One of my very favorite ways to improvise on the fiddle is with Country/Western Swing/Bluegrass music. I began giving this type of fiddling a lot of attention in my early teens, and have never regretted all the time spent in developing the skill to play it! Some of the very first experiences I had with country was in listening to a number of cd’s my older brothers owned of various popular country music stars of the 80′s and 90′s. Almost humorously, I barely paid any attention to the words or the singing. All I really heard was what was going on with the background and solo instrumentation. I began imitating the fiddle/violin and mandolin solos (usually the instrumentalist was Johnny Gimble) which I was so fascinated by, and spent a lot of time practicing those in the back room of our family home.
During this time, my family was doing a lot of performing around the US, and so I had the opportunity (for which I am so grateful) to do a lot of solo and back-up fiddling in the family band. This is one of the most helpful ways in which I was able to grow in my ability. Even though we rarely performed anything that was made popular by the famous country/western singers of the time (we only did songs that were morally acceptable as a Christian family–which conviction I still walk in today), I could apply the very same ideas I had heard recorded in the popular songs to the songs we were singing. I had a lot of fun and satisfaction playing solo and back-up accompanying fiddle and tenor/plectrum guitar with our mixed varied of cowboy, western swing, gospel, jazz and cajun style song repertoire.
Country fiddling really just consists of song introductions, improvising behind the singer/soloist, courses and endings, and some harmony or melody part playing (with other instruments or multiple fiddles). It probably sounds simpler than it is! In a way it is simple, but on the other hand, it is very challenging to learn. There is a reason that top Nashville country fiddlers are paid so well, and there are just certain ones that are particularly in demand. To me that says it is hard to be good at it, and there are few that are.
It takes a lot of listening first, and secondly, a lot of imitating, in order to really know the style and how to play tastefully. Understanding how to perform the right kind of ideas/licks, timing, when to play and when not to play, etc. Knowing the chords being played in the accompaniment section is key to being comfortable enough to improvise. Knowing the melody would be the next priority. After getting familiar with these first two aspects, the developing fiddler must get relaxed with the melody enough to add some interesting and melodic straightforward ideas/licks to it, then totally replace the melody with his/her own invention. This is for the sake of soloing on a course (often the course is mixed up with parts of the melody though). Usually a course is pretty short, which should be a relief to the more amateur player. It is most likely a relief to the advanced back-up fiddler also! Kind of nice to pick out your choicest ideas and use them in short, instead of having to come up with a whole jazz solo’s worth of improvisation, which would include playing through the whole song, versus playing just a small section, as in country.
My desire is to encourage more of this kind of direction amongst fiddlers. It is a part of the vast variety of experiences that make up the whole, and you won’t want to pass it by, once you’ve given it a try. -Brendan Booher