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Modern chromatic electronic tuners are really terrific. They take no time at all to figure out what note you're playing and tell you immediately whether you're flat, sharp or in tune. Even though I've played for years, I always practice with one of these tuners turned on. They're great tools for developing good intonation. My favorite tuners have not only a needle display but three lights as well - one for flat, one for in tune and one for sharp. I keep my eye glued to that middle 'in tune' light, and if that light goes out, I'll stop, go back and fix whatever note is out of tune.
Arpeggiating chords with a tuner is excellent practice. At first, as you're developing your intonation, you'll want to give yourself all the time you need to find the notes. As your intonation begins to improve, though, you may also want to begin playing with some sort of rhythm and/or chord backup. This will allow you to work on your sense of rhythm as well as your intonation. A simple metronome will give you a basic rhythm, although more complex rhythm machines are available as well. Some modern metronomes offer a 'triplets with a rest in the middle' rhythm that offers up a good swing feel. I often practice my swing playing with this triplet sound or to the accompaniment of the swing drum sound on a little keyboard. All the while, though, I'm keeping an eye on that 'in tune' light on my tuner.
You'll find that dedicated practice that is really in synch with the tuner will really help your intonation. If, at the same time you're playing into the tuner, you're working towards the goal of hearing what scale degree you're playing as you run up and down a chord, you'll soon be hearing melodies by scale degree numbers.
If I was able to clone myself and go back in time to those halcyon days when I was first starting to play bluegrass, I would bring along a modern tuner and teach myself to use it. I'd have to bring one along in my time machine, though, because in the olden days electronic tuners cost $400 and were the size of half-gallon milk containers. They also needed to be set for each pitch.
Another good way to sharpen your ear is to play along with the backup CDs that come included with many of the hundreds of book and CD combinations available these days from many publishers. Available in a multitude of styles, these CDs can really hold your feet to the fire, helping you to play in tune, in time and with the right 'feel.' While some of these CDs offer up backup at different speeds, there are several excellent and inexpensive downloadable slow-downer computer programs that will drop tempo without affecting pitch.
There are also computer accompaniment programs available which offer everything from simple piano 'boom-chucks' to the sound of an entire big band. These programs will play back precisely the chords you type into them, at whatever speed you like, for as long as you like. Unlike humans, these electronic rhythm slaves will never show up late, raid your refrigerator or liquor cabinet, or complain. A steady diet of 110 volts and they'll play day and night.
In a perfect world, of course, none of the above rhythm tools would be necessary, as we'd all have an extremely patient pianist or guitarist waiting at our disposal to back us up by the hour. I was incredibly lucky to have played with several of these patient guitarists, all of whom have my undying gratitude. Thanks so much, Molly Mason, Rich Levine, Cyd Smith and Jack Hanson!
If you can find a 'rhythm slave' do everything in your power to keep them happy. However, failing that, these programs are a good substitute. With them, you can really hear how what you play fits over a particular chord or chord progression. I like to program in a single chord or two-chord progression and play along for a long time, trying everything that comes to mind.
The basic skills of being able to play in tune and being able to synchronize with a particular rhythm are necessary regardless of what style you want to learn to play. If I were starting over I would woodshed my head off to make sure that I was playing really well in tune, that I knew my chords and that I could lock in to a set rhythm. I'd want to memorize where the notes in all types of chords were on my fiddle. I'd want to be able to arpeggiate the notes in all of chords to the tunes I wanted to play.
Once I had gotten to this point, I could point my basic ability in any of several directions. I'd want to ask myself what I wanted to do. Some fine players, such as Joe Venuti and western swing fiddler Cliff Bruner, seem to have developed unique violin styles without obvious violin influences. Other great players have modeled their styles on those of their idols.
Johnny Gimble, for example, cites Cliff Bruner, fellow western swingster J.R. Chatwell and Danish jazz violinist Svend Asmussen as his main influences. In turn, many younger western swing players have built personal styles drawing heavily on Johnny Gimble's musical vocabulary. Of course, many players, myself included, have gone through many phases of trying to sound exactly like other players, and, as a result, have attained their own personal style melanges. Let's see, Venuti + Gimble + Svend + Benny Thomassen + Stuff Smith + Kenny Baker + Juan Reynoso = what? Good question!
As we progress on our fiddles we'll probably want to ask ourselves what we want to do on our axes. Do we want to sound like someone else? Do we want to sound like a mixture of ten other people? Do we want to invent a new sound that is ours alone? Everyone must answer these questions for themselves. One thing we can all take to the bank, though, (sorry, I'm afraid it's not money) is that without a doubt we'll find it easier to be an original of ourselves than a copy of someone else.
Until next article, keep woodshedding!
Copyright 2009 by Paul Anastasio All rights Reserved Used by permission of the copyright holder
About the Author
Initially classically trained, Paul Anastasio soon began exploring the world of fiddling. In the mid-1970s Paul studied and performed with Joe Venuti. Beginning in 1978, Paul toured with Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Larry Gatlin, Loretta Lynn and many others.
Paul is the owner of the Swing Cat CD label, (www.swingcatenterprises.com), writes a regular column for Fiddler Magazine and also teaches privately. He has made thirty trips to southern Mexico, recording and studying a beautiful local fiddle style.
Visit his web site at: www.SwingCatEnterprises.com