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So You Want to be a Bluegrass Fiddler

So, you want to be a bluegrass fiddler.

Some of the best advice I heard on this subject came from Butch Baldassari, mandolinist. He was speaking of the mandolin but the advice
applies to the fiddle also.

Butch said, “I really want to tell folks that before they can really get into bluegrass, they need to know lots and lots of fiddle tunes, maybe 100 fiddle tunes, and they need to be able to play them up to tempo without screwing up too much.”

Hey, wait a minute. Aren’t fiddle tunes bluegrass? Is there a difference between fiddle tunes and bluegrass tunes?

No, not all fiddle tunes come under the category of bluegrass music. I’m talking about typical old-time fiddle tunes like Soldier’s Joy, Whiskey Before Breakfast and Liberty, tunes the fiddler plays over and over as if you were playing for a square-dance. You can play them in a bluegrass band and then they become bluegrass music. You can also play them unaccompanied and then they are not bluegrass. Very quickly, a typical traditional bluegrass band has a five string banjo played in the Scruggs three finger picking style, an acoustic guitar, a bass, a fiddle, a mandolin, and sometimes a resophonic guitar. Somebody sings, preferably with some harmony singers. Listen to the recordings of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs to hear how traditional bluegrass music is supposed to sound. I’ll talk much more about that later.

Without a doubt bluegrass music played well can be addictive to the ear. I was 12 when I first heard a bluegrass band live. I knew right then and there that I absolutely had to learn how to play like that. I already played the violin and had a lot of the technical stuff down. I began taking old-time fiddle lessons from Vivian Williams, the fiddler in that bluegrass band I heard live. I learned every tune I could get Vivian to teach me. I followed her band around as much as I could, always listening and learning. Sometimes I got to stand in the back row of the band on stage when they played instrumentals for square dances, no microphone for me, just trying to play along and get the feel.

When I was 15 I got a chance to play in a bluegrass band that was just starting. I was horrible at it. Look back at the math. By now (age 15) I knew over 100 fiddle tunes. I had won seriously big fiddle contests. I was giving fiddle lessons to anybody who wanted them. I could not play this bluegrass music. Why not? Well, it is difficult to get it right! I went back to my teacher Vivian and asked her to record 10 fiddle solos for songs including Sitting On Top of the World and I Wonder Where You Are Tonight. I thought that would do it but no, there is all this other stuff going on when you aren’t playing your solo. I went back to the bluegrass records I had been listening to so far and began really studying what was going on with the fills and lack thereof. I practiced with these recordings and eventually began to get the hang of things. I directly copied note for note what I heard Kenny Baker, Byron Berline, Paul Warren and Jim Buchanan (to name a handful of them) doing behind the singers. Eventually I got pretty good at it.

I am telling you this story because I have taught folks how to play the fiddle for a long time now. It is not uncommon for me to get requests from enthusiastic and frustrated students about how to play bluegrass. More specifically I get requests to teach folks just what to do during this or that song, those elusive fills. Listen to me when I tell you that playing those fills and doing the fiddler job of making a lovely tapestry of sound with those other instruments and voices is very, very difficult and not for the faint of heart…….but it can be learned, obviously.

I think it’s a pretty sure bet that the really good bluegrass fiddlers that you can hear on recordings and at festivals have spent a lot of time listening to bluegrass both recorded and live. It’s kind of like losing weight. There isn’t a magic way around doing the work. I think problems arise when steps get skipped, like learning all those old-time fiddle tunes before tackling real bluegrass. Some do better with a list of tasks to follow so here is such a list.

Listen to a lot of bluegrass recordings, old bands and the newer bands until you can identify the difference between traditional bluegrass (Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse, etc.) and not so traditional bluegrass, sometimes called Newgrass and sometimes called progressive bluegrass depending on the player. (Newgrass Revival, older recordings of Nickel Creek, The Infamous Stringdusters, early recordings of Allison Krauss and Union Station, Hot Rize, Rhonda Vincent, etc.) Tricky, I know.

2. Practice playing the fiddle all the time. Quit your job, stay home and practice. Okay, maybe not. By practicing I mean actually work on the technical stuff so that the notes coming from the instrument sound fantastic.

3. Learn as many fiddle tunes as you possibly can. Learn them by ear. This involves listening to recordings of fiddlers playing said fiddle tunes. If you have a fiddle teacher that’s great but you should also listen to recordings. Here’s a list of popular jam session old-time tunes, some of which are played in bluegrass bands.

  1. Old Joe Clark
  2. Cripple Creek
  3. Liberty
  4. Soldier’s Joy
  5. Whiskey Before Breakfast
  6. Mississippi Sawyer
  7. Turkey in the Straw
  8. Chicken Reel
  9. Arkansas Traveler
  10. Fisher’s Hornpipe
  11. Little Rabbit
  12. Leather Britches
  13. Eighth of January
  14. Angeline the Baker
  15. Red Haired Boy
  16. Red Wing
  17. St. Anne’s Reel
  18. Bill Cheatum
  19. Cuckoo’s Nest
  20. Devil’s Dream
  21. Forked Deer
  22. Flop Earred Mule
  23. Blackberry Blossom
  24. throw some waltzes in here such as Tennessee Waltz, Kentucky Waltz, Oshokan Farewell
  25. throw some slow tunes other than waltzes in here such as Faded Love and Maiden’s Prayer

4. When you get at least 25 tunes under your belt at a good appropriate speed for dancing, find a recording of Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms played by Flatt & Scruggs with Paul Warren fiddling. Here’s a youtube link that was available at the time I wrote this. -Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, Paul Warren fiddling

“Sheesh!” you might be saying about now. Have no fear, it gets easier. If the fiddle solo on Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms is beyond where you are at the moment, learn the melodies to some bluegrass standards. Here’s a list.

  • All the Good Times are Past and Gone
  • Blue Moon of Kentucky in 3/4 time
  • I’ll Fly Away
  • In the Pines
  • Will the Circle Be Unbroken
  • Wabash Cannonball
  • Banks of the Ohio
  • Long Journey Home
  • I am a Pilgram
  • Blue Night

5. Throughout steps 1-4 of course you have been listening to bluegrass recordings night and day, in the car, in the shower, etc. Keep doing this.

If you have made it this far, you have tons of fiddle tunes in your tool kit by now. You are very familiar with different bluegrass bands. Back in the day when I stumbled through the learning process of being a bluegrass fiddler, there weren’t these situations called slow jams and bluegrass music camps and colleges that actually had bluegrass music as an offered major. There were lots of fiddle contests, however, and sometimes people played bluegrass in the parking lots and campgrounds. I learned quite a bit of stuff in those places.

Push on.

I think one of the best ways to get good at playing bluegrass fiddle is to get into a band, perhaps not a full-blown pro band but instead a band of folks at about your playing level and of a similar mindset. It’s really great if you can get together at least once a week to practice. Start with the basic good ol’ traditional bluegrass songs. Here’s a list.

  • Hot Corn, Cold Corn
  • Wabash Cannonball
  • Long Journey Home
  • Banks of the Ohio
  • Live and Let Live
  • Blue Moon of Kentucky
  • In the Pines
  • I’ll Fly Away
  • All the Good Times are Past and Gone
  • Dark Hollow

Do you see a pattern? Yes! You have already learned the melodies to most of these songs! See? I told you it would get easier.

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