What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

What is the music theory behind creating a fiddle break in bluegrass music?

I know the best bluegrass fiddlers don’t play melody during a fiddle break, and play something very virtuoso 🙂

So this question is about how to play a fiddle break and not play melody 🙂


I know some of the theory for improvising in bluegrass:
Such as: use the blues scale for each chord, which is the i, iiib, iv, v, viib
(for each chord, notes generally from the scale of the chord, but playing the first, flattened third, fourth, fifth, and seventh flattened notes, of that scale), (so skipping the second and sixth notes generally),
So for the chord of D, the notes that could be played would be d, f natural, g, a, c natural, (because the third and seventh are flattened, plus that the second and sixth are skipped, generally)

Options of:
Sliding from the note e to e flat,
Sliding from the note b to b flat,
Option of sliding from the flattened third up to the third (in each scale, eg: f natural to f sharp for the chord of D)
Sliding a two fingered double stop,eg: on G and D string, sliding a and f sharp up to c and a,

Double stops can be used, generally in thirds,

Double stop Shuffle bowing is another option (like for the Orange blossom Special)

Optional:
Vibrato for long notes,
Vibrato for long duration double stops,
Sliding up into a double stop is another option,

Any other bits of music theory?
Like different rhythms that can be used?
Such as quaver quaver (slurred) quaver quaver (not slurred)

Anyone able to add any more music theory to Bluegrass Fiddle Breaks?

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

So said Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court, and I think it’d be good to take those words to heart. The fiddle break was not created by people who analyzed the theoretical implications of their bowstrokes. It was created by people who were fluent in the language of their instrument through years of playing and practicing, and they played whatever they felt like playing.

Instead of trying to intellectualize it, start listening and practicing. Listen to what the masters do, try your hand at it, and at some point, you’ll "know it when you hear it."

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

I should add that even though this discussion is only tangentially related at best to the music of this website, my advice above still holds for Irish trad. Just substitute "how do I ornament a tune?" or "how do I come up with variations?" for OP’s question.

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

I guess there aren’t any forums or websites that gravitate towards Bluegrass music?

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Highlanderq - there’s quite a lot involved in this, and it’s pretty complex.

Some theory here, plus a breakdown (no pun intended) of the improvisational elements involved, on P77 :

https://ttu-ir.tdl.org/ttu-ir/bitstream/handle/2346/58838/HOULE-THESIS-2014.pdf?sequence=1

Much of it is taken from Matt Glaser’s 1992 thesis from Tufts University, “Controlled Improvisation”

A good clip of improvisation around the melody (in an instrumental) (also worth listening to the dobro player’s contribution too) :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1YhXI7CX98


Improvisation in a break in a song, from the mighty Mark O’Connor : (02’53) :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVl1ibykWZU


The musicians in those clips are/were among the world’s best, and recorded when they were in their prime.

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Jim Dorans, that’s great. I appreciate the information about variations on "Sally Goodin’". Especially taking it back to Eck Robertson. Brilliant, cheers!

"Robertson’s innovative and distinctive signature fiddle style blended southern, old-time, and Texas contest fiddle elements. Though the idiom has significantly altered throughout the years, it is clear that many interpretations of fiddle tunes are based upon aspects of Robertson’s versions this is most notable in later recordings based upon his performance of the hoedown ‘Sally Gooden,’ which Bill C. Malone has called “one of the most justly famous renditions in country music."

I don’t know if you are familiar with a California fiddler, Laurie Lewis, but I loved hearing her play Sally Gooden at the Strawberry Music Festival with a stage full of fiddlers taking turns on the tune. When it came to Ms. Lewis she stepped up to the mic and said, "I know the tune.", and proceeded, graciously to play the melody. She was fearless doing that in the middle of such esteemed fiddlers.

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Thanks for that PDF, Jim!

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Highlanderq, is this a windup?
I’m only asking because many of your comments seem to be contrary to how other members interested in sessions tend to discuss the music they are interested in playing.

