Oldtime fiddle – The Devil’s Box?
Let’s be straight – oldtime fiddle is not for the faint of heart. It might be scratchy and “mossy”, played all kinds of ways by generations of folk musicians, but it’s harder than it looks. As the loudest instrument, any mistakes or hesitations are amplified. A poorly tuned guitar is one thing, but a fiddler with bad intonation? Sweet Lord, get me outta here! And it’s the focal point of the music, so everyone’s eyes and ears are on the fiddler.
Of all the typical oldtime instruments played today, it clearly has the steepest learning curve. The violin fingerboard has no frets, unlike a guitar, banjo or mandolin. So the left hand has to learn exactly where to place the fingers for it to sound halfway in tune. To make matters worse, the human ear is much more sensitive to deviations in intonation for higher pitches than for lower ones. So, yes, those bass players also have to get by without frets, but most of us can’t hear the difference because they’re playing so low. Finally, the scale length – that is, the length of the vibrating string – is much shorter on a fiddle than on a fretless banjo or a bass, so while a millimeter’s difference won’t sound too bad on those lower pitched instruments, it sure will on the fiddle because the relative difference is much greater.
Oh, and the right arm. Well, as a seasoned guitar player I feel pretty safe in saying that most anyone can figure out how to strum a guitar ok without too much time or effort. Bass strings? Well, you pluck ’em and try not to bludgeon your fingertips into ground meat. Even banjo players, who do speak of the finer points of nails and strike angles and such, seem to get it down in pretty short order. But fiddle? I can probably count on one hand the number of fiddlers who feel good about their right arm.
Bow hold, string type, hair tension, rosin, part of the bow, arm weight, tuning, humidity, state of drunkenness – all these factor into making a good right hand squirrely, to say the least.
What? You’re still here? Well, then you just might have what it takes to be an oldtime fiddler. Because what it takes is an unwavering dedication, a perverse fascination, maybe just the downright stupidity to try and master the beast. Maybe they used to call it The Devil’s Box simply because it was always inflicting pain and suffering on the souls unlucky enough to play it.
Where to get started
OK, OK. So, it’s a hard instrument. But I want to play it. Where do I start?
Well, maybe you are fortunate enough to live in a lively community of oldtime musicians. Maybe you have jams going on around you seven days a week. Maybe your granddad is a well-known fiddler. Maybe you have time to catch ten oldtime festivals this year. If so, congratulations! All you need to do is hang out with those folks and muddle your way through until it sounds better than it used to. Of course, oldtime was – and largely still is – an oral music, passed on from person to person through playing tunes and showing others bits and pieces along the way. That is certainly the tried and true way of doing it.
But if that’s your situation, you probably don’t need to read this article. If you don’t have a lively oldtime community where you live or you just want to find a solid footing before venturing out into your local jams, then you’re at the right place.
What I’ve listed below is a colorful assortment of great places to get started on oldtime fiddle. Of course, this is a task complicated. Some players come with no musical background, others play a different instrument, and many come with training in classical violin. Each of these presents its own challenge. With that in mind, have a look and hopefully you’ll find something that will help you take the next steps in playing oldtime fiddle.
1/ Bruce Molsky @ Peghead Nation
The only online course dedicated to oldtime fiddle currently is this one offered by contemporary oldtime royalty Bruce Molsky at Peghead Nation. The course offers video lessons for more than 40 oldtime fiddle tunes from diverse sources, in a variety of keys and tunings. He teaches tunes from prominent fiddlers such as Edden Hammons, Tommy Jarrell, Buddy Thomas, and Marcus Martin, as well as lesser known tunes by Oscar Wright or Tommy Jackson. For each tune, Bruce plays the tune, gives some background information, and then breaks down each part slowly with sufficient repetition. Once the melody is down, he shows the finer points of bowing and on many videos gives variations, chords, or ornaments to fill out the basic version. For a wide variety of learning styles, this is an ideal way to learn a new tune.
Good notation, with accurate bow markings, is also available for each tune.
I would hesitate to send an absolute beginner here, unless they are dead set on the idea. But for those with at least basic mastery of the instrument, the course is ideal in many ways. All in all, a great place to start if you’re willing to pay for it and are already familiar with the fiddle at a basic level.
Cost: $20/month, cancellable at any time
2/ Rayna Gellert videos
Rayna Gellert is a wonderful musician oldtime fiddler who has posted some of the best free lesson videos the Internet has to offer. Currently, Rayna has 36 videos mostly of prominent oldtime tunes such as Sail Away Ladies, Candy Girl, Jeff Sturgeon, Sugar Hill, and more. For the videos, Rayna uses a clever format. She first plays the tune up to speed, then at a moderate tempo with double stops and embellishments, and then a third time slowly with just the melody. This gives the student the ability to see what’s going on very clearly and distinguish the melody from the embellishments. Of course, it’s the embellishments that make it oldtime, but one thing at a time.
