Bluegrass Your Fiddle Part 10

Bluegrass Fiddle Tuition by Rick Townend

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Bluegrass your Fiddle Part 10

Some "Tricks of the Trade"

As this will be the last in this series, perhaps it's legitimate to have a look at some of the things, not all technical, that bluegrass fiddlers can do to add to the feel of what they play, to keep their audiences (and themselves) amused, and generally to make their music and their show just that bit better and more exciting.

The bluegrass sound: a lot of the feel of Appalachian fiddle music is the wild, swooping sound imitating the wind in the mountains, eerie at times, and I feel that this is much of the essence of Bill Monroe's "high, lonesome sound". It's also really good for bluesy numbers, or making "'drunk" sounds in a comedy number. All of this is done by sliding your left hand finger a little while bowing the note. Often you'll start a note lower than you end up with—e.g. get to the D you want by starting with a C# or somewhere near it.

Noises: the fiddle can do good imitations of animals (e.g. mules), birds (especially chickens), trains ("Orange Blossom Special"'), cars ("Lee Highway") and, as I said above, a lot of the traditional music can sound like the wind in the trees or the rippling of a mountain stream. Some of these sounds are made by the usual method of playing the instrument, but you can get a lot of mileage in other ways: the strings behind the bridge give a nice squeak, you can tap the body of the fiddle with the bow for a wood-pecker bird-sound, and a wonderful gritty noise comes from rolling the bow against the back of the fiddle, with the hairs in between! There are also harmonics, which I covered in an earlier piece. If you'd like to hear a really wide range of noises the fiddle can make, get "Out of Amber" [SLAM CD205] by ARC (more like experimental jazz than bluegrass).

A traditional kind of percussion is for someone to tap the strings with knitting needles, or sticks while a fiddler is playing. There's scope for plucking with right or left hand fingers—Bill Clifton and also the Stanleys featured plucked fiddle breaks, and I sometimes play back-up chords on the fiddle, using it like a uke—I read that Benny Martin does this too. You can take the bow apart, and hold it round the fiddle (hair over the strings, wood under the back, tensioning it with your right hand) so that you can play all four strings at once. I play "It's a shame to play the fiddle on a Sunday" this way (based on a recording by Mike Seeger), using a GDGD tuning. It sounds just like a harmonium. Bob Winquist showed me a version of "What a friend we have in Jesus" as played by Johnny Gimble, this time in standard tuning.   Even without taking the bow apart, if your bridge is not too curved you can get a three-note chord (e.g. a train or steam-boat whistle—G,B & open E on the 1st, 2nd & 3rd strings). Finally, you can get some interesting sounds by singing while playing the fiddle: the traditional use for this is on the "Lost Indian" -playing and singing the "whoops" together; Tim O'Brien has a nice version of "Working on a Building", where he sings the lead, with the fiddle playing the harmony parts normally sung by other vocalists. I said "finally", but I'm sure I haven't covered everything.  Have a mess around, and see what you and your fiddle can come up with between you.

Tunings:  As 1 just said, GDGD (or AEAE) is one "cross-tuning" used by many old-limey fiddlers. It's great for those modal tunes which are based around one chord, or a drone in this case you have a lot of extra drone "Sally Goodin". "Shad)' Grove" or ""Shortnin Bread" like this. For the key of D. tune the E-string down a tone to D. and the G-string down a fifth, to a low D. The commonest use of this tuning is for "Bonaparte's Retreat" (across the Rocky Mountains!) - the fiddle sounds like the pipes playing a march. You could try '"Reuben's Train" in this tuning, and Tom Paley uses it for ""Midnight on the Water".   There is one other "standard" cross-tuning: AEAC#, used for "Black Mountain Rag", and the "Lost Indian". Again, this needn't be a complete list; if the mood takes you have an experiment with different ways of tuning the fiddle.

Performance: personally I try and stand as relaxed as possible—gripping the fiddle and bow only as much as I need to, to move the bow and stop the strings. A lot of fiddlers turn to Alexander Technique for help with posture; it's basically about using one's body efficiently, and at the same time looking good. Secondly, I've found my playing gets better if I'm not looking at my left hand. I sometimes watch the place the bow touches the strings, and try to listen to the quality of the sound it makes, and I also try to keep eye contact from time to time with whoever else is playing—or the caller, at a barn-dance; this gives me a chance to pick up the cues, which are sometimes tiny—a twitch of an eyebrow perhaps, that is a reminder to me that it's my break next, or that someone's forgotten the arrangement so can I please take the lead for a bit!

Creativity vs Craftsmanship: having my own ideas is the most rewarding bit of playing the fiddle. It's very enjoyable sometimes to set out deliberately to copy a nice piece or break by some-one else, but to feel "real" I have to know that what I'm playing is in some serious way "mine" - to "have ownership" of it in the modern jargon.  It does take practice—at playing, and I mean playing as in '"being playful". When I'm trying out something new, some, perhaps most, of what 1 come up with will be "crap" (not to beat about the bush), but it's worth persevering; if you keep trying it different ways, adding or taking away this and that, you usually come up with something that is worth adding to your store of useful bits for improvisations, or even developing into a complete instrumental piece. Craftsmanship—knowing where the notes are, manual dexterity, knowledge and experience of how to get the best sound out of your instrument—that's all important but, for me, it's not more important than that of creativity. Ideally the two can go hand in hand; it's not easy, but you may like to think about it.

When I'm performing well, I'm trying to get "into flow" -a state of mind where you have good access to the ideas and musical memories which make you a musician. Often this means that, while in this state, I'm rather worse at doing other things—e.g. the social niceties. I also find that the fiddle itself can respond to warmth, humidity, being played a lot, and several mystery factors which I'm working on right now.   Before I started to play the fiddle much, I was warned by various US players that fiddlers were a "funny bunch....sort of crazy and preoccupied"; now I understand from the other side what it's like, and just how nerve-racking playing the fiddle can be as part of a bluegrass band on stage. But it can also be a joy and, as Bill Monroe himself said, "the fiddle is very special: in some ways it is "the most bluegrass of all the instruments".

Good luck in your playing adventures Rick Townend


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