Thanks in advance,
Ben

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

That’s a reasonable question Ben. I don’t think it’s a wind-up as such, but for a couple of reasons the post has had me scratching my head all morning (over here in Oz).

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Morning? You mean it’s already 2017 in Oz? You guys, how did you get there before me?

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

I dunno Ben, but I’d blame Donald Trump!

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

That much is obvious. President-elect Trump is challenging for many here. I’m doing my best to keep focused on bringing people together through music and other unifying qualities.
Hang in there, Gobby.

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating variations in irish dance music?

Fixed! 🙂

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

bigsciota said:
Instead of trying to intellectualize it, start listening and practicing. Listen to what the masters do, try your hand at it, and at some point, you’ll "know it when you hear it."

I totally agree. Unless you can play what you hear in your head you’ll struggle. It’s easy to analyse what a player is doing but harder to put that analysis into practice because that’s not the way it works. It’s ear, ear and ear and then, and only then, maybe a wee bit of theory.

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Am I right in thinking that Bluegrass is an entirely synthetic tradition created by a man called Bill Monroe in the 1930s? I ask because I once found myself inadvertantly at a Bluegrass weekend and I couldn’t work out what was going on at all. People seemed to think that because I owned a mandolin I should have a natural understanding of the genre, but I certainly did not. When I got back I tried to find out what I should have been doing and it all seemed to go back to this one man.

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

"an entirely synthetic tradition"
Eh? I’ve no idea what that means.
Bluegrass is a style of music that was originally based on the sound and instrumentation of Bill Monroe’s various bands. Does that make it synthetic? If so then you might as well say ITM is synthetic in that it must have oriented somewhere.

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

I didn’t recall having heard the Blue Moon of Kentucky before, no. The only tune I recognised at the Bluegrass Weekend was Old Joe Clark. When I say Bluegrass seems to be synthetic I mean that one person, Bill Monroe, seems to have invented it for a particular band or bands and then it has been taken up as a genre in its own right - but I don’t know that that is true. I’m asking if it’s true.

If it is true then it explains why it is so difficult to learn because Bill Monroe was obviously already a very sophisticated musician before he created Bluegrass and it seems that what he has produced is a kind of music it is impossible to play in a simple way. If I play the tune of Old Joe Clark on a mandolin or a fiddle it sounds vaguely American but does not sound like Bluegrass.

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Couldn’t work out what was going on eh Gallopede??? Not surprised, from the outside it can be a bit confusing. Each instrument in a bluegrass band has a specific job to do, and we try to do it. If we can do more….all the better but the basics and absolutely key. As a mando player you would be expected to provide the offbeat chordal chop, the bass provide the on beat bass line, guitar the main chordal sound. Banjo usually plays solos and backup either rolls or comping depending on the situation (as a banjo picker I know its important to not think its all about me - and et out of the way). Fiddle plays solos, harmony, or sometimes just chucks on the offbeat. All instruments that can solo might do so.

Mr Monroe was looking for a new sound and he tried all sorts, until a young banjo picker named Earl Scruggs was suggested to him by Lester Flatt, and the whole thing clicked. That was The Classic Sound, and soon others copied the sound and put thier own stamp on it. Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, The Stanley Brothers.

As for fiddle in particular….listen to a heap on early Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys, and Flatt & Scruggs the early stuff (lets say before 1960). Awesome fiddle playing there; Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements, Howdy Forrester….great players.

Cant go wrong listening to Alison Krauss & Union Station - particularly the early stuff she is a wonderfly lyrical player.

https://youtu.be/XDZ9PN5K06Q


And cant resist a bit of the original stuff from way back when…..

https://youtu.be/MeZPAQRl7TA


The main thing is to listen listen listen. Get the music in your blood. Its way more than notes on a page, in fact a lot of the founders of bluegrass could hardly read a note!!!

