Fiddling in a Danceable Groove
How do you move the bow to get an “in the groove” danceable feel when you play a fiddle tune? It is not just a matter of speed. There is a a definite technique you must master to make this happen.
That’s the topic of this Fiddle Tech Notes essay: Groove Your Shuffle.
For many years I’ve been showing fiddlers how to groove their shuffle. Even beginners are taken through this process to learn how. I’ve coached them to get a grooved, danceable sound. They work through it, pick it up, and make it a habit. I’ve seen and heard the typical newbie errors, too.
Let’s begin with a surprising item from the College of Musical Knowledge. In the groove and feelin’ groovy predates the 60’s release of Feelin’ Groovy by Harper’s Bizarre. You have to go back to the 1930’s for the origin of that phrase.
When a fan of big band music enjoyed and moved to the sound coming from the Victrola, they felt like they were in the groove just like the needle on the record.
Records are almost forgotten now, but when we hear music of any type, we know when the rhythm has a groove and when it’s lacking.
To avoid exactly this lack of groove in our fiddle tunes, let’s get into it. Before we shuffle a breakdown, let’s break down the shuffle.
Barn Dance Bowing
Our focus in this presentation is the bow stroke called the Nashville shuffle or barn dance shuffle. Here it is stroke by stroke.
When I teach this to beginners the first time, I tell my student to move the bow to a pattern of long short-short, long short-short. The long stroke uses more bow travel than the short-short strokes. They start very slowly. The slow speed is right for a beginner who has not been playing the fiddle for more than a month or two.
You end up alternating down for the first long stroke and up for the second. It takes a little getting used to. Six strokes make up the complete cycle of repeated bowing.
(One two-three, four five-six down up-down, up down-up, long short-short, long short-short.) You end up at about the same place on the bow as where you began.
“And where was that?” you wisely ask. The answer is…more towards the middle of the bow than the frog. Beginners tend to start their bow stroke near the frog. This is not the best idea for fiddling.
Take a look at your bow. Notice where the middle is. Now put the bow on the string and touch down almost to that spot. That’s where advanced fiddlers do most of their playing. That’s where the bow is most easily controlled, the sweet spot.
Moving the Bow Faster
Now let’s think about speed or pacing. There is a big difference between the beginner’s speed and the advanced player’s speed. That difference could be two years of determined practice.
It’s also a difference of mental framing of the beat. In the beginning phase you are thinking 4 beats to a bar. Over time you increase your speed. At some point it will be more effective to count two beats to a bar instead of four.
Most published fiddle tunes are intended to be counted two beats to a bar. Not waltzes. They are in three. Hoedowns, reels, jigs, and even hornpipes go well in two counts or beats to a bar. But, still, as a beginner, you will count four. It’s the learning curve.
To put it mathematically, playing at a beginner speed of four notes to a bar and the beat speed at 80, is like playing two beats to a bar at the metronome speed of 40. That’s very slow.
Playing On the Off Beat
Now let’s get to the final effect that’s going to create an unstoppable, hypnotic groove in your fiddling. This effect is called an accent on the off beat.
First, the accent is a stress on a note to give it a stronger sound. It’s done by pressure from the index finger pushing down on the bow stick while the thumb acts as a fulcrum, under the stick or the frog.
The easiest note to accent is the down bow on the beat. Moving that accent to an up bow accent is not as easy to do. But it is still done the same way. Pressure from the index finger which is quickly released as you push the bow. Just like the pressure was released when you pulled the bow.
I recommend and teach students to get used to accents while simply moving the bow back and forth. Then, go on to accenting the off beat on the shuffle.
To accent the off beat on the shuffle you will stress the sound of the first of the two short-short notes. Just saying it is: long SHORT-short. long SHORT-short. Or, in terms of up and down bow: down UP-down, up DOWN-up.
As you get into it you are constantly changing the accent from the up bow to the down bow in the same part of the rhythm. Start this slowly enough to maintain complete control. Gradually speed up. It may not sound or feel intuitive at first.
When you arrive at a danceable speed this way, you are putting the accent “On the Off Beat” just like the title of Liz Carroll’s recent album. You are creating an infectious groove with your fiddle playing.
This is the most direct and easiest way to get that danceable feel in your fiddling.