The videos are shot very well, it’s easy to see what she’s doing with both hands, and Rayna is a very clean, consistent player with great intonation, so there’s nothing to confuse someone trying to learn a tune.
Rayna’s videos don’t have accompanying transcriptions and she doesn’t give any background information on the tunes other than their sources. But if you want to learn any of the tunes she has up there – and she adds more from time to time – then this is a great place to build your repertoire.
Cost: Free (but please put something in her donation jar!)
3/ Sammy Lind Teaches Old Time Fiddle Tunes, DVDs
Sammy Lind, of Foghorn Stringband fame, is another fiddler with some great tune lessons. In this case they’re 6 beginner tunes and 10 advanced tunes on two DVDs. Sammy produced these DVDs in 2010 on the porch of a friend in Southwest Louisiana over the course of a day. For each tune he plays it solo up to speed, then breaks down the melody and bowing slowly for each part, and then plays it up to speed again with Nadine Landry on guitar. Sammy teaches some cool tunes here such as Rattlesnake Bit the Baby, Jaybird Died of the Whooping Cough, and Rock Andy, all filtered through his ears and style.
Especially the beginner DVD is a great place for new fiddlers to start because the versions are quite manageable and Sammy does a good job of breaking them down. As an added bonus, the videos really feel a lot like just sitting down with Sammy and learning some tunes.
Cost: $27 each
4/ Brad Leftwich Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle, DVDs
Brad Leftwich is another great oldtime fiddler who recorded two DVDs with Homespun in the late 1990s. The first video is great for beginners for a couple reasons. First of all, the tunes themselves – Shortenin’ Bread, Sugar Hill, Old Jimmy Sutton, Black-Eyed Susie, Great Big Taters and Jeff Sturgeon – are presented in quite simple versions, although they remain true to their sources. In addition, Leftwich teaches a set of basic bow patterns that get repeated use throughout the tunes taught. In other words, the tunes themselves are not too hard too learn, and once you’ve learned one, you can use that skill to learn the following ones too.
Leftwich is a very patient, thorough, and compassionate teacher. Nothing is left out which the student might need to master a tune. And, as with most oldtime fiddlers, he’s great about sharing some background information about the tune and where he learned it. Also, every tune is played up to speed with banjo uke accompaniment by Linda Higginbotham, so you can hear what the tune sounds like with chords.
The second DVD follows very directly in the footstep of the first in terms of structure, clarity of teaching, and pedagogical thoroughness. It covers more advanced tunes – Citico, Breaking Up Christmas, Johnny Don’t Get Drunk, Rocky Road to Dublin, Little Maggie, Boll Weevil, Wagner, Chicken Reel, and Blackberry Blossom– while introducing more bowing patters, bow rocking, the use of double stops, and other characteristics that make oldtime fiddling unique. Together the two DVDs are great way to gain a solid foundation in oldtime fiddling if you’re new to the music.
Cost: $30 each DVD or $25 for a digital download
5/ YouTube + Tater Joes
Many people who take up oldtime fiddle have two things: access to YouTube and the ability to read musical notation. Either of these on their own are sufficient ways to learn oldtime fiddle tunes, but in combination they can be really great.
YouTube is the de facto online space for videos of oldtime performances. On a variety of YouTube channels you can find thousands of tunes played primarily at jam sessions and festivals. Often the quality of the recording is high enough that you can find a tune you like, see if there’s a clear shot of the fiddler for at least one chorus, and use YouTube’s “Speed” function to slow down the tune enough that you can begin to learn the tune by sight and by ear. Yes, this is quite daunting at first if you’ve never done it before, but it gets easier. And, truth be told, that’s how you learn a tune in a jam session too, so it’s a skill that really belongs in a fiddler’s toolkit.
But life can be made easier with notation. Especially if you’re new to oldtime fiddle, then hearing the nuances in melody and timing can be difficult because the repertoire of stock patterns is not yet internalized. While there are several places to find notation of oldtime tunes, the best to use in combination with YouTube is currently Tater Joes, the site of fiddler Mark Wardenburg, with close to 600 transcriptions of oldtime tunes.
Tater Joes is great for many reasons. Mark’s transcriptions are very good, he’s constantly adding new ones, and for many tunes he provides versions from different fiddlers. This last point is key, because it allows you to find a YouTube video (or recording, but we’ll get to that later) of a particular version and see if Tater Joes has a corresponding transcription. Even if they’re not an exact match, it’s usually possible to find someone playing that version and work it out more or less.
Going back and forth between the video and the transcription will allow you to both see and hear what’s going on much quicker than on the video alone and WAY better than just using notation. For an example, try looking at Rhys Jones’ version of Buffalo Gals on YouTube and Tater Joes transcription. This is a more intermediate way to learn tunes, but if you can read music already, then this is a great way to go.
Don’t forget to leave Mark a tip at Tater Joes for all his work!