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

You’re on the right track, Gallopede. Bill Monroe’s bluegrass began with the music he heard growing up.
"The first music I heard was Uncle Pen and Uncle Birch and a man by the name of Clarence Wilson, and they played numbers like “Soldier’s Joy.” Each town maybe had a little band, you know. I knew a little band eight or ten miles from us by the name of Foster String Band—that was back in the twenties, and I remember a band that had a fiddle, a Hawaiian guitar, mandolin—they might have had a banjo. They played breakdowns, dane music and a few waltzes and a little Hawaiian music. Maybe there would be one man who would know a solo, and there was a fellow singing “Greenback Dollar.”"
http://www.thebluegrassspecial.com/archive/2011/april2011/bill-monroe-centennial-moment-april-2011.html

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Oh yes and there are tunes that are sort of a fiddle canon: Turkey In The Straw, Sally Goodin, Jerusalem Ridge, etc…well I’m not a fiddler and its getting late I could come up with more…er…..Arkansas Traveller, The Chicken Reel…brains gone dead. 🙂 Happens if yer a banjo picker I suppose. 🙂

Oh yeah and bluegrass music is SONGS not just instrumentals. There are many great songs and for a band thats almost always 75% of what they play.

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

The main thing about bluegrass is the fast and loud banjo style developed by Monroe, Scruggs et al made possible by the use of finger picks.
If you take out the banjo you are left with "old time", "appalachian" etc etc which merge in a continuous tradition back to celtic and european roots

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Bluegrass is grand! But how is it relevant here, on thesession.org?

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Because bluegrass musicians often take part in jam sessions?

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

I’ve played with many bluegrass musicians in Irish sessions, Scotty. Again, how is a discussion about the theory behind instrumental breaks in bluegrass music relevant on a site devoted to Irish music sessions?

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

aha sorry AB its been a while since i was here and I thought it was a site not wholly focused on ITM. If it is, I’ll take my leave.

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Scotty, I just posted (more than once) about bluegrass music in my comments above. If you’re inferring that I’m excluding you that is your choice. On the other hand if you are willing to thoughtfully consider the relevance of the original post to the primary focus of this forum I’m eager to hear what you think.

And, no, this is not a site wholly focused on Irish traditional music. Having said that it is place for musicians who seek out sessions which tend to focus mostly on playing tunes together, in unison. That does not mean members here are not willing to stretch how they play sessions to include fiddle breaks, solos and/or improvisation.
It simply means that Irish sessions and bluegrass sessions have fundamental differences and one
does not need to exclude the other, though mutual respect for these distinctions can go a long way
in appreciating what is expected in a given session.

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

I feel I need to understand the boundaries of my music and Bluegrass is on one of the boundaries. As an Anglo-Scottish musician I can see that if I’m desperate for a session and find Bluegrass it is for me less than best but it should be possible to play along without getting into serious trouble as long as I have one of the approved instruments and a little bit of knowledge. (The person who arrived at the Bluegrass Weekend with a piano accordion was maybe pushing it a bit).

I do know some of the tunes. I see Turkey in the Straw, which is Anglo-Irish, and Soldier’s Joy - which is in every tradition, and I know Old Joe Clark and .Arkansas Traveller.

Mandolin seemed like the safest option because it’s quiet but playing closed chords kerchunk on the off beat is a bit of a killer for a melody player with a mandolin chosen to sound as lute-like as possible. Fiddle might be easier. The fiddle seems only to play some of the time, doing an approximation of the tune with a lot of sliding and double stops and it doesn’t seem to change much in the breaks. I think I could do that.

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Gallopede- Devils Dream, which is the American version of De’il Among the Tailors and Cold Frosty Morn are two more you might know. Both are pretty popular. And you’re right; the fiddle would probably have the easiest time moving from ITM to bluegrass.

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

The *theory* is that playing fast and showing off will get people to cheer for you. Lol

one bit of advice I heard from someone who is very good at this was, "Whistle or hum something improvisational along witn the tune. You should be able to do that just as freely on your fiddle. Then, if you want, you can add a bunch of in-between notes to make it sound faster."

