The Fiddle’s Fascinating Facets

Did you ever try to draw a bow across a fiddle?  If you can do it just right it will induce quite a beautiful sound… but it takes just the right touch.  And if you don’t have just the right touch, you get this heinous sound of tortured cats that we all associate with novice violinists.

In this chapter, I will be covering the devil’s instrument in some detail.  Let’s start with a few things you might want to know about bluegrass fiddling.

How does a bowed string make a sound?

I have often wondered why a violin string makes a sound when horsehair is drawn across it.  Hermann von Helmholtz pondered the same thing in 1877 and figured it out.  Here is a slow-motion video of a bowed violin string – one that von Helmholtz could never have made in his day

Fast forward to about the 1:00 mark and you can easily see the mechanics involved.  Turns out it is a slip / stick mechanism and it is just fascinating to see in slow motion.  A detailed explanation is in the footnote[1]

The Not So Basics

I have found that getting through the basics on the fiddle is quite a bit harder than the other instruments associated with bluegrass.  One of the first obstacles that the novice violinist is likely to encounter is simply holding the instrument.  You probably wouldn’t have thought of jamming an instrument under your chin as a way to hold it while performing.  However, this technique does seem to be the only way in which to secure a violin that frees up both hands for playing purposes.  Unless of course you are playing old time music, where any combination of chest, arms, legs and torso to secure the fiddle is considered legitimate. 

Once the violin is securely wedged under her chin, your fiddler will want to conjure up some good Helmholtz motion on one of her strings.  Producing a non-scratchy note is not an easy task.  First there is the bow grip, which is particularly awkward and difficult to do[2].  Once the bow is properly gripped, three independent variables must be addressed simultaneously while it is moving across the strings:

  1. The contact pressure must be modulated very precisely.
  2. Bow speed and direction must be controlled without any flutter or shaking.
  3. Distance of the contact point of the bow from the bridge must be maintained to a high degree of precision.

There are a couple of things that make this even more difficult than it might seem.   One thing is that the downward force due to the weight of the bow bearing down on the strings is not constant as it cycles thru the bow stroke[3].  Secondly you are dealing with hundreds of sticky horsehair fibers scraping against steel violin strings.  And you are holding the very end of the bow in a way that is anything but natural.  Further, think about the geometry of the human arm and hand, and how it must change as the bow is drawn across the strings.  Just about every one of the 37 joints in the right arm, wrist, hand and fingers are required to move in a highly coordinated fashion in order to achieve the required precision.  Believe me, it is much easier to manipulate a flatpick, easily gripped between forefinger and thumb and situated less than 1” away from a string that merely has to be set in motion with a single stroke.

You may have noticed the lack of frets on a fiddle fingerboard and this is indeed, yet another obstacle that presents itself to the inchoate fiddler.  Fingers must of course be precisely placed on said fingerboard to play in tune and this is quite a chore to do when your left arm is contorted like a pretzel underneath your violin.  Once the fingers have been placed, slid or hammered on in the right spots, the violinist must soften the note with a bit of vibrato[4] – and this will involve engagement of all 37 joints of the left arm, wrist, hands and fingers in another completely unnatural set of, in this case, pretzel-shaped movements.

All of the above must be mastered simply to eek out a decent rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  Have you considered playing a harmonica instead?

Intimating Intimidating Intonation

We mentioned in the last section that playing an instrument from the violin family is made even more challenging because it doesn’t have frets.  Unlike, say a guitar or banjo, the lack of frets on a fiddle forces the player to be continuously tuning each note by slight finger movement up and down the fingerboard. 

They now make these electronic tuners that clip onto the body of your fiddle so you can see the readout while you are playing.  This is a tempting way for a budding fiddler to get an approximate idea of where to put one’s fingers, but it is a bad idea to continue to use this technique to develop great intonation.  In order to see why, we will have to dip briefly into the complex topic of temperament.  No, not the bad temperament your fiddler has developed while learning the gyrations described above, but the good temperament of frequencies of sound to form western musical scales.

