By Bruce Molsky
If your classical training prevents you from making old-time fiddle melodies and phrasing sound authentic, mastering these 3 bow strokes can help explain why a tune sounds “old time.”
How many times have you had to field the question: “What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?” One of the things that jumps out when listeners first hear Southern old-time fiddling is how different the overall sound of the instrument is in that genre than in other fiddling styles. Even bluegrass fiddling, which is thought to be old-time music’s closest cousin, has a different “bite” and a different shape to the sound of the phrases.
There’s an adage that the last ten percent of a task done right takes 50 percent of the effort. That easily could have been written about learning old-time fiddling. Yet, compared to other styles, the melodies and phrasing in old-time fiddle music are pretty straightforward. But just “playing the notes” doesn’t mean “playing in the style.” Details are everything, and having an understanding and working knowledge of a few of the most important elements will make your playing sound more authentic and give it more vitality.
1. Let Gravity Be Your Guide
Learning to control the effects of gravity is important. If you play with a fairly relaxed right hand, and you should in this music, then you can see how the down-stroke is really the power stroke. Prove it to yourself by holding your forearm steady and simply move the bow up and down using just your wrist. There’s just more natural strength in pulling (down-stroke) than pushing (up-stroke). Dance fiddling especially takes advantage of this. Many of the great dance fiddlers were characterized as down-bow fiddlers, leading the phrases with a strong down-stroke, often catching adjacent open strings and marking the strong beats. For an example of this technique, watch the YouTube video of Clark Kessinger’s “Sally Ann Johnson” below.
2. Develop Your Muscle Memory
As with anything you do when learning to play music, practice and muscle memory go a long way toward establishing good technique. Here are a few exercises you can try to feel the shape and movement of the bow, and to hear what a difference these three bowing techniques make in the tone and feel of the music. Mastering these bow strokes will help explain why a tune sounds “old-time.”
First, think about how you do one of the simplest things with the bow, just moving it up and down across the string. Does is stay in a straight line, or does it dip and dive a little when you change direction? Try this: on an open string, play a down-stroke so that the bow makes a downward arc, like the bottom half of a circle counter-clockwise as you look at it. Continue into an up-stroke that is the top half of the circle—so now one down-up movement of the bow is not straight back and forth, but a complete circle.
Compare the sound you get playing straight back and forth with the circular movement. The straight stroke puts the “bite” at the beginning of each note because of the abrupt change in direction there. With the circular motion, that little bit of edge goes away, and any emphasis in the note moves from the beginning to the middle.It might seem like a subtle difference, but once you’re playing up to speed, it puts in a whole lot of swing that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Listen to Bunt Stephens’ classic recording of “Sail Away Ladies” below.
Now try playing straight back and forth, but let half of the down-stroke be half of a figure-8 on its side, like drawing a backward letter “S,” and the up-stroke being just the opposite. You’ll get a different kind of accent from this, but both the circular and figure-8 shapes add a pulse to the stroke that couldn’t be there any other way. (Practice tips: Do all these at a constant bow speed; don’t slow down and speed up—the pulse comes from the bow’s angle, not its speed. Likewise, use constant pressure. Be neutral with everything, and when you do it right the sound will come naturally and from the right place.)
OK, I admit I just made this name up, but it does describe the next bow movement. Start by moving the bow straight back and forth on the single D-string. Go for a smooth motion and an even sound across the entire stroke.
Now, with each stroke in each direction, change the angle of the bow, let it kind of drop, so that it picks up the A-string for a split second. The goal is to keep the D-string note smooth and to its full value while the A-string note pulses. Once again, Bunt Stephens’ old fashioned Tennessee style is a good illustration, this time in the tune “Candy Girl.”
3. Decipher Recorded Works
Of course, practicing bow movements is a long way away from using them in tunes. But having these techniques in your hands will help you to identify them on recordings and to learn to use them. Listening to and analyzing old recordings is a skill in itself, but these days these historic recordings can be a source of some of the greatest lessons. The noise and poor fidelity might seem like a hindrance at first, but after a while these recordings become comforting and a sign of something familiar. Deciphering from a recording how the bow moves is usually the biggest challenge, but you can get close.
I’ve always loved listening to old-time fiddle music, and being moved by what I hear!