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February 2009 · Bimonthly

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Swing Fiddle
taught by Paul Anastasio

I was thrust into a bluegrass band while still in my teens. Jack Hansen, a musician friend of mine, had started a bluegrass band. He had heard that I played the violin. Our conversation went something like this:
“You play the violin, right?”
How’d you like to learn to play bluegrass fiddle?”
“Sure! What is it?”

That was no joke. I had absolutely no idea of what the style was, but I was willing to learn. Jack loaned me a couple of records, and off I went.

It soon was obvious that I’d need to learn a bunch of fiddle tunes that would sound good in a bluegrass setting. I’d also need to learn instrumental introductions to vocal tunes and backup for vocalists. What was less obvious was how I was to go about learning these skills.

I eventually began to gain a little understanding of not only bluegrass but other types of popular music as well. Now, forty-some years later, I look back and see that I could have improved much faster if I’d known how to practice better. In addition, there are some terrific tools available now that had not been invented when I began playing.

I’d like to try to lay out the answers to two questions. First, what are the skills needed to play well, not only in bluegrass, but in any other style of music that incorporates improvisation? Second, what are the most efficient, least discouraging ways of acquiring these skills?

Let’s tackle question one first. I would say that a good improvisatory player should be able to play in tune, with good technique and solid rhythm. It’s also really important to understand chords — how they’re built, where their notes are on the fiddle, and how they are put together. Jazz violin pioneer Joe Venuti said, “you have to know chords,” and that’s enough for me.

I know that some musicians, such as Stuff Smith, another great jazz violinist, were able to improvise brilliantly with little formal knowledge of chords and theory. It’d be great if all I had to do to teach was to say, “It’s simple. Just be Stuff Smith.” Sadly, it’s not that easy. While some geniuses could ‘just blow’ on their instruments, the vast majority of musicians will greatly benefit from knowing the chords being played behind them.

Put in the simplest possible terms, when a chord is sounding behind you, the notes in that chord will always fit if you play them on your fiddle. All of the other notes, those that aren’t in the chord being played, will have some degree of dissonance. Some of these notes will be a little dissonant but still sound pretty good, while others will be screaming dissonances. Before I hit a note, I want to know whether it fits the underlying chord. If it doesn’t fit, I want to know how dissonant it will be, so if necessary I can play it in the context of some sort of musical excuse. Above all, I want to have the ‘I meant to do that’ factor on my side, and the more I know about chords the easier that will be.

The majority of the chords that we’re likely to encounter will either be simple major or minor triads (three-note chords) or larger chords built over these triads. Larger chords, such as major sixth (6th) or dominant seventh (7th) chords, are simply triads ‘with added ingredient,’ as they say in the food packaging business.

I’m going to start my chord work by figuring out where the notes in some simple triads can be found in first position on the violin. I’ll start with the chord of G major, which is simply called G. The G chord is built of three notes — G, B and D. As I play up and down (arpeggiate) the notes of the G chord, I’m training my brain to think of G as the root, B as the third (the third note of the G scale) and D as the fifth (the fifth note of the G scale). Thinking of the notes in a chord by their number is invaluable when learning to improvise. When practicing I try to use my fourth finger whenever possible rather than the easier open string. I always do this practicing while watching my chromatic tuner.

If you'll do these two things — thinking notes in the chord by their numbers and playing into a tuner — you'll notice that your ears will soon be getting bigger. Don't worry. Wear a hat and nobody'll notice!

Copyright 2009 by Paul Anastasio   All rights Reserved    Used by permission of the copyright holder

About the Author

Paul is a former student of Joe Venuti and a veteran of the bands of Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Larry Gatlin and Loretta Lynn. He is currently performing, teaching swing fiddle and studying the music of southwestern Mexico’s Tierra Caliente.
He is the co-inventor of the Impressionist, a new addition to chin rests that can make holding the violin more comfortable.

Visit his web site at:
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