Fiddle Waltzes

How a European Waltz Becomes an American Fiddle Tune

The typical fiddle contest requires you to play a hoedown or breakdown, a waltz and a tune of choice, which could be a rag, a polka, a blues or just a tune that doesn’t easily fit into any obvious category.
The fiddle technique needed for breakdowns and tunes of choice is about the same. The style and technique for waltzes is different.

Tone color, as far as considering left-hand technique, means slides in the fast pieces. In waltzes it means vibrato. That’s the clearest difference. You will show off your vibrato ability in a waltz, not in a hoedown. You will color the sound, warm it up and make it sentimental using vibrato.

There are a few ballads that have become standards in fiddle repertory: Faded Love, Maiden’s Prayer, San Antonio Rose. These also benefit from vibrato.

A Waltz Is a Dance

But fiddlers who don’t play these, may still play a waltz. It’s a dance tune, after all. And I can’t think of one fiddler I’ve met that doesn’t play Ashokan Farewell, if it’s a doable tune. Many a student of mine has gained momentum and motivation by starting to learn Tennessee Waltz, an incredibly popular tune with those who heard it as children, like myself.

I confess the first waltz in 43 Fiddle Tunes in Tab is not nearly as popular. Southwind is a pleasant Irish waltz, maybe even sentimental. It does a rally spiffy move in the B part, musically speaking. But my student has never heard it before. So it doesn’t get rave reviews.

It has its place because it fits the criteria of “not hard to play.” The bowing is simple. And, as an Irish waltz, it is well known.

The other waltzes in the book are Tombigbee and Sheebeg Sheemore. The first is intermediate and the second advanced, because of the use of third position, a harmonic and a portamento slide.

What the Bow Can Do

Waltzes do not lend themselves to a grooved bowing pattern like hoedowns, jigs or tunes of choice. You must find a way to handle the bow using as much of it as you can. You also must make the bowing changes as smooth as you can. The changes of direction and the choice of slurs are dictated by the nature of the melody you are playing, and your sense of phrasing.

When I teach Ashokan Farewell, I use very few slurs. The smoothness of tone and texture results from smooth changes of bow direction. This is the style of playing that classical violinists call legato. That means connected. The notes played are connected to each other except for the slight pause between phrases. Sometimes a brief silence, or rest, will be used to create a dramatic effect.

This smoothness of sound encourages the warming and humanizing effect of vibrato.

Left Hand Ornamentation

Ornamentation in waltzes is like that found in reels, jigs, hoe-downs and tunes of choice, for the most part. You won’t use drone notes a you might in a hoedown. You will find yourself playing pull-offs, hammer-ons, grace notes, triplets, rolls, double notes. All these can be appropriate for waltzes.

They can be done less quickly. You have more time in a waltz. You can be lazy about getting through a fingering.

Double stops, playing two fingered notes at the same time, dominate many waltzes.Wednesday Night Waltz, for example, is 80% double stops until you get to the first variation. Other waltzes are usually played in single note melody style. Ookpic comes to mind as an example.

Why some waltzes are played in double stops and some are not is a mystery to me. Wednesday Night goes back to a collection published in 1936. I have one version from the Christeson book, The Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory. It’s all double stops. That was then. Current practice lets you play one note at a time the second time through. You also get to dress the tune up in ornaments.

Southern country waltzes are played more slowly than their Northern and Canadian cousins. I suppose people dancing in colder climates like to keep up a more vigorous movement. Or, maybe the heritage of European waltzes is stronger in the North.

The European tradition often has a waltz played so quickly it is said to be in one instead of three. The only fiddlers’ waltz that comes to mind in this category is Skaters. Even this one gets a slower treatment than you would hear in Vienna.

A skating rink record would have it in one, but at a contra dance it will be in three.

This rule has not been engraved on granite and handed down from the mountain, by the way. If you feel like playing any waltz in a sprightly speed, you have my permission. It might do the old war horse good to have the riding crop applied.


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Some fiddlers prefer to have real paper and ink delivered to the mail box. Especially when it includes a fresh fiddle tune in tab. Which I do include with paid subscriptions.

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October’s tune was Ebenezer. It featured Georgia bow. For December, mail subscribers got “O Holy Night,” an elaborate two page Christmas song.

Just a note for online subscribers: If you have been delaying your subcription to the print version, with the two extra tabs included each month, here’s news.

I’ve finally started assembling the fiddle lesson online for “Orange Blossom Special.” When that module is ready, my sign up bonus for Fiddle Tech Notes will change. It may not include the current bonus tabs for “Orange Blossom Special.”