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Re: Can You Play Fiddle Tunes in Scruggs Style

Posted by Don Borchelt on Sunday, April 25, 2010

A response to the thread

wmclean wrote in the above-named thread: "It is paramount when rendering a fiddle tune in scruggs style to know the actual melody- even if you don't play it. Learning to sing it is should be first, learning it on the banjo perhaps second even if it never gets up to speed. Understand which parts of the tune you are including, and where you are using licks or more banjoistic ideas."

A fiddle tune is a living thing, and like all living creatures, it has a soul. The greater measure of that soul is in its core melody, the central essense of the tune that if you hum it, every other musician will know instantly what tune you are channeling. We breath that soul from just those few notes that we are capable of rendering with the human voice, the first musical instrument that we all learned to play. A good fiddler will take that core of the tune and make it his or her own by adding very personal embellishments, suggested as much by patterns of the bowstroke and the structure of the fiddle tuning, as by pure melodic invention. Many of the sparkling notes that a melodic picker will spend so much time working out and memorizing are in truth just the elaboration and ornament invented by a particular fiddler, for a particular performance.

It is not so surprising then that many fiddle tunes, in particular those from Appalachia, started out as songs. Quite a few of these are among the so-called "play party songs," tunes which in the rural South of several generations ago would be sung by proper church-going folk at social gatherings. The songs supplanted the fiddle, which was banned as the devil's instrument, and provided musical accompaniment to an activity which to an outsider looked a lot like dancing, but wasn't, because that, too, was sinful. That's why today we can break in on such tunes with nonsense verses, for example:

I love cake and I love puddin'
I'd give it all away to see Sally Goodin'

I looked down the road and I seen my Sally comin'
And I thought in my soul that I'd kill myself a runnin'

Went to the creek and the creek was muddy,
Kissed Sally Goodin' 'til she couldn't stand steady.


Cripple Creek's wide and Cripple Creek's deep,
Gonna wade old Cripple Creek in my sleep,
Hitch my britches up to my knees,
Gonna wade old Cripple Creek when I please.

Goin' up Cripple Creek, goin' on a run,
Goin' up Cripple Creek to have some fun,
Goin' up Cripple Creek, goin' in a whirl,
Goin' up Cripple Creek to see my girl.

In contrast, I will admit that I have never heard anyone in New England attempt to sing verses to, say, Fishers Hornpipe. But even those melodically more dense tunes from the British Isles have a spirit to them which fosters variation. And as Will Maclean said, before you can play the tune you have to be able to hum it, and know what parts of the fiddle performance you want to keep, and what parts you want to "banjoize." There was a time years ago when I had "melodic madness" myself, but for a long time now I have stood firmly with Steve and the others who say that a blend of Scruggs and melodic is the way to do the tunes justice. I find perplexing what I think is the predominant view among bluegrass pickers, at least here on the BHO, that the two techniques should remain completely separate, as if there was some unwritten musical anti-miscegenation law that we are not allowed to violate, for fear of finding a banjo burning on our front lawn.

The amount of melodic phrasing I use in a tune depends on the tune. For New England, Irish and some Western tunes, I will still use predominantly melodic technique, but for the Appalachian tunes I play mostly these days, I use melodic phrasing very sparingly. I rely a lot more now on left hand slides, hammers, and pull-offs, imbedded in those rippling right hand patterns. To be able to make those decisions Will is talking about, you really have to listen to a lot of fiddling, and listen closely. You have to understand the instrument you are using as your starting point, to make those decisions wisely. Then you need to listen closely to the result, because in the end, it's about what it sounds like, not what it looks like. I have found, after playing fiddle tunes in three finger style for over 40 years, that the best sounding phrases are usually the simplest.

One last point. How you arrange a tune depends a great deal on who you are going to be playing with. Paradoxically, I think a straight melodic approach works just fine for bluegrass, a heroic music where each lead musician gets his or her time alone in the spotlight, while the other musicians provide the essential "back-up" rhythm. However, if you are playing for a New England contra dance, in a Southern old-timey jam, or in a Celtic session at the local pub, you are going to be playing lead along with a number of other musicians, and you will have to be listening constantly as much or more to how you fit into the overall sound, and not just to your own instrument. Melodic, including for the moment single string style, is best suited for Celtic sessions, but it still matters greatly just what notes you play. You have to know the tunes well, and hear carefully how the others play them, not just how you play them. In old-timey jam sessions, however, the rhythmic pulse of the music is absolutely central to the whole experience, and a good right hand roll pattern can really help to move the music along in a way that melodic style alone usually does not. But you have to be listening very closely to the overall sound, and blending that roll into the collective flow of the tune, and not be running around on your own, knocking things over.
You want to complement the fiddle, not just mimic it.  It takes practice. Allow me the temerity of using as an example a recording of a jam session I participated in at Clifftop back in the summer of 2008. The fiddler is Jim Costa, Summers County, WV, who is also one heck of an old-time banjo picker.

 I have a number of three-finger tabs posted on my webpage:


9 comments on “Re: Can You Play Fiddle Tunes in Scruggs Style”

Marc Nerenberg Says:
Sunday, April 25, 2010 @7:27:15 AM

Very well put. I don't understand where the idea that different banjo techniques must be compartmentalized comes from (and the idea is just as prevalent in old timey circles) ... but you do a good job of explaining why that's a pretty pointless restriction.

Don Borchelt Says:
Sunday, April 25, 2010 @9:29:15 AM

Thanks, Marc. I guess in every category of human endeavor, there are folks who want to preserve the purity of the status quo. But music has always been an evolving thing, and that is true for bluegrass and old-time music, too.

jimh269b Says:
Sunday, April 25, 2010 @12:26:28 PM

well don sure does knows what his talking about,and a awsome picker

Hunter Robertson Says:
Sunday, April 25, 2010 @5:25:53 PM

"Purity of the status quo" -- nice. Have you read George Gibson's essay in which he talks about all manner of uncouth things people used to do? Playing the banjo flat on the lap and picking UP on the 5th string with the back of the thumb! It's a good thing that's been stomped out. Who knows where it might have led? A Darwinian moment for clawhammer.

Always a pleasure to read your thoughts on tunes and playing Don.

Gareth Banjoland Says:
Sunday, April 25, 2010 @5:46:01 PM

I agree -what a great read.
Cheers Don.

Couchie Says:
Monday, April 26, 2010 @6:19:50 AM

Some interesting observations Don. The Jim Costa link is awesome!

kdstag Says:
Monday, April 26, 2010 @8:14:05 AM

I appreciate your comments and enjoy your website as well. Wish I could pick your brain for a few years. Thanks.

Don Borchelt Says:
Thursday, April 29, 2010 @3:15:50 PM

Thanks everyone for the nice comments, I really appreciate it. You know, Hunter, I did read that essay by George Gibson, but I forget where. Maybe it was just a post or something, but I remember the drift of it. That's one of the reasons I like to listen to the MP3 posts here on BHO; you hear a lot of really interesting and different ways that people play the banjo, very often really great stuff. For example, I think Chip Arnold and a bunch of others are really rescuing two finger up-picking from oblivion, and it is the BHO as much as anything that is giving them the opportunity to do it. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Oh right, we're not supposed to say that!

Paul R Says:
Saturday, May 8, 2010 @6:22:02 AM

That's a well though out commentary. It doesn't just stop there; it can be applied to all musical genres. Nothing stays the same, but there's a need to "respect the roots". If you don't know where you've come from, how can you complete the journey in a meaningful way? (Which is one reason why so much contemporary music is so shallow.) What you do also depends upon with whom you are doing it. Your ideas have applications that go beyond music.

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