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Notes from Fiddle Lesson #3

Posted by jonno on Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My teacher is totally about how to play bluegrass songs.   The major parts to playing a fiddle song seem to be

  • kick-offs,
  • longbow behind the vocals,
  • fills and links,
  • playing primary back-up,
  • playing secondary back-up,
  • breaks, and
  • endtags.

Of course, there are lots of other things to develop such as chord positions, chord progressions, vibrato, percussion/chops, listening to the band, mimic'ing the singer or other instruments.   These are ongoing things to work on.

My last lesson spent most of the time on licks and fills.  When you play only the notes of the melody, think of it as all the way on one side of the spectrum.  The other side of the spectrum is playing licks based on notes in the chord, but are unrelated to the melody.  Fiddlers travel the distance between these extremes.  We should revisit the melody enough enough to stay connected to the song, use licks to add variation, and improvise harmonies around the melody to add our individual self-expression. 

Jack (my teacher) has given me a dozen or so licks to master.  There are two parts to this assignment. 

The first is to get them comfortably under my fingers and so emeshed in my muscle memory that I can play them as a single phrase - in other words, my mind doesn't have to think about them as individual notes.  This is a gradual process, like learning a new vocabulary. 

The second part involves hearing where the licks fall within the structure of the song.  The licks have to:

  • match up with the underlying chord,
  • fit within the section of the song (usually toward the end of a 4- or 8- bar section), and
  • the start, duration and ending of the lick must match the part of the song you are playing over. 

If you are already a musician and used to playing or singing with others, this will be easier than those of us who've never developed this kind of ear before. 

This last two bullets are opening new doors in the way I listen to songs.  In time, I suppose my brain will automatically process a series of subconscious thoughts that would looks something like this if they were written out:

...okay, I've got a 4 bar section of the song coming up, seems like a good time for a lick... hmm.. the chord coming up is going to be G, Aha! I remember a G lick I haven't played yet tonight... let's see, that lick is 4 bars -- good, it will fit in, okay, we're locked and loaded, just waiting for the section to arrive, remember the lick starts with a couple pick up notes on the 4th beat, here it comes... 2+, 3+, (start playing lick)

As I said, such thoughts would be deep below conscious awareness.  For now, though, everything is very much in the conscious realm.  It's making me think of songs as groups of beats (aka bars, measures, sections or chunks). Each chunk is either 1, 2, or 4 bars and is defined by the chord being played underneath it. 

I want to learn to hear song like this: 4 bars of G chord, 2 bars of D chord, 2 bars G chord, etc.  I'm not there yet with any song.  Even though I know a fair number of tunes, I haven't memorized the chords of a single song - I rely on chord charts or just hearing the changes.  Once I tune my ear to these chord-based chunks, then I think maybe my brain will be closer to hearing when I can drop in a lick.