Very briefly, temperament can be defined as the tweaking of notes to be sharp or flat so that instruments can sound in tune in a specific application such as, say, bluegrass music.  There are several temperament schemes that are applicable to bluegrass music, the most important of which are equal tempering, Pythagorean tempering and just tempering. 

Your electronic tuner uses equal temperament, which allows an instrument like a keyboard or guitar to play in any key.  It is basically splitting the difference in all the keys and this averaging allows playing in different keys without retuning.  A fiddle, however, can do better than that and when playing melody, it sounds much better to use Pythagorean temperament.  That is, until two or more strings are played at once (called a double-stop) and in this case, in order to sound true, the fiddler will have to switch to just temperament.  A more detailed description is beyond the scope here but Dr. Sassmanshaus has an informative tutorial of these three temperaments if you are interested <link>.   We will also be covering temperament in much more detail in section III of this book.

31 Different Flavors of a Note

A single note produced on the fiddle has quite a few dimensions in addition to the obvious vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavors of pitch, duration and loudness.  Listen carefully for how a fiddled note starts – good violinists can, for example, choose to define the beginning of a note with an almost inaudible 50 millisecond “scratch” which gives the note considerable definition.  Alternatively, a fiddler such as, say, Kenny Baker, can choose to switch bow directions and make nary a sound, and doing so gives an impression of extreme smoothness and fluidity.  

Notes can be slurred by playing multiple fingerings in a single bow stroke.  Volume can be changed for dramatic effect during long bow strokes.  Trills, triplets and other decorations can be added fluidly at any point during a single bow stroke or with separate bow strokes without worrying about pick direction.  Generally speaking, none of these additional flavors are available to your plectrum holding peers, and when used properly by a competent fiddler, they enable the violin to be an extremely expressive instrument. 

The more general topic of how one might use bow motions to get these effects has been widely explored thru the ages by many a violinist.  These maestros have provided formal names for at least the 31 original Baskin Robbins equivalents for fiddle bow strokes, using such appellations as detaché, martelé, staccato, spiccato and of course legato.  I will again refer you to Dr. Sassmanshaus for an excellent tutorial on these techniques and more if you are interested <link>. 

Shuffling Through Various Bowing Patterns

Mandolin and guitar both have flatpicking and crosspicking patterns.  Scruggs style banjo has its various rolls.  The analog on fiddle would be bowing patterns, the simplest of which is a saw stroke.  Here, the bow changes direction with every note. 

As mentioned above, if you instead play two or more notes sequentially in a single bow stroke it is called a slur, and these are quite useful for smoothing things out – especially if you don’t have Kenny Baker’s ability to turn the bow around without anybody noticing.  Slurs are also essential in order to shuffle – no, not the dance but the bowing pattern.

There are a couple of shuffles that are used in bluegrass and old-time fiddling.  The Nashville shuffle, called “potatoes” for some strange reason when it is used to kick off a song, is characterized by one long bow and two short bow strokes.  It sounds like this:  do-dickey-do-dickey-do-dickey-do.   The long bow stroke (the “do”) consists of two slurred sixteenth notes (or a single eighth note) and then the short bows (the “dickeys”) are saw stroked as sixteenth notes.  Here is an easy to follow video on how to do it if you are interested <link>.  Things can get tricky when first learning to shuffle, however – the bow direction reverses on every other long note and it takes some getting used to.  Once a fiddler learns the Nashville shuffle, it is so cool that the tendency is to use it for everything.  This disease is called shuffle-itus and is surprisingly common among novice fiddlers.  I myself suffered quite a long bout of it early on. The only known cure is a combination of saw strokes and longbow.

