By Laurel Thomsen
You have difficulty getting the right amount of “crunch” from your chopping technique.
The chop is a percussive bow stroke invented in the mid-’60s by pioneering fiddler Richard Greene.
The technique was further developed and popularized by such artists as fiddlers Darol Anger and Casey Driessen, especially over the last decade. Though bluegrass fiddlers had been using short, rhythmic “chunking” strokes as a backup technique for years, it was purely rhythmic, both in use and in sound. It also relied on horizontal motion, much like the classical collé stroke or a very sharp spiccato.
The chop, on the other hand, is a vertical drop and lift motion, with rest in between. Because of this two-part motion, the chop provides a two-part sound, both rhythmic and melodic.
Greene came up with the chop because he needed a rhythmic device that would allow him to play repetitively for hours without fatigue. At the time, he was playing with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and Monroe had asked Greene to contribute more rhythm.
He tried tapping offbeats at the tip, but found that his wrist quickly tired. He then tried short down bows near the frog, but that was hard on his arm. Finally, he just let the bow stay on the string. “I smashed it down and let it stay because my hand was too tired to pick it back up,” Greene admits with a chuckle.
When he picked it back up, he realized that there was another sound. “It wasn’t a clean lift,” he says. “It was kind of a lazy, scraping off the string.”
This “chop/pinch” combination as he calls it—the chop being the downward drop of the bow, the pinch being the upward scrape—provided Greene a technique he could play with the stamina he needed.
1. Forget Everything You Know About Your Bow Hold
Learning to do the chop begins with changing the way you hold the bow. Start with your “classical” hold and (gasp!) straighten your thumb so that the bow rocks out toward the joints closest to your fingertips. The bent thumb that your teacher hounded you about actually gives too much shock absorption to make the stroke very effective.
A straight thumb also allows you to play on the inner edge of the hair (another unusual feature, but a requirement of the stroke) without hitting the instrument with your wrist. With a straight thumb, your other fingers will likely straighten more as well.
2. Focus on the Wrist Motion
The primary motion for the chop is in the wrist. Once you have your new bow hold in place, lightly cover your strings with your left hand to dampen them. Hold the bow above the strings near the frog and practice simply tapping your bow up and down as if you were waving good-bye to someone. At this point you may already be hearing some characteristic chop crunches.
3. Now Isolate the Chop
Once you have the wrist motion, isolate just the chop part of the technique. Start with the G and D strings together, as lower strings tend to create richer, more resonant sounds than higher ones. Don’t worry about being as perfectly balanced between the two as you would if you were playing double-stops. Flop your hand down, giving in to gravity, and let the bow simply crunch into the strings. Between the weight of your bow and hand, it doesn’t take much to get a sound.
Start with a relaxed drop and then try giving it a little more force, only as necessary for the volume you want. Once the bow lands, let it “glue” momentarily to the strings, similar to the preparation you’d need if you were about to start a martelé stroke. Check again that your thumb is straight and that you are using the inner edge of the hair. The scraping that occurs as the bow lands and slides slightly from bridge to fingerboard creates the sound you want. This can’t happen if you’re using flat hair or the outer edge typical of classical playing.
4. Stop Worrying About the Bow Angle
In contrast to classical technique, there’s no need to focus on keeping the bow perpendicular to the strings. When doing the chop, a bow that is not perpendicular will naturally slide a bit more, creating a fuller chop sound with less effort. An angled bow also facilitates a flatter, more mobile wrist position and a lower, more relaxed elbow position.
Because it tends to be more comfortable, you’ll have more stamina for long stretches of chopping.
5. Now, Add the Pinch Aspect of the Technique
Again, chop the bow down into the strings. Let it rest for a moment, then pop the bow off the strings by raising the hand back to its original position, moving from the wrist.
The motion is vertical, but as the bow peels off the string, you’ll hear the slightly higher-pitched resonance of the pinch that creates the chop’s melodic potential. If you didn’t get much sound, try peeling the bow off the strings slightly to the left, as if you were doing a tiny up bow.
If that doesn’t do it, make sure you have enough rosin on your bow.
6. Get Rhythm
Once you have consistent sound, rhythm, and mechanics, you can begin to vary your rhythm by adding louder chops and softer chops. Greene identifies four volume combinations within the chop technique: loud chop and loud pinch, loud chop and soft pinch, soft chop and loud pinch, and soft chop and soft pinch.
For the louder chops and pinches, simply raise your hand higher off the strings, strike with more force, and peel off more decisively.
By stringing together a soft chop, soft pinch, loud chop, then soft pinch across four 16th notes, you get the backbeat characteristic of the bluegrass style: du-du-da-du-du-du-da-du, etc.
Also, rather than staying at the same sounding point, try moving slightly back and forth along the length of the string. This helps to create slight tone variations, leading to a more musical sound than the solely down-and-up motions can.
This shuffling motion also helps maintain a more relaxed arm and keeps the groove. Some players, notably Driessen, use this motion to skid the bow across the string,
creating his “triple chop” technique.