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The Bluegrass Learning Place-- Double Stops

Posted by LifesMiracle on Thursday, January 22, 2015

Table of Contents © John G Nitkowski

No matter what your skill is you can always be better! The goal is not merely to enable you to play other people's musical ideas, but for you to create your own and be able to play effortlessly and almost without thought as most of the professional musicians do...

Up to this point, I've been calling them chords!

... which is technically correct. But the the term we fiddlers use most often is DOUBLE STOPS.
    (I'll probably still call them chords from time to time because it's easier)

  • A double stop is two notes played together. Hopefully making a pleasing sound.
  • All major chords are made up of three notes and they are the 1-3-5 of the major scale.

Most instruments can play all three of the notes at once.

But the fiddle can only play two simultaneously.

The order in which the three notes are arranged from bottom to top determines their Inversion. The diagram to the right shows the three inversions of a G chord-- G-B-D notes. The G note is red:

  • If the root note is on the bottom, it's called the Root Inversion
  • If the root note is in the middle, it's called the 1st Inversion
  • If the root note is on the top it's called the 2nd Inversion


On your fiddle you have 6 possible ways to play the Major Chord double stops. You can play:

  • 1-3
  • 1-5
  • 3-1
  • 3-5
  • 5-1
  • 5-3

All these combinations can be played over the Major chord to which they belong... AND the 3-5 and the 5-3 don't even contain the Root!

It's interesting that a 1-3 and its inversion the 3-1 have distinctly different sounds to each other, as do, to a lesser degree, the other combinations, the 1-5 and its inversion, and the 3-5 and its inversion.

When you're playing backup to vocals and other instruments, moving back and forth from one inversion to another and adding some passing tones (notes that don't normally belong to the key) usually creates the most interesting music!

Never fear! There are only Six Combinations of the double stops on your fiddle, and then only the duplicates on the other strings and one octave up!

Take a look at the diagram to the left to see all the possible combinations for a G double stop:

  • The 3-1 is the one we use most of all. That's the B and the G on the first and second string, and one octave lower on the 3rd and 4th string. The 3 is always one string lower and one position lower than your root note.
  • The 1-3 has almost the same sound as the 3-1 and is used mostly when it's most convenient.
  • The 1-5 is always created by adding the note one string higher and the same position as your root note. I usually play the 1-5 as a barre with one finger.
    Notice the 1-5 G chord on the open 3rd and 4th strings.......

    ...that means there's a 1-5 D chord on the 2nd and 3rd open strings, and a 1-5 A chord on the 1st and 2nd open strings.

  • The 5-1 on the first and second string gives you the famous opening sound of the fiddle break on Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Lonesome Road Blues. The easy way to find it is to play your regular 3-1 notes and hit the D note on the A string with your next finger.
  • The 3-5 is rarely used. I use them when it is convenient, like when I'm playing a run of notes and happen to land on one of those notes and want to turn it into a chord.
  • I use the 5-3 when using the open D string as a drone in G using the B note on the 2nd string.

Some other observations:

  • When you're playing the 3-1 and move the 3 up one note you conveniently get the 1-5 for your IV chord, in the key of G, your C chord.
  • When you're playing the 3-1 and move the 1 down one note and the 3 down two notes you get the 5-3 version of your V chord, or in this case, your D chord.
  • Because you can only play two notes at a time, all the double stops can have more than one name. For instance, a Gm double stop, which is a b3-1 or a Bb - G could also be a 5-3 chord in the key of of Eb, and so could its inversion 1-b3, be a 3-5 E chord.




Arpeggios are any chords that, instead of playing the notes all together, you play them one at a time in succession either ascending or descending.

To the left you can see the 3 arpeggios of a G Major chord. An arpeggio can contain any number of notes that make up any chord, Major, minor, sixth, seventh, ninth, etc.

Many bluegrass and old time fiddle songs rely heavily on arpeggios for their melody and they're a great way to back-up other instrument leads and vocals. We'll do a whole lesson on arpeggios later on.


As always, remember as you move up the neck the spacing gets smaller!  If you’re used to using tape to mark your frets you’ll need to learn to use your ear to determine the finger spacing to get the true note.​ However, after learning this MAP system you can probably get rid of the tape entirely.  

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1 comment on “The Bluegrass Learning Place-- Double Stops”

boxbow Says:
Friday, January 23, 2015 @7:18:39 AM

Thanks. You got something I've been puzzling over to hold still long enough for me to see it. This is well organized information. Well done.

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