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Accompanying Fiddle Tunes

Discussion in 'Bluegrass [DB]' started by Quinn Roberts, Dec 6, 2019.

  1. Tomorrow I'm supposed to get together with a fiddle player to jam on some tunes, this will be my first time ever playing this kind of music with another individual. I've been studying some recordings of Scottish and Irish cello/violin playing as well as trying to play along to solo fiddlers on YouTube and recording for playback. So far it's been going decent I suppose, but I'd be lying if I said I was doing anything other than just winging it by ear (I.E. hanging on to the key center for dear life).
    Just in case I start drawing blanks, or it turns out I'm pitch deaf, I was hoping someone had some experience and/or tips they'd be willing to share with me for this form of accompaniment.
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2019
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  2. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Without charts, you ARE "winging it by ear." Some people wing it better than others, because they can hear the chords implied by the melody. I'm not sure what "pitch deaf" means, but if it means you can't infer chords from melody, it will be a long session. Will there not be a third player there playing chords?
    Good luck!
    210superair and Quinn Roberts like this.
  3. Thank you for the reply!
    "Tone deaf" was more tongue and cheek, but that is about what it would boil down to I suppose.
    There will be no third person; alas, this is where my questioning begins.
    Should I be looking at these tunes in a modal sense or try more to underpin the harmony sort of like a chording instrument would?
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2019
  4. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Replace the "or" in your question with "and." The answer to that question is yes. Those fiddle tunes are generally very simple chordally, while the timing aspect can be tricky. It's unlikely that you will produce art until you really immerse yourself... but you might have a good time.
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  5. Carl Hillman

    Carl Hillman

    Jan 1, 2010
    There are different degrees of difficulty in using your ears. Your proposed scenario may be the hardest one. i.e. You don't know the tune and there is no other chordal accompaniment.

    I don't really know of any 'cheats' in developing an ability to create a harmonic underpinning to an unknown melody on the fly. It's the kind of thing that's learned by years of doing it.

    In your favor, most traditional fiddle tunes are nice and diatonic. The only advice I can offer is simple: listen intently and play what sounds good to you. Good luck.
    210superair and Quinn Roberts like this.
  6. Unfortunately, but maybe to my favor, the fiddler had to reschedule today's jam. Time to hit the woodshed over the next coming days!

    I think some critical listening is definitely going to be what I need going forward.
    So far it's been a most enjoyable experience nonetheless!

    Thank you very much for your response!
    I actually do have a small list of examples of tunes they've been playing recently (will post below). I've found chord charts for the tunes online, but each version seemed to differ from the next. The fiddle player also specified beforehand that they're an "ear player" and don't readily use sheet music for the tunes they play. These two factors lead me to believe I might be better off just trying to practice improvising some accompaniments (plus it's a skill I wouldn't mind working on). I'm not necessarily looking for "cheats" (though I'd take 'em), but rather trying to get an idea of what a fiddler might expect out of a fellow accompanist as well as things I should try to focus my attention on while playing.

    I'll also mention that this player knows I'm newer to this style of music; they mentioned they didn't mind players looking to learn more about this style of playing, so I took them up on that. Nonetheless, I still wanna be as prepared as I can be so that they don't have to spend more time instructing instead of actually playing music.

    Here's some of the tunes if anyone is curious; Booth Shot Lincoln, Fire on the Mtn, Foxhunter's Reel, and Frank's Reel
    210superair likes this.
  7. jlmorgan84

    jlmorgan84 Supporting Member

    Feb 16, 2014
    Clemson, SC
    In Old Time the bass is as much keeping time as creating harmony, especially if it's just you and the fiddle. Keep it simple, keep the timing tight, and you'll be fine, most fiddle tunes are simple and repetitive. If you don't get it the first time you'll get it the 13th time through!

    Also, most fiddle players only really have ears for themselves ;) so you'll be fine.
  8. 210superair


    Sep 10, 2019
    I second the keep it simple. I play in an old time string band, and though it's easy to get walking and showy, resist. No place for that in old time music, like academia. I play old time because I'm a louse, a drunk, I know two chords, and I love it. My banjo player said to me recently in a rant "I AM old time music...", and he certainly is.