6/ Your nearest jam session
The old-fashioned way. At heart, oldtime is an oral music, meaning that it is passed on from person to person through playing, not in formal lessons or via the printed page. Hopefully you’re lucky enough to have people near you who play oldtime music. If so, hang out with them as much as possible! Most importantly, go to your nearest jam sessions as often as you can. Oldtime is much more than just music. It’s a community practice, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to learn to play in isolation anyway. By joining your local oldtime community, you’ll get to know the people, see what kind of traditions they practice, learn the tunes they know and love. Go check it out – or visit several if you have the opportunity – make friends and you’ll soon find ways to learn their tunes.
Two important notes. First, since you’re showing up with a fiddle and are just getting started, please don’t play loudly. It’s perfectly acceptable to play along quietly while you try to learn new tunes. Play loudly enough that you can hear yourself. But until you feel like you have a tune down, don’t play any louder than needed. Second, don’t be shy! If you sit in chair, holding your fiddle because you don’t know a tune, you’ll never learn. Although this may sound like a contradiction to the first note, it’s not. You’ve got to jump in there and start figuring out how to swim. It might seem scary at first, but that’s how we all began.
7/ An oldtime festival
Even better than your local jam session is visiting an oldtime festival. For many members of the oldtime community, festivals are the highlights of their oldtime year. If you’ve never been to one, most oldtime festivals are not really like other musical festivals. Instead they’re often just glorious camping and jamming for days on end, with some adding in competitions, workshops, and performances. But for the most part, an oldtime festival is an opportunity to shed the responsibilities of everyday life and do nothing other than play tunes, tunes, and more tunes. Whether for a weekend or ten days in a row, oldtime festivals are deep immersion experiences where you meet old friends and make new ones, get thrown into all kinds of new musical experiences, and learn a ton about the music.
If you can swing it, visiting as many festivals as possible is really the way to go!
8/ David Bragger’s YouTube channel
David Bragger is a great oldtime fiddler and the mastermind behind the Old-Time Tiki Parlour, which has been putting out DVDs and recordings of contemporary oldtime musicians since 2009. Bragger has also given many workshops in the US and abroad, and is widely recognized as a skilled teacher of oldtime fiddle. If you can find one of his workshops, then hit it!
For the rest of us, Bragger has compiled a large number of tune videos on YouTube in which he carefully breaks down many popular oldtime tunes. Bragger’s teaching videos are especially useful for players who are interested in learning versions very close to original source recordings and for those who want to dive deep into the intricacies of bowing patterns. Bragger excels at both of these.
While most of the tunes I would classify as intermediate at the least, his thorough, didactic style of teaching makes learning even hard tunes much easier.
Cost: nothing. But after you’ve checked out the DVDs and CDs he has to offer, you’re likely to find something you need real bad!
9/ Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus, Wayne Erbsen book + CD
If books are more your thing and you consider yourself a rank beginner, then there’s nowhere better to start that Wayne Erbsen’s book Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus. Wayne is known as a talented multi-genre, multi-instrumentalist and a great teacher to boot. Wayne’s book really does start right at the beginning with the very basics: what oldtime is, how to choose a fiddle, how to hold it, etc. Then the majority of the book is devoted to very simple versions of classic oldtime tunes and songs. (Yes, friends, there are even lyrics here to sing.) For beginners, these simple versions – present both in musical notation and tablature – are a great place to start. I’m not sure I’d want to lead a tune at a session with one of them, but if someone else is playing one of these classics, then Wayne’s simple versions will likely blend in just fine and give you a great place to start. Then you can build on that foundation with fuller versions found in recordings, on YouTube, or in DVDs like Leftwich’s or Lind’s.
10/ Slippery Hill
Finally, if you’re going to play oldtime fiddle, then you’d better know Slippery Hill. What began as a simple idea by Larry Warren to compile a list of oldtime tunes in the key of C has now become the largest audio archive of oldtime recordings on the web. Slippery Hill is the place to go to hear as many versions of a given tune as is legally and practically possible. In order to avoid infractions of fair use in the US, many of the streamble audio clips are limited to 1 minute each. But this is always enough time to get in at least one full chorus. In addition, each tune includes the key, the tuning, the player, and the date of the recording. This is a great way to begin learning a tune and learn where it came from.
In practice, Slippery Hill can be used a number of ways. Some people start here to discover new tunes and learn them straight from the recordings. If you have some way to slow down the recording and good listening skills, this is a great way to go. Others come back here to hear source versions of tunes that they’ve heard others play. Sometimes someone’s version of a tune involves more “interpretation” than you might like. Slippery Hill has most source versions and can allow you to hear which one you like better.
In the end, oldtime involves a whole lot of listening, and the more you can listen to skilled, experienced musicians, the better. Slippery Hill is by far the best place to find the whole wealth of tunes that oldtime has to offer. And all that for free!
*** What to be careful of: Not everything on the web that’s called oldtime is equally worthy of attention. While it would not be in the spirit of the community to call anyone out, there are many places to learn “oldtime fiddle” that are from players who haven’t internalized the unique stylistic nuances of rhythm, intonation, bowing, etc. that make oldtime what it is. I’m happy to vouch for the players listed here. ***