Bowing for Swing Fiddle

by Marty Laster

When asked how he approaches bowing, jazz violin giant Stephanne Grappelli replied in his rich Gallic tones, "well, zee bow-eet goes up - zen goes down." To a natural musician like Stephanne, this seems logical but to most of us mortals, it's not very helpful. I'd like to offer a couple of ideas and bowing patterns that will hopefully shed some light.

The Attack: You should think of the violin as being a horn (like a trumpet or trombone). Try to begin notes as if you are saying a word beginning with a plosive sound, like the hard letter "P". Lean into the bow with your forefinger and then release right after playing the note. This is like playing an Fp (forte-piano) in classical music. This technique is not as obvious listening to the smooth, elegant style of Grappelli as in the playing of Stuff Smith or Johnnie Gimble. If you've never heard Stuff play, drop what you are doing (don't even bother getting dressed) and buy a CD. He swings like a demon.

One way to help the attack is to leave tiny spaces between the notes. This helps the music breathe and helps in preparation for the attack.

Vibrato: This doesn't relate to bowing, but for you classical violinists, vibrato is now an ornament, used to help the music swing not just to create a beautiful sound. As in traditional baroque music, a fast vibrato can (in my opinion) detract from the music itself.

Now, a few bowing patterns:

Try these patterns with various scales, including the pentatonic (1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 degrees of the major scale). Make sure to practice in the flat keys (F, Bb, Eb, etc.). Remember, the patterns are written as eighth notes but are played in swing time (the first of each pair of 1/8's taking up about 2/3 of a beat, and the second, the remainder).

One reason that the bowings in these examples are effective for swing is that the use of sets of three notes creates syncopation. This is even more effective if you accent the first note of each grouping.

Example #1 works great because it allows you to use very little bow (if that is what you want). It also is a very smooth seamless bowing in which you can avoid accents, if you wish.

This is just an introduction, but I hope you find it helpful. Next time, tune in for an example using a jazz standard where the reasoning behind choices of slurs will be discussed.

-Marty Laster

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