Some old-time fiddlers use a variation called the Georgia shuffle – this is a pretty slick technique that consists of one short bow (usually a down stoke) and a long bow (upstroke).  The short (down) bow is a single sixteenth note and as many as three slurred sixteenth notes can be played with the long (up) bow.   Obviously, the velocity of the bow is quite a bit higher on the short downstroke, since it has to cover the same distance as the upstroke in 1/3 of the time – this gives that note an automatic emphasis and represents another form of syncopation.  It is quite catchy but hard to initiate.   Here is a pretty good instructional video on how to shuffle the Georgia way if you are so inclined <link>.  

If you are more generally interested in these and other shuffles, there is quite an extensive thread on the Fiddle Hangout, and I’d urge you to read thru it <link>.  

While we are shuffling it might be good to cover the double shuffle.  This is known by various other names, including triple shuffle and hokum bow.  Here we have again the highly syncopated pattern of beating three against eight that we saw in the mandolin and guitar crosspicking and then again in our discussion of Scruggs style banjo.  The best place to hear some hokum bow is during the climax of the fiddler’s showpiece The Orange Blossom Special.  Here is a link to a video of my friend and fiddle virtuoso Annie Staninec playing the aforementioned standard, including a highly impressive triple shuffle. 

I will conclude this section with a few words on bow direction.  In bowing, as in flatpicking, it is desirable to have a downstroke coincide with the downbeat[5].  This is because the downstroke is naturally much more powerful and will lend the right feel to the music when executed at a downbeat.  However, as can be observed by trying to use the bow patterns described above in an actual song, it is impossible to strictly always follow the downstroke on the downbeat rule.  Note that this is most unlike flatpicking a guitar or mandolin, where it is mandatory to follow the down-pick on a downbeat rule (with a couple of rare exceptions).  So, for fiddlers, I have a similar but slightly more nuanced recommendation.  My suggestion is to work one’s bowing by being flexible when playing most notes… i.e. have freedom to choose up or down as seems to fit the tune and/or the pattern.  However, always make sure that the bow direction gets back to be a downstroke on important downbeats[6].  An example of an important downbeat would be a note at the beginning of the A part or B part of a fiddle tune or perhaps at the beginning of a distinctive phase.  This approach will leave a good deal more freedom of how to bow the intervening notes, which will be needed in order to accommodate all of the various bowing patterns that are described above.

Putting Theory into Practice

It is said that a good bluegrass fiddle break[7] consists of lots of longbow. True that.  It involves lots of bluesy licks.  Also, true that.  Chubby Wise set early precedence for this back in the 1940s with Bill Monroe’s seminal bluegrass band and excellent fiddlers have continued the same.  There is no better way to learn about bluegrass fiddling than to listen to it.  Let me conclude with a list of my favorite bluegrass fiddlers and include a few comments on each. 

  • Kenny Baker – really smooth, classic style, set the standard for bluegrass fiddling.  A highly recommended CD is the classic Kenny Baker plays Bill Monroe.  This is mandatory listening.  Kenny recorded many other instrumental CDs.  He was with Bill Monroe for something like 20 years and passed away relatively recently.
  • Bobby Hicks – among many other things, Bobby played on a series of bluegrass albums called The Bluegrass Album Band.  This is the archetypal fiddle and also mandatory listening.  Bobby’s contribution on these recordings is bluegrass fiddling at its finest.
  • Benny Martin was one of the original Flatt and Scruggs fiddle players back in the ‘50s and defined some really archetypal licks that are widely copied even today.
  • Paul Warren, also one of the Flatt and Scruggs original fiddlers back in the 50’s and 60s – set the standard for smooth fiddling pre-Kenny.
  • Vassar Clements – one of Bill Monroe’s fiddlers, Vassar had a more relaxed and distinctly bluesy style.  Became one of the “old and in the way” (Jerry Garcia, Peter Rowan…) hippy movement. Vassar passed away some time ago.

