How to Read Fiddle Tab Made Easy
If you are going to read fiddle tab, or violin tablature, know this: it’s so easy a six year old child can learn the basics in five minutes. I know this because I have seen it in the teaching studio again and again.
Shortnin Bread or Bilem Cabbage Down are two very good first fiddle tunes. I used to start with the first, now I teach the second, as do so many fiddle teachers, including Mark O’Connor.
As you progress to more complex tunes, new symbols come up that need explanation. The purpose of this special report is to explain everything in one go. It can be a reference for you as you learn tunes that have symbols that are new to you.
The appearance of the tab staff, the line up of five parallel lines across the page, corresponds to the neck of the fiddle if it is placed on a table, its left side facing you. Each space on the tab staff represents a string on the fiddle. The highest pitch string, the E is at the top of the four strings. Below that is the space for the A string, which violinists in an orchestra use for tuning. Then the D string is the third space, followed by the lowest pitch string, the G for the lowest space on the staff.
Some tab systems put the finger indications on a line. In this case there are four lines. That looks a little cluttered to me. When I first encountered fiddle tab it was in the Alan Kaufman book, Beginning Old-Time Fiddle. That system put the finger placement signs in the spaces.
In these spaces you will find the characters 0, 1, 2, 3, 4. The zero means no finger is placed on the string. That’s called an open string. Each of the other numbers match a finger in this order: index, or pointing finger-1; middle finger, giver of the “tall man salute”-2; ring finger-3; and pinkie-4.
A violin or fiddle instructor will say, “Play that note with your first finger.” They won’t say, “Play that note with your index finger.” This finger-number equivalence system is built in to the learning process. And, it’s intuitive, not a problem.
Next Comes Rhythm
Under the finger indications are lines. These indicate rhythm. The rhythm of a fiddle tune is just as crucial as the fingering.
A single line under the finger symbol is a beat, the most basic unit of rhythm. When two vertical lines are connected by a horizontal line, that can stand for two notes to a beat. The notes are to be played evenly in most cases. The other was is to swing the two notes, giving more time to the first note of the pair. Think, “Going to Take a Sentimental Journey.” That’s a song with a slow swing feel.
In music notation the vertical lines are called stems. They can also go up from the note head in music notation. The horizontal connecting line is called a beam. I use this terminology for tab also.
In standard music there are often two beams connecting notes, sometimes three. (And rarely more, as in Bach’s first Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin.)
Tab can also have two beams, as in Alan Kaufman’s book mentioned earlier. If you looked in The Fiddler’s Fakebook, you would see that most of the hoedowns and reels, tunes that have four notes to a beat, are notated with one beam under the four stems. That’s called cut time. I use this convention in my tab notation. The qualifier is that I don’t usually beam four notes together. Still I think of it as cut time because there are four micro beats to a beat.
Beginners soon get into taking two notes to a beat. As they learn to play the tunes faster, then they transition to four notes to a beat. The tab notation is the same, it’s the fiddle student who changes in greater ability to play tab at first sight.
The next timing factor is the circle around the finger number. For beginners, this means the note is to be played for two beats. If a note has a circle and no stem, it is to be played for four beats. Shady Grove is an example of this.
Most of the first tunes we will cover are hoedowns having four beats to a bar at beginner speed. About MM = 60 to 72. (MM — metronome mark) As you increase speed to intermediate level, you will hear how the notes are four to a beat.
Introducing the Slur
We have covered rhythm in some depth. By now your are ready to start reading fiddle tab. Now we go on to the element of the slur. The slur is when you play more then one note in a bow stroke.
The standard barn dance shuffle will lead to playing two notes to a bow. As you develop variety in bowing, three notes to a bow stroke is pleasing. for example, the more advanced Soldier’s Joy invites three notes slurred on the D string after one note played on the A string.
Georgia bow is an advanced shuffle that usually has three notes connected in a slur with the one note bowed on the off beat with a vigorous accent, or emphasis. It’s a natural emphasis that gets generated by the Georgia bow shuffle itself.
When you first begin playing the tan charts you will play slowly, with a fair amount of bow travel to clearly hear the sound. As you go faster, the bow stroke needs to get shorter. By the time you are playing four notes to a beat, your bow stroke has shortened quite a bit. That’s the natural result of speed—the faster you go, use less bow.
When you start playing a new tab chart tune, the first issue is where to place the fingers and what string you are on. go through the tune carefully with that in mind. You don’s pay much attention to rhythm or slurs.
The second issue is to make sure you are playing the rhythms accurately. It’s common that in any given tune, some notes get more time than others. You need to pin this down good. This factor is shown by the stems under the notes, or by an added dot or circle around the note. [figure]
The third issue to study is the slurring over any of the notes. In reels, jigs and waltzes, not to mention ballads and aires, you are likely to see some slurs. Be sure you are playing the slurs accurately before increasing your speed.
How About Those Left Hand Fingerings?
In the tab system I use, there is a default placement for the left hand fingers. It is the same as if you were playing a four or five note scale from the open string. When the finger should be placed differently, that is indicated by L or H. That means the finger is lower or higher by a half step from the default placement.
Adapting a rule from music notation, once the indication is L or H for a finger, that remains the correct placement until the bar line is reached. Past the bar line, everything reverts to default, unless otherwise shown. There are not many ways in which reading fiddle tab and decoding music notation are the same.
The first tune I use to change the default fingering is Cluck Old Hen. This is an A minor tune that needs to have the placement of the second finger in the low position, all the way through.The first and third fingers keep on in their places. Only the second finger is changed.
This is often a source of difficulty. The comfortable feeling is for the second finger to be spaced in the middle between the first and third fingers. That’s exactly the wrong place.
In the default fingering, the second finger will be spaced above the first, just as the first is spaced above the nut, the small piece of wood the strings go over coming from the peg box.
By the time a student begins learning that placement, if not before, then they are being required to find a new spot, the low second finger. It’s a big deal, an obstacle. You just have to practice your way through it.