By Patrick Sullivan
Exact numbers aren’t really Darol Anger’s thing. But over some four decades as a musician and educator, the incredibly versatile fiddler has surely helped hundreds of young string players take the plunge into bluegrass. He tries to start newbies off the same way: By directing their ears to the crucial songs that define the genre. “You sit them down and say, ‘Let’s listen to what’s going on,’” says Anger, an associate professor at Berklee College of Music. “You don’t just start teaching them a fiddle part. They have to understand the style.”
Anger’s playlist features acts like the Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, J.D. Crowe, and, of course, bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. (“Anything from his first ten years or his last ten,” Anger says.)
What are his students listening for?
“It’s that layered quality in bluegrass,” Anger says. “This is where the classical people really get their eyes opened. They see this incredibly complicated layering of rhythm and melody and harmony.”
“This is where the classical people really get their eyes opened. They see this incredibly complicated layering of rhythm and melody and harmony.”
Each instrument contributes a unique sound to the group. “And you’ve got the fiddle in and out of everything, underscoring harmonic changes and adding commentary,” he says. His students are often surprised by how highly structured bluegrass is. “It’s like Mozart but busier,” Anger says. “Simple on the outside, but very difficult to play well.” Bluegrass grabbed Anger early on: He took up the violin at age nine and fiddling at 15—and wound up dropping out of college to play bluegrass. Yet despite his love of the style, he recognizes that it’s not for everyone. Some of his students, Anger says, decide quickly that bluegrass isn’t a good fit. What turns them off? Often, it’s the challenging subject matter—this is music with roots in Appalachian mining towns and African-American communities in the rural south.
“There’s a lot of grief in bluegrass and lots of people at the end of their rope,” Anger says. “I think some people probably have trouble with that.”
And it can be physically challenging to play. “It’s demanding in the sense that there’s a lot of volume involved,” Anger says. “There are five instruments and they’re all loud, especially the banjo.”
The fiddle’s dynamic role can be especially daunting. “It leads, it follows, it accompanies, it hangs back, and sometimes in keys that you would not normally ask a fiddle player to play in,” Anger explains. “You have to have a wide range of awareness, and a command of some double-stops other players aren’t asked to do.”
That includes perfect fourths, which Anger learned to play before reading about how hard they were to learn. “Man, I’m glad I didn’t know that when I was learning to play bluegrass,” he says. “Would have made it a lot harder.”
Those challenges help explain why Anger pushes his students to begin at the roots of the style. “I usually start them with a lot of blues licks,” he explains. “There’s so much blues in this music, and if they haven’t played blues they’re going to come up short in the melodic-resources department.”
As players advance, they’ll need to recognize that bluegrass is dominated by two different styles of bow pressure and speed. On the one hand, Anger points to players like Gordon Terry who use a slow bow with a lot of pressure. “Playing that way, you get the feeling that you’re driving the sound down through the back of the instrument,” he says. “It’s very powerful.”
On the other hand, folks like Kenny Baker and Mark O’Connor have used a faster bow and less pressure. “You’re letting the instrument ring out in a more natural way, closer to the classical style,” Anger says. “Being able to go between the two styles is a nice thing. You might choose one for one song and one for the other.”
One crucial skill bluegrass fiddlers must develop: They have to be able to frame other instruments and the singer, and put them in a good light. If the vocalist is singing the chorus, for example, the fiddler should evolve some kind of harmony, Anger explains—possibly with double-stops that play up whatever notes the singer is singing.
But, Anger says, if the fiddle is playing the melody along with the singer, it’s a pretty clear signal that a bluegrass band doesn’t know what it’s doing. “That’s a bad sign,” he says.
For players who want to sound more idiomatic within the style, Anger recommends quotation. “If you can quote an important solo from a bluegrass song, it’s a really great idea,” he says. “We don’t want to copy, but we do want to preserve and be aware of the history of the music.”
As an example, Anger points to the Vassar Clements solo in Bill Monroe’s version of “Mule Skinner Blues.” “That is an extremely quotable solo,” Anger says. “It’s extremely bluesy and it sounds great.” Then again, fiddler Kenny Baker also has an iconic, 1970s-era solo for the same song. “Ideally you would know both by heart and be able to play them on demand to kick off the tune,” Anger says.
One major key to bluegrass fiddling is energy management. As you move from the verse to chorus, you’ll likely want to bring the energy up. But how? “Does that mean playing more rhythmically?” Anger asks. “You might be playing higher in the range of the instrument. Or with thicker texture, meaning double-stops. Are you going to be doing parallel double-stops?”
As with other aspects of bluegrass, there are many ways you could go. “And so many ways to, you know, screw it up,” Anger says with a laugh. “But when you get it right, it’s amazing.”