Where Rock Meets Fiddle

by PB Ploy

Incredible as it might seem today, in past centuries the violin was called the king of instruments. In various cultures and genres such as Irish traditional dance music, old time music, klezmer music, and classical, the fiddle played a dominant role. Today, one needs only to walk into any large music store to see that the fiddle's reign has long since ended. Most likely you will see hundreds of electric guitars and not much else; perhaps one or two token used band instruments on perpetual display, but generally not one lonesome fiddle in the house.

It is interesting how quickly and arbitrarily the popularity of particular instruments can rise and fall. For instance, the clarinet, one of the most popular lead instruments during the swing era, is virtually unheard today in any kind of pop music. One significant factor in the popularity of instruments has always been the players. If Bill Monroe, for example, had not happened to be relegated to playing mandolin by his older brothers, the mandolin by today might have gone the way of the covered wagon and the C-Melody saxophone. This, despite the fact that in the 1920's, mandolin was so popular that most colleges had a mandolin orchestra, complete with mandocellos and mandolas. So one can speculate that if Les Paul, early proponent of the solid body electric guitar, had been a fiddler instead of a guitarist, the consequential "butterfly effect" might conceivably have been a reversal of the relative popularity of the two instruments today.

The rarity of fiddle in rock music has certainly not been due to any limitations in the instrument itself. As the late great jazz and blues fiddler Stuff Smith once said, "You can swing more on a violin than on any instrument ever made." Likewise, electric fiddle, using standard electric guitar amps and effects, can rock as much as any other instrument.

As a rhythm instrument, the guitar admittedly has some advantage; you can play more notes of a chord simultaneously on a guitar than on a fiddle. Then again, most rock music does not entail harmonic rocket science. A fiddle, creatively played, is more than sufficient for the job. The fiddle's potential as a rhythm instrument and as a percussion instrument has yet to be fully explored within the context of popular music. Although some might contend that it is difficult to play rhythm fiddle while singing, several old time fiddlers have shown that it can be done.

As a lead instrument, the fiddle clearly excels. Unlike the guitar and piano, it has unlimited sustain. It has greater expressiveness and is capable of nuances that fretted and keyed instruments are not. The fiddle can play notes between the cracks of the piano keys, therefore even exotic nonwestern tonal systems are not off limits.

Despite its tremendous versatility, use of the fiddle in pop ensembles waned long before the advent of rock music, mainly due to early deficiencies in amplification. Violins were common in early jazz bands but were eventually overpowered by high volume horn sections. There were limited, less-than-successful attempts to amplify the fiddle, such as the Stroh violin, a monstrous hybrid fiddle with a trumpet-like horn attached for increased volume, which was used in dance bands in the 20's and 30's. Unfortunately, Strohs tended to amplify the treble much more than the bass, and one can imagine how pleasant that sounded at high volumes. Fender Musical Instruments made an electric violin in the late 1950's that failed to catch on, probably because, like some of the current electric fiddles, the instruments were just too heavy to be played comfortably by actual human fiddlers.

Economics has always been a factor in the popularity of instruments from the players' standpoint. Several years ago, the least expensive solid body electric fiddles on the market cost thousands of dollars, whereas passable electric guitars, by comparison, sold in the low hundreds. Recently, though, the cost of solid body electric violins has plummeted. The overall quality of these cheaper instruments may not match that of higher priced handmade models, but they are definitely playable, and have placed electric fiddle within the reach of a large number of aspiring young players. Moreover, there has been a major improvement in amplification choices. Many of us remember when the only affordable option was adhering a crude pickup to the side of the bridge with an adhesive putty that left a lot to be desired. Today, there is an excellent selection of pickup systems and brands to choose from when modifying an acoustic fiddle to go electric.

A variety of innovative fiddle shapes and designs are now being used. Some of these do away with a considerable portion of the traditional fiddle body, allowing players to have solid body instruments that reduce feedback without the added weight. A few inventive people have even experimented with changes to the basic nature of the instrument. Rock violinist and instrument maker Mark Wood, for example, has created a variety of next generation fiddles, including fretted, self-supporting v-necked instruments with six or seven strings. Performance artist Laurie Anderson invented a "tape-bow violin," on which a pre-recorded tape attached to the bow is run over playback heads mounted on the violin's bridge. MIDI violins, which enable the fiddle to produce any synthesized sound, are now available, but are not yet affordable to most.

