerves! Give them a rest if they are not doing what you want - they're probably tired.

Give your 'instincts' a go as well as the logical side of your thinking. The ancient Greeks, before starting an improvised story-song, would often call on the Muses to help them sing it well; I can recognise this impulse - as can most of the fiddlers I've talked to about this. On some occasions, I remember feeling that something special was happening and that I seemed to have access to some ideas and sensitivities that normally seem beyond my reach. As a semi-professional player, I work at having a safety net which helps me not to 'fall off when playing in public, but I have found that to have a chance of playing something rather more inspired, it can help to relax first, and also perhaps to do something - anything - a bit out of the ordinary, just to get the ideas rolling.Music for part 4


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