Bluegrass Your Fiddle Part 5

Bluegrass Fiddle Tuition by Rick Townend

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Bluegrass your Fiddle Part 5

Decoration, Improvisation and Composition

These words are jargon describing various musical activities, all of which are parts of what a good inventive bluegrass fiddler does, and if you don't like jargon you can just ignore them and get on with being good and inventive. However, if you like analysing what you do, this article may be of interest; anyway, it's given me a heading!

I feel the first two are both pretty intrinsic to the nature of bluegrass fiddle - and improvisation can merge into composition. You'll often hear the same tune played by two different fiddlers, using very different notes and phrasing, giving a different feel in each case. Likewise, though a player may use basically the same ideas for a break each time the band does a song, it is an acknowledged freedom within the bluegrass 'canon' for him or her to change the ideas they use - and upon the spur of the moment if they feel like it.

Decoration and Improvisation again are not totally separate ideas - there is a grey area where they both come into play - but they represent different aspects of making music. Decoration is what it says it is - adding or changing a tune or theme to make it more fancy or attractive.  It's often worth posing the question to yourself, when you approach a tune or break, as to what the basic melody of it actually consists of.  If you buy, say, the Fiddler's Fake-book, and look at what they suggest for the Soldier's Joy, you are likely to find (I don't have it in front of me as I write) quite an elaborate little piece. How much of that could you leave out and still have it recognisable as the Soldiers Joy9 Probably everybody will come up with a slightly different answer, and you may change your thoughts about it over time. However, I think it's worthwhile asking the question, as once you have sorted it out (by trying various ideas out) you can then decorate that basic tune to your own taste - or not, as the mood seizes you.   For interest, [5.1] is my own idea of the utterly basic Soldier's Joy.

One idea, which I broached in the first of these articles, is not to decorate at all for the first part, and then to let rip at the end.  I know from personal experience that this does work well: it keeps the audience in suspense and then surprises them. It also gives you, the player, an opportunity to get the feel of the moment - the mike, the lights, the timing, the feel of the way the rest of the band are backing you up, the mood of the audience, your own response to their attention (adrenalin etc.) - before you call on yourself to come up with anything really complex in a technical way. So it's a particularly good plan for numbers early on in a performance.

Types of decoration: bluegrass fiddlers mainly use variations on the main theme using running quavers a lot of the time. You can 'expand' a longer note by playing a little phrase of shorter notes which hover round it and actually hit it on the last quaver; you can use arpeggios (the notes of the chord backing you at the time), or the pentatonic scale*. You can throw in licks imitating the banjo style - groups of three notes repeated. You can use triplets to vary the rhythm. See [5.2] to [5.4], which cover traditional styles of decoration for Old Joe Clark, Cripple Creek and Over the Waterfall.   Some tunes even in their most basic form are already so involved as not to require or give much opportunity for melodic decoration - Turkey in the Straw, or Blackberry Blossom for instance. How­ever, you can still get quite a lot of mileage from adding a note or notes from a second string (as detailed in Bluegrass your Fiddle - 2). You can also borrow decorations from other traditions - e.g. trills from Irish or vibrato from classical; you have to be the judge of whether it works in the situation you are trying it out in.

Improvisation often uses decoration, but is a different idea really. Whole books have been written about this topic, but to my mind the nub of it is this: you decide what you are going to play at the time you play it. Whether it is good music or not depends on a variety of things, including who is saying whether it's good music or not, but the essence is that it is your music. When I say 'at the time you play it' I mean just before: I think it was Duke Ellington who said he worked about half a second in advance - that's about right for a good musician with a lot of experience. What is implied by 'decide what you are going to play' is that you have in your mind at least two options. There is usually the option of playing something really simple, so this isn't such a headache as it might sound, but in practice, as you get better at improvising you will develop a bigger and more sophisticated mental area for holding musical ideas and getting at them when you want them. You'll also develop a familiarity with your own instrument which will put you nearer that desirable state of appearing not even able to play a wrong note!