There are many more fiddlers that are or were highly influential in bluegrass: All are worth checking out.  Here is a partial list:

  • Aubrey Haynie
  • Michael Cleveland
  • Stuart Duncan
  • Alison Krauss
  • Andy Leftwich
  • Ricky Skaggs
  • Jim Van Cleve
  • Benny Simms
  •  Jim Buchanan
  • Curley Ray Cline
  • Howdy Forrester
  • Byron Berline
  • Scotty Stoneman
  • Arthur Smith
  • Mack Magaha
  • Art Stamper
  • And of course, the aforementioned Chubby Wise

This concludes the five chapters on the standard bluegrass instruments. (I don’t play resonator guitar or Dobro, so I don’t feel qualified to cover that instrument.)  In the next chapter, I’ll be exploring the human voice, three-part harmony and other important aspects of singing in bluegrass music.





The Bluegrass Voice

[1] First, the bow sticks onto your strings and tugs at it so it is pulled into a point.   When the side force of the extended string exceeds what the horsehair can hold, it slips.  This causes a triangular wave to propagate towards the bridge.  Upon reaching the bridge, the wave reflects and inverts.   When the inverted wave gets to your bow again, since it is now causing the string to move in the same direction that your bow is slipping, and it helps the bow gain traction and stick again.  The triangular wave continues to propagate towards the nut, reflects off the nut and re-inverts.  When this wave reaches your bow again, since it is now pushing the string in the opposite direction that the bow is moving, it initiates another slip… and then the cycle starts all over again.   This slip / stick cycle happens at exactly the resonant frequency of the string which is the frequency of the note that you are trying to play.

[2] The tip of your right thumb touches the underside of the stick near the frog.  Flesh from your forefinger applies downward bow pressure while the very tip of your right pinkie provides a countering force (think teeter-totter).  Your middle finger and your thumb somehow act as a fulcrum between the forces applied by your pinkie and your forefinger.  And you are controlling all six degrees of freedom with this grip of the stick.

[3] The force exerted by the weight of the bow onto the strings is not constant.   As your bow transverses the string, there is an ever-changing cantilever force provided by the portion of the bow that remains hanging out over the violin.  When you are at the top of your bow stroke, you have nearly the entire bow leveraged over the strings and therefore the force on the strings due to gravity is high.  At the bottom of the stroke, nearly none of the force on the strings comes from the weight of the bow, and your hand must supply it instead.

[4] Vibrato is even more effective than you might think because of the jagged frequency spectra that violins have and the way that the sound is distributed into space.  When you change the frequency of the note even ever so slightly with the tip of your finger, the odds are that the note will transition thru many of these jagged amplitude peaks in the frequency response curve.  In addition, the spatial distribution of sound will change dramatically as well.  These two effects will make the sound of the fiddle really sparkle and is the source of much of its magic. 

[5] Note that there is a lack of consensus in the fiddle community on this topic.  In fact, I have heard several so-called “any-which-way” bowers that sound quite good – these are fiddlers that do not abide by the downstroke rule.  I’ve also heard a few good “up-bowers” who perform the opposite of the downstroke rule.  But if you are just starting out, I personally strongly recommend adopting a down-bowing style.

[6] Note that this will usually entail ensuring the bow stroke right before an important downbeat consists of an up-bow.  This is to avoid a dreaded circle bow motion where the bow must be lifted off the strings and returned at a higher place so another down-bow can be started without running out of bow.

[7] Bluegrass fiddling is a very specific kind of style.  Typically, it is used to accompany bluegrass singing songs where the fiddle plays backup and then will take an instrumental break / solo when it is the fiddler’s turn.  A typical bluegrass break in a song (vocal number) would be composed of lots of longbow (legato) and maybe some “saw strokes” – the better fiddlers do this in a detaché kind of style.  Some songs are “modal” (containing a flat 7th) and many are based on a blues (minor) pentatonic scale.  Other bluegrass songs are more major and stick to the diatonic notes with lots of emphasis of the _major_ pentatonic scale notes and a few passing dissonant notes and/or brief interesting patterns (often out of key) which are quickly resolved.  Bluegrass instrumental tunes tend to be derived from old time fiddle tunes but are more up tempo and tend to be in A or G or even B instead of the “old timey” keys of C and D.