Learning old-time fiddle requires a lot of research with your ears open to the past
By David Bragger
Traditional old-time fiddle and its mesmerizing bowing style have been my passion for two decades. Contemplating their nuances continues to occupy most of my waking thoughts. In addition to directing the UCLA Old-Time String Band Ensemble and teaching workshops throughout the year, I spend most hours of every day teaching private students how to play this elusive style. They’re musicians of all genres, both classical and non-classical, many of whom have played for decades with great frustration over learning old-time fiddle.
It’s always the bowing that mystifies them.
Before immersing myself in Appalachian music, I was a student of North Indian classical sitar and folklore. Twenty years ago, I returned home from a three-month trip in India. I was recording folktales, sleight-of-hand, and music from Gypsy magicians.
Then something life-changing happened: I inherited my great uncle’s fiddle. I decided to learn the “devil’s box” and I made every rookie mistake imaginable: I taught myself how to read music with some assistance from various “jack-of-all-trades” instructors. I stockpiled books and videos that promised to teach authentic fiddle and repertoire. I interacted with musicians who adamantly stated that playing folk music means you can do whatever you want and it’s still legitimately folk. My “Bible” was a fiddle fakebook—which is exactly that: fake.
After about a year I realized that I was sounding further away from the musicians that I admired. My learning process lacked the mentorship that I was accustomed to with other endeavors. When I studied Indian music, I studied under masters. I learned the music as an aural tradition. I absorbed repertoire and techniques that had been passed down for generations. Why should it be different when learning old-time fiddle?
“Through careful imitation I began to internalize their rhythms. And I finally became a fiddler.”
So I decided to seek out an old-time fiddle guru. I wasn’t in a position to know a good instructor from a bad one. Online videos and forums are saturated with novices doling out advice that can’t necessarily be trusted. So I asked famous old-time fiddlers for their recommendations. All of their fingers pointed to one person: Tom Sauber.
I also met an old-time fiddler in his eighties who grew up in the tradition: Mel Durham. Both he and Tom were from different generations and birthplaces yet they spoke the same language: bowing. I relinquished all control to my new gurus. Through careful imitation I began to internalize their rhythms. And I finally became a fiddler.
Within a relatively short period of intense study, practice, and obsession, I began to conjure the sounds of the great fiddlers, dead and alive: Tommy Jarrell, Edden Hammons, Bruce Molsky, Kirk Sutphin, Dan Gellert, Jim Bowles, Rafe Stefanini, Melvin Wine, Clyde Davenport, and others.
I visited old-timers and studied their playing. Interestingly, some of them could articulate what they were doing, whereas others had no idea. They played what felt “natural,” having grown up within the tradition. I noticed that regardless of the elders’ abilities to describe their playing, they were still implementing many of the same bowing patterns. When I played alongside them, I found that our bowing matched! The pulse, phrasing, bow-rocking, and limitless variations were all in agreement.
It was like learning real magic.
My “wand,” the fiddle bow, was now directly connected to an ancient tradition and lineage of old-time fiddlers. I wasn’t just playing notes from a book, video, or festival. I was making that infectious, exciting, and mysterious music that we call old-time.
To my surprise, people approached me to teach them. One student turned into three, which turned into ten, which turned into 30 and now I have students around the globe. They are obsessed with unlocking the mysteries of old-time fiddling, which is very different than other fiddle genres. Over the last decade of teaching I’ve tried to instill the following lessons in the playing and habits of my students.
1. Listen, listen, listen. Listen to the masters. Eventually you’ll recognize the bowing patterns that are used by the greats.
2. Slavishly imitate a mentor. Ideally, a fiddle mentor who is respected within the genre and adept at teaching.
3. Bowing is everything. Rhythm is a central aspect to most of this music. Much of it is dance music.
4. Learn by ear. Many nuances of this music can’t be captured on the page.
5. The downbeat is paramount. Beats 1 & 3. That’s not the case with all fiddle genres.
6. Keep your instrument out of its case. You’ll play it more and it will become part of your lifestyle, not just a weekend hobby.
7. Don’t try to be unique. You will naturally gravitate toward your favorite bow patterns, melodic variations, drones, and syncopations that will define your playing. You are already unique!
Fiddler David Bragger is the founder of Old-Time Tiki Parlour, a label devoted to recording and filming the masters of traditional American music. He teaches at UCLA and is artistic director of the Santa Barbara Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention. His new release, King’s Lament: Old-Time Fiddle Duets, is available at oldtimetikiparlour.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Strings magazine.