Some players are opting to forego solid body instruments and pickups, instead playing a traditional acoustic fiddle into a microphone and adding various aftereffects to the signal. When done carefully, feedback can be avoided while retaining the natural sound qualities of the acoustic instrument. Technological advancements in electronics may soon eliminate the issue of feedback altogether.

Players

It is impossible to name a few players without leaving out many more who may be equally deserving, but there are a few usual suspects who are often cited as influences, and thus bear mentioning. Papa John Creach is often the first name that comes up. He was a blues and jazz fiddler who, starting in the 1970's, recorded and performed with Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and Jefferson Starship, and released solo recordings as well.

Another pioneer who helped put rock violin on the planet was Don "Sugarcane" Harris. Harris first studied classical violin, played in doo wop and R&B groups in the 1950's and went on to play and record rock and roll, jazz and underground rock. He performed with acts such as Little Richard, Frank Zappa and John Mayall. Drawing on his experience as a guitarist, he developed an electric fiddle style and sound very similar to that of rock guitar.

Jean Luc Ponty is best known nowadays as a jazz violinist, but he was an early influence on later electric fiddle players of all genres. Ponty began as a classical violinist, learned jazz on clarinet and sax and then began playing jazz violin. He went on to pioneer electric violin in jazz-rock fusion in the early 70's. He has made extensive use of devices and effects associated with the electric guitar, and popularized the five string electric fiddle. Besides releasing numerous solo albums, he performed with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Other noteworthy fusion violinists have included Jerry Goodman, Didier Lockwood and Michael Urbaniak.

In recent years, although rock music as a whole seems to be in a serious artistic downslide, the number of fiddle players in pop groups appears to be steadily increasing. In the 70's, relatively few pop groups had fiddle players. There was Wilf Gibson of the Electric Light Orchestra, Robbie Steinhardt of Kansas, David LaFlamme with It's A Beautiful Day and Darryl Way of Britain's Curved Air. Today it is not as uncommon for a fiddle to be part of the lineup in a pop group, for two examples, Mary Ramsey of 10,000 Maniacs and Boyd Tinsley of the Dave Matthews Band.

New fiddling styles and developments have been all over the board: String Quartets such as Kronos and the Turtle Island String Quartet have occasionally strayed from their usual avant garde and jazz repertoires to play rock and fusion pieces; Classical players like Kennedy and Vanessa Mae have experimented with classical jazz rock fusion; Electric fiddlers Charlie Bisharat and Karen Briggs have performed in large venue concerts with new age artists John Tesh and Yanni; Celtic fiddlers like Michael Mullen of Tempest and Caliban, Duncan Chisholm of Wolfstone, and Eileen Ivers have explored Celtic fusion; and unclassifiable fiddle wizards like Darol Anger and Mark O'Connor continue to push the envelope, adding new techniques to the fiddler's rhythmic arsenal.

Conclusion

Regarding the future, with so much unexplored territory, the sky's the limit as to where fiddling might go in the new millennium. Electronic gadgets and effects are nice, and fun to play with, but hopefully we will see greater exploration of the acoustic fiddle's sonic, rhythmic and percussive possibilities in new music, with less regard to copying traditional fiddle riffs and methods. Perhaps some of tomorrow's players will successfully create new styles by combining the best elements from the fiddle's multifaceted past: The development of a full strong tone and virtuosic technique from classical, the subtle and varied use of vibrato and the harmonic complexity from jazz, the irresistible melodic and bowed ornamentation from Irish fiddling, the emotional intensity and fire of gypsy violin, the heart racing tempo and percussiveness of bluegrass fiddle, and the groove of rock and swing. Who knows, maybe someday the fiddle will take back the throne.

About the Author

Originally a classical violinist, singer/songwriter/rock fiddler PB Ploy has played fiddle with various folk groups. Since going solo in 2001, he has devoted his time primarily to writing and producing eclectic roots rock songs. His debut CD "Clues from the Underground" features 12 original songs employing a variety of innovative electric fiddle and mandoblaster sounds.





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