    If you're playing old time with any other attitude, why bother.
    Quinn Roberts likes this.
  9. What genre of fiddle tunes does this fiddler fiddle? Old-time? Irish? Bluegrass? Texas Contest Style? Western Swing? Once you know the genre, YouTube is your friend. Search on the genre, then start playing along. Can you hear the changes? Many fiddle tunes are very simple; others are crooked as hell, rhythmically, harmonically or both. Some fiddlers know the chords; these fiddlers can/will call the chords out to you. Others have no idea, which means you are free to play whatever feels right. When in doubt, stay on the I until the end of the phrase, then turn it around with a V I.
  10. salcott

    salcott Supporting Member

    Aug 22, 2007
    NYC, Inwood.
    See if you can at least get titles and then you can find lead sheets on line.
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  11. unbrokenchain

    unbrokenchain Supporting Member

    Jun 8, 2011
    Black Mountain, NC
    What he said. :thumbsup:

    The majority of common old-time fiddle tunes are really quite easy to hear the changes on imo. Listen to the melody and dance, don't think about counting measures. There are definitely tough ones though, what old time players call "crooked" and "modal" are the ones to watch out for.The trickiest ones for me are tunes I've never heard, where sometimes the changes could go a number of different ways. Here I generally cheat off the guitar player (who usually has a confused look on their face..)
  12. 210superair


    Sep 10, 2019
    They definitely vary. A lot of the old celtic tunes we do will spin the mind out. They're laid out like AA BB AA BB AA AA B C, etc. It's not that they're difficult, it's more like they're SO easy, it's hard not to screw up. It takes more discipline than rock and roll for sure. And like bluegrass, the weird changes can be difficult for a rock and roller at first. It's like they change on the 3 sometimes in a 4/4 or something. Took me some time to adjust. Like we do Kesh Jig, that one killed me at first. Banshee too, that one warped my brain, even though now I consider it very easy.
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  13. THIS ^ +1
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  14. They specified Scottish and Cape Breton style playing
    I've been listening to Natalie Haas and Alasdair Fraser and trying to get ideas from her cello playing; I'd gladly take some other listening recommendations if anybody has some!
  15. The only "crooked" tune I've come across before is "Clinch Mountain Backstep", that one taught me to count in 2 instead of 4. What would be an example of a modal tune in fiddle music? Something where the fiddler plays a drone maybe?
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  16. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    Most of those tunes are melody driven, so....

    1) Learn the melody
    2) Learn the chord changes on guitar
    3) Transfer that information down to your bass in its most simple form
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  17. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    No "improvising parts". Play roots and fifths on 1 and 3 (or 1 and 2, really, since most tunes are played as cut time). If you repeat a root a couple times, no harm.

    Do not throw in hip little fills. You get one walk-up or walk-down PER TUNE. If you fiddly-dick around, the time will go to hell and everyone will blame you. And it will be your fault. Keep it simple.

    No charts. Keys will be what they are. It's all done by ear.

    The "thousand notes per bar" crowd tend to look down on playing two notes per bar. Let me tell you, playing two correct, big fat notes at EXACTLY the right time, with exactly the right duration, is a long term study in itself.
  18. I'll mention here that I also will be playing arco alongside this player. They really wanted a cello player, but I couldn't pass up a chance to meet a fiddler!
    Coming from some experience in bluegrass root/fifths my first idea. Granted I still need to familiarize myself with (or at least come up with) the progressions to some of these songs a bit more, but I just couldn't get a root/fifth line to sound too well with these tunes very often (especially when just playing on the 1 and 3). I've found some comfort in holding out the root note and playing with some rhythmic ideas, but the fifth tends to come out as a dissonance to me unless it's played over the dominant chord.
    I'm starting to see where some of these "progressive" bluegrass bassists are getting some of their ideas from!
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  19. unbrokenchain

    unbrokenchain Supporting Member

    Jun 8, 2011
    Black Mountain, NC
    Some folks play straight tunes crooked or crooked ones straight, but all it usually means is that there's a beat (or two) added or subtracted before the repeat. If you play straight you'll end up with the tune "upside down" (you'll be playing on the 2 and 4 with the guitar player) although in this case there is no guitar.. Sometimes the tune has parts that are simply out of time like Jerusalem Ridge, at least the way most folks play it. Still just called crooked.

    "Modal" in old time is the catch-all for everything that's not Ionian. Often Dorian or Mixolydian, sometimes it's just its own thing. But don't use the word Mixolydian at an old time jam or you're officially inauthentic :laugh: Flannery's Dream is one that comes to mind here, Pretty Polly, some versions of Little Sadie, there are lots though.

    The 1/5 thing is necessary if you want people to dance to the tune! Combined with a mando or guitar chuck, it's what lets the tune lift off the ground, so to speak. And, at least in old time, the music originates from a dance tradition and not a stage/show one, so that feel is often pretty important. Playing simple 1/5 also means that you can use a repetitive tonic later in the tune to build suspense. When you pull out the bow, you're already out of the box/tradition unless you're playing the melody exactly, but if you do it right, you can turn folk music into classical, just like that...

  20. jleguy

    jleguy Supporting Member

    Jun 6, 2006
    DC Metro
    The first one not necessarily limited to fiddle and fiddle tunes, but I think this applies. These inspired me to start working on playing arco on blue grass melodies with my teacher. I think Kowert is a pretty awesome blue grass bassist.

    This is more a fiddle tune rendition by Kowert in pizz, Whiskey Before Breakfast:

    Last edited: Dec 8, 2019

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