'Musical ideas' therefore don't have to be yours - although as you play more and more freely you will inevitably start having them: what is yours is the decision to use them on any particular occasion.  If you are intrigued by the idea of improvising but don't yet consider that you do it, you could try playing a straightforward sequence that you know, perhaps a twelve bar blues or the 'Bury me beneath the willow' chord pattern, having a number of possible licks in your mind, and choosing different ones each time you go through. I've set out a few suggestions for two-bar phrases that you might try to bring in, in G, C and D [5.5]. You may not like what I've written out there, and you're quite welcome to write your own - indeed I'd recommend you do - but remember that it's not quality you're going for in this 'exercise' but practicing decision making while-you-play.

Composition can come out of improvising, but doesn't have to.  Again, the idea of 'a-tune-in-its-simplest-form' is a handy one to have in mind. You may not be interested in composing new tunes: it's perfectly reasonable to say ' there are already enough bluegrass fiddle-tunes' - but I'm really glad that all those fiddlers like Kenny Baker, Ervin Rouse, Vassar Clements, Tommy Jackson and many more didn't take that attitude. Why not have a go and enhance your own and your band's repertoire.

There are lots of aids to composing a new tune, and you can get hold of books about it in your local music shop or library.  However, a big factor is 'getting a start', you may be lucky, and actually have a phrase start jigging around your head as you walk along, or something like that. There are other ways: for example in her song-writing sessions Rosie Davis often uses this idea to prompt a tune: assign a musical note to every letter of the alphabet (some notes will have more than one letter - write them out on a grid), then convert some word - your name perhaps - into notes; play or sing this phrase a few times, trying out different tempos or rhythms, and you'll probably start having some ideas.  It's important at this stage not to get judgemental: just keep playing with the phrase or phrases that come along, and note them down (you can use conventional dots, but a cassette recorder is just as good).  Hopefully at some stage you'll find that you start really caring about your new tune, and that particular parts of the music will matter to you so that you will tend to keep them intact while you concentrate on trying changes elsewhere.

Later - maybe days later, when you've had a good explore of all that you've come up with - is the time for the knife (not the hatchet unless you really do dislike all of the tune in the clear light of day). Have a think again about what the real distilled essence of the new tune is, and try brutally pruning off everything that isn't necessary. Then try adding bits back on till you've arrived at something which you feel happy to play, and which doesn't feel padded out with bits which are only there because you've written them. Then you could take it to your band, who will hope­fully be positive.  If they're not, remember that other bluegrass musicians often have fairly idiosyncratic views about 'what is bluegrass', and that sometimes they cannot see how a new tune (any new tune) will fit that world-view - unless of course they hear Alison Krauss, or Mark O'Connor playing it, in which case it will of course be 'a wonderful new idea which no one but Alison/Mark could have thought of.   Of course, you could always send a tape of your tune to Alison Krauss or Mark O'Connor and hope they record it some day; or you could just accept that you can never please all the people, and remember - you like it!

Lastly, a hallowed tradition for getting a start on a tune of your own is to pinch a bit from someone else's tune (not necessarily the lot, though this has been tried). By the time you've knocked it about a bit it probably won't be recognisable, but it will have got you started.   To conclude this rather long article -sorry editor - [5.6] is a waltz I wrote when we were in the studio and needed a fiddle tune. Bob Winquist played it on the recording, and since then it's become quite a favourite, although it still hasn't got a proper name.  I took the notes of the main theme from an O'Carolan piece - I hope he doesn't mind!

*Pentatonic scale - usually notes I II III V & VI of the major scale - in G this would be G A B D & E. Examples of tunes played mainly on these notes are Cotton Eyed Joe (in A - uses A B C# E & F#) and Angeline (in D - uses D E F# A & B). You can get a good Appalachian mountain sound, however, by using a different pentatonic scale: I II IV V & Vllb - e.g. using the notes G A B D & E (as for the key of G above), but this time in the key of A. Try it out and see if you can use it, say on an old-timeyish version of Shady Grove. Music for part 5


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