Don’t get hung up on music theory, that’ll just mess make it sound forced and not natural. Practice emphasing different notes. Eg, take a tune & chord sequence in D maj. It may be easy to play some improv with it that emphasizes the note D, or maybe that emphasizes the note G, or A. By "emphasize" I mean you keep coming back to that note and spending time on it. Now, mix things up… how about a solo that emphasizes E? F#? B? C#?

There are lots of other improv excersizes out there. What you want is varied practice and time, and yeah listening to and imitating other folks too, at a reasonable speed.

And btw I’m crap at that kind of music (bluegrass, texas swing, jazz, etc) but that’s what you get for asking on an Irish trad site. This above is just my favorite bits of second-hand advice on the subject.

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Re: Late one night on the banks of little chico…

Here is my one fringe credential for playing Irish traditional tunes with a known bluegrass musician.
I met Radim Zenkel at a friend’s party and a few of us played tunes with him down by Little Chico Creek at the tailend of a good night’s session.
He asked me which tunes I knew. Crazy Czech!

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Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

Fair enough AB never meant to give offence at all!! 🙂 Cant resist when someone mentions the music I love and have been playing 25 years+.

As far as ITM, I like that too, particularly piping as I play the pipes just not the Irish pipes. The Scottish Smallpipes and the Border Pipe, playing Border tunes for the most part, in a Border (not Highland) style. jus getting back to playing after a big layoff.

Re: What is the music theory behind creating a Fiddle Break in bluegrass music?

"I know the best bluegrass fiddlers don’t play melody during a fiddle break, and play something very virtuoso 🙂"

I’ve played bluegrass (mandolin, but also some guitar and bass) for a number of years now as my primary form of music. I personally think that sentence is only about half right: it’s hard to play a truly excellent bluegrass break on any instrument without at least referencing the melody, which of course requires you to know it.

I started out learning the classic tunes it seems everyone near me learns first: old joe clark, red haired boy etc. I also however came from a jazz backround, being a clarinet player as well, so when I got into a jam and went to start taking breaks, I though the same thing - play anything but the melody! Make something up that sounds hot and impressive! But I still had this nagging feeling that no matter what I played it didn’t sound "right". The problem only got worse when I started learning other tunes and singing songs. It wasn’t until some years later when I started singing bluegrass that it "clicked". Suddenly I was connecting with the melody on a whole other level. While taking a break, I knew what the melody was so I could take it and ornament it and fancy it up while still letting you know what song it was. I’d say it was only then that bluegrass really started making sense to me!

I think if you’re coming from a background of unison melody playing than bluegrass can definitely seem like a bunch of showboaters trying to out do each other’s hot licks. Certainly, there can be an aspect of that and I’m not denying it! However, if you do a lot of listening to the early players of the style you’ll see a much more grounded approach to the melody. I’m not a fiddle player, but I know a few great ones personally and have spent much time listening, so here’s my take on a fiddle player’s role in Bluegrass:

- "Chopping" two and three fingered chords with the bow is quite common along with the mandolin chop during rhythm playing, especially on instrumentals where fills might go over someone else’s break
- On singing songs, fills can be very powerfully added to emphasize high energy parts, or in the breaks between lines almost like punctuation on a sentence
- When the fiddle break comes, start out playing the melody but maybe ornament it with double stops and slides. I’ve heard that true Irish fiddle plays only one string at a time, but that is definitely not the case for bluegrass. Double and even triple stops are the name of the game! Maybe halfway through your ornamented melody you can go and play an octave up. In the last couple bars you can get usually get pretty fancy, playing a bluesy pentatonic run or something to end

This is of course just my take on things, your millage may very. Interestingly enough, the more I’ve played bluegrass the more into the melody I’ve gotten. This led me into old time music, where the tunes are played in unison and breaks are not a thing. Old time music has led me into seeking out tunes from all kinds of different fiddle traditions, and now into ITM which is how I got here. It’s all about the melody!