Fiddling On the Off Beat

Shuffles and other Fiddling Off Beat Tricks

Maybe the first difference you can hear between a real fiddler and a violinist playing a fiddle tune is the accent on the off beat. By the way, Liz Carroll produced an album titled On the Off Beat, which is a playfully clever title. I begin teaching my students about this not long after they play Bilem Cabbage Down with shuffle bow. Then, later I teach them again, and then later….well, you get the picture. Some fiddle students get this and work it into their playing without my reminders. Ah! Such students, who would not want them!

The cover of Sheet music from long ago
Sheet music from long ago

If you start with the standard barn dance shuffle, the one that kicks off a hoe down with four potatoes, that’s where the accent on the off beat begins, (to be called off beat accent from here on out.). The beat happens to coincide with the longer notes of the shuffle pattern. The accent goes on the first of the two shorter bows in the pattern. This is even easier to demonstrate than describe. Alas, it is not the easiest thing to learn. For a beginner it’s a little counter intuitive. We apparently have a natural affinity with the accent on the beat. Ya gotta get over it.

Georgia Shuffle Accent

The Georgia shuffle puts in the accent very naturally on the off beat. In this shuffle you begin the pattern on the off beat with a strong down bow and follow that with the next three notes on the up bow. This is assuming all the notes are quick and of equal length. In music notation they would be called sixteenth notes. British call them semiquaver notes. I call them micro beats. Partly because in my tab charts there are four notes that compare to eighth notes, (quavers), and in some of the music notation fiddle tune charts, the four notes are sixteenths. They have exactly the same effect in playing. Four micro beats to the beat. (In jigs it’s three micro beats to the beat.) I have the intention of getting students to subdivide the beat as soon as possible. It’s a very valuable skill.

Irish fiddle players, like Liz Carroll cited above, will put in an accent while the bow is in motion. This works very well for the same purpose of getting the off beat accent, though I consider it more difficult to master. We American fiddlers typically like to change the bow and dig in to get that accent. But, not dig in to the point of crunching.

Shuffle without Off Beat Accent

The double shuffle, or hokum bow, which may or may not have been invented by the Hohokum tribe, does not put an accent on the off beat. It heavily syncopates the accent distributed amongst the micro beats. The pattern is usually 16 micro beats long and then it repeats or not. It’s a great shuffle, very showy, and sounds harder than it is. I have a particular way of teaching it which I usually do when the student begins learning the Orange Blossom Special.

In jigs you will not find an off beat accent. Rather, the jig sounds best with a slight accent on the beat and ocassionally changed up with the accent somewhere else, usually on the third of the three micro beats. Often the fiddler playing a jig will arrive at this micro beat on a down bow and slur in to the next beat. 

The Accent Moves Around

In waltzes the accent or emphasis belongs on the beat with the next two beats receiving less and less accent. It’s like with the oom-pa-pa, oom really gets emphasized, the first pa less, and the second pa, even less. In waltzes that go so fast they really are in one, like Strauss waltzes, only the first beat is strong, (unless the composer wants to shake things up. But, I can’t think of an example at the moment.)

There is a dance form called the mazurka that is in three and has the accent on the second beat. I wouldn’t mind this form being coopted by fiddlers, but it hasn’t happened yet, to my knowledge. Classical composers have gone to town on the mazurka. There are some great pieces that are playable by intermediate violinists. Hey, how about us fiddlers?

One last comment about learning the basic accent on the off beat in the standard barn dance shuffle. Because it is so counter intuitive for most students, you really have to slow down if you haven’t already mastered it. It is not an easy thing to learn, simple as it is. There is one more technique related to it that is even harder. Playing with a metronome when the click is on the off beat. Now that’s brutal.

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