Playing Back Up Fiddle in a Band
Compare back up fiddling to guitar player/singers who are learning their music. Most often they start with three chords, G, C and D. Many songs can be sung with strumming accompaniment using only those three chords.
The guitar playing backs up the singing, creating a frame of sound that surrounds and gives added meaning to the song.
For us fiddlers, chords are not the first thing we think of when we pick up our fiddle. We play a melodic instrument that simulates and emulates the human voice. That’s one reason it’s so popular.
What can we do to enhance the performance of a singer-guitar player? That’s the question that this blog post hopes to answer.
Playing the Melody Can Be Back Up Fiddling
The first thing to learn, when playing back up fiddle, is the melody. In folk music days of yore, the fiddle player would often simply play the melody quietly at the same time the singer was rendering a heartfelt evocation of the song.
Being unobtrusive is the key skill. Covering the sound of a singer is strictly forbidden. The offense is punishable by banning and exile from the universe of folk music.
If you get a break to play a solo, then you play out and add some fiddle embellishment to the melody. You sound very accomplished when you do this. You will not offend anyone who has real musical taste.
Going beyond the Melody
There are three areas of expansion to explore. Here is the list in order of difficulty:
1. Rhythm back up.
3. Harmony and Underscoring
Each of these approaches has its own rules and technique. Mastering them takes time and practice. Playing in a band, even a duo, is the only way you can really gain ability that I know of. Well, okay, maybe backing tracks would also work for you.
Your Rhythm Chops for Strong Back Up
Bluegrass fiddlers have a favorite rhythmic chop that is truly a chop. They strike and/or brush the strings with the part of the bow hair that is close to the frog. The effect is similar to the rhythm chop of mandolin players.
The sound is on the off beats and reinforces the rhythmic drive of bluegrass music. For many years I preferred working down the bow towards the tip where I play most of the time anyway.
I keep the bow on the string and move it back and forth with a slight accent where I want to create syncopation or an off beat accent. The sound is less percussive, but still adds a rhythmic push or drive to the music.
By keeping the bow on the string at the most useful part of the bow, you are ready to play a fill, a harmony part or dig in and play a solo. You are already where you need to be.
Another more recent approach comes from Darol Anger and the Mike Block String Camp. It alternates percussive chopping with two note chords, also played near the frog. If you see the YouTube videos of Brittany Haas and Lauren Rioux, you will see them do this technique to perfection. Lately I’ve been doing it a bit myself, after getting some coaching from Lauren Rioux.
Filling a Hole in the Music
The great thing about working with a singer is this: they have to take a breath sometime. When they do, it’s your chance to play a fill.
Of course, you take turns with other soloists for this. But when it is your turn, you can create a short melodic pattern that holds the interest of the listener and moves the song forward.
This is not the chance to show astonishing virtuosity. A good player is constrained on one side by cliché and the other side by “what the heck is he doin’?”
Knowing what to do for fills comes from listening to good fiddlers and imitating, trying stuff out.
Typically you have just a few beats in which to create interest. Then you get out of the way. Don’t keep noodling indefinitely like you don’t know how to finish a phrase.
If you know where the song is going after your fill…(of course you do), then lead into the part. Set it up. Make it sound like the logical outcome of what you just played.
Is that asking for so much? (Well, yes, it is a lot to ask even from pro’s.)
The Singing Tone of the Violin
When it comes to playing close harmony with the singer the fiddle begins to imitate its classy cousin the violin. The aim should be a beautiful tone that supports the individual nuance of the singer without making a challenge for dominance.
Yes, when the singer is not that great, it’s tempting, but don’t overshadow, it’s impolite.
Another move you can do is quite sophisticated. You can underscore the melody with a simple melodic line that contrasts with or echoes the singer’s melody.
This is a common move in country music where they “cue the strings.” Then you hear a symphonic section playing a high melodic line.
This is advanced, of course, when it really is up in the stratosphere of the violin. But, it can also be in the more customary range.
The trick is to find an element of phrasing that suggests the singer’s part or somehow supports it.
Last Thoughts about Back Up Fiddling
To continue the comparison in the first paragraph, just as the guitar player has a variety of chops, licks, strums, bottle neck moves, so does the fiddler have some choices about how and when to use different techniques for back up fiddling.
My recommendation: chose one concept and get good at it. then move on to another. On YouTube I see so many players doing the rhythmic, percussive chop on YouTube. You can get a good idea just watching. Then, try it yourself.