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Fiddle Tunes in the Jam: What Do You Say, Dear? By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Tuesday, July 21, 2015

When I was little we had a kids' book called What Do You Say, Dear? It demonstrated, in funny ways, polite responses to awkward situations. From memory: "You are walking backward down the street and you bump into an alligator. What do you say, dear? You say, 'Excuse me'". Love it!

The title came to mind as I started working on this blog. What do you do when a traditional banjo-centric jam morphs into a marathon fiddle tune workout? Where one fiddle tune begats another and that fiddle tune begats another and soon you have more "begats" than the first book of Chronicles! (Yes, I had to look that up!)

I love fiddle tunes but this has always been a problem for me because I don't play many fiddle tunes on the banjo. In defense, I learned to  flatpick some of the banjo-unfriendly favorites. So what a joy it was, at our recent Women's Jam Camp, to grab a guitar and circle up with two flatpicking students; Malia Furtado from Circa Blue on fiddle; Mary Dunlap from Banana Express on bass; and a brave beginning fiddle player. We played Whiskey Before Breakfast, Angelina Baker, and Saint Anne's Reel. We also played the banjo-friendly Liberty, Soldier's Joy, and Salt Creek. We had a blast. And why not? We were in Complete Control of the session and we played slow!

But what does a Scruggs-style banjo player do in a regular jam when the session slowly swings over to the Dark Side and the majority of the jammers want to play fiddle tunes?  

I posed this question to a Banjo Picking Girl in Portland and she responded: "Patty and I both go to the bathroom. Not helpful. More thoughts later." That might get you through one or two selections, but if the jam is solidly locked into fiddle tune mode, you eventually have to go back in.

Then what do you do, dear?

You try to make the lemonade, of course. You use the time as an opportunity to learn. It's not particularly fun, unless you are a saint or  farther along the path of enlightenment than I am, but it can be useful. First of all, listen to the tune and try to figure out the chords. Fiddle tunes often give you a chance to learn chords in different keys like D, A, or C. Watch the guitar player. The form of a fiddle tune is generally AABB (A part twice, B part twice) and fiddle players like to stay on one tune for a long time, so you'll get plenty of tries. Once you get the hang of the chords, watch the guitar player less and anticipate the chords more. 

If you do figure out the chord pattern, practice playing the chords in different places on the neck. If the song stays in G forever, then find all the G vamps. Ditto any of the other chords. If you don't know where to look, or how to begin to look, then the jam has already been useful. It has showed you an area you need to work on: Learning your chord positions up the neck. (I feel a new DVD coming on...)

You can also spend valuable time actually listening to the fiddle tunes, with or without vamping. Ask the name of the tune so you can (possibly) remember it for future reference. Many of the same tunes come up over and over. If you jam enough, they may start to sound a tiny bit familiar!

What if the guitar players play the fiddle tunes so quietly that you can hardly hear them? That does make it tougher to figure out the chords, but there are still things to be learnt. Quietly work on your "make-it-sound-like-a-snare-drum" vamp. That's the sound you get when you make the vamp formation but don't press the strings all the way to the fingerboard. Try to find the rhythm "pocket" if there is one and put your vamp in exactly the right place. And think of lemonade! (Or England!)

Here's what I don't recommend: Don't walk away from the jam thinking you have to start learning fiddle tunes. You do not! If playing fiddle tunes on the banjo is your life-long dream, then go for it. But if you're doing this solely for fun, don't disrupt your present path to learn something so completely different. Fiddle tunes demand a lot of exact melody playing which is a different animal from the Scruggs style. Many people do it effortlessly and well, but I can guarantee they put in umpteen hours of practice. And they probably started young, when they had someone to cook their meals, do their laundry, and pay their bills! 

One last thing. Keep in mind that not all jams are going to suit you. If your jam morphs into a fiddle tune jam and you're not feeling Zen like and you don't want to make lemonade, what do you say, dear? "I need to get a beer." 

Get your beer and by the time you come back, the jam may have moved on to Stanley Brothers tunes in which case you will want to rejoin as soon as possible. And if they are still doing fiddle tunes, well, the beer will make you feel "very cheerful," as Joe Forrester used to say! 

P.S. And rest assured that fiddle players feel the same way about having to play a bunch of banjo tunes they've never heard! It's a balancing act, always.

P.P.S And if you want to learn some backup to play behind those fiddle tunes try this DVD: Banjo Backup For Fiddle Tunes



7 comments on “Fiddle Tunes in the Jam: What Do You Say, Dear? By Murphy Henry”

Brboatman Says:
Tuesday, July 21, 2015 @3:10:36 PM

Yep and Amen. I attend a Jam most Tuesday nights that always plays more Fiddle tunes than real music. And your advise is exactly what I have done. I go to the Jam with the mind set of practicing up the neck and working on chords from different capo positions. The only problem is I can't seem to jump back into Scruggs mode when its my turn for a song..

Bill H Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2015 @3:14:46 AM

I would disagree with the notion that fiddle tunes are not real music. Fiddle tunes are the roots of bluegrass. Bill Monroe played fiddle tunes, as have many great bluegrass players like Tony Rice and Doc Watson. Many of Earl's classic standards are based on fiddle tunes--Sally Goodin, Cripple Creek, Cumberland Gap, Sally Ann... just to name a few.

mlamana Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2015 @12:01:17 PM

Perhaps you just need to move to a more fiddle populated area? I live in central Virginia around where John Ashby hailed from and am always jamming with fiddle players. Yes, they do tend to play on...and on...and on. But I see it as lots of time to get my fingers around tunes like Mary Wants A Lover, Sugar In the Gourd, or Rattlesnake Bit the Baby as well as some of the other nice melodies mentioned. With a little judicious note picking and some persistence, Scruggs will work fine. But I agree, it does take practice. I do love a lively fiddle tune though and can't stand not jumping in.

Rowland Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2015 @4:47:17 PM

I like the idea of lemonade ! You can vamp along- pass your break if you're not ready to go for it. Learn the tune or at least write down the name so you can work on it later. Find some examples on you-tube or what-ever. many fiddle tunes can be worked out in part with standard rolls and riffs with some melodic or single string stuff thrown in to catch enough melody notes. Most of all, don't get discouraged and run away just because it may be out of your comfort zone. Try to get into a small jam with folks that will slow down and work on a tune once in a while. Fiddle tunes are a great chance to really learn the notes on the neck. Before long you'll start to know certain patterns that come up over and over.
Basically, approach fiddle tunes with a positive attitude. Do the same with stuff in 3/4 time and keys other than G. The fun never stops.
All that said I do understand the agony. God bless Mr Earl (who, by the way, wasn't afraid of anything!)

realneal Says:
Thursday, July 23, 2015 @6:28:01 AM

The DARK side? I wish I could find these jams that are full of fiddle tunes cuz that's really all I want to play. Why? I just like the way they sound on the banjo. I came to the banjo late in life and before that, I was always attracted to instrumental music, probably because I can't sing a lick. I like Scruggs style instrumentals too, but I am not very good at playing them. I guess I tend to work on what I like, when I should probably work on everything, otherwise I am going to play alone a lot... Dave Hum is the best example of what I like especially since he didn't tend to play everything a hundred miles an hour. But you know what? It's all good!

Bill Rogers Says:
Tuesday, July 28, 2015 @12:33:22 AM

Murphy's right about learning backup to fiddle tunes. If you're not into melodic playing, listen to such banjo/fiddle duets as Earl and Paul Warren and Paul's son Johnny Warren and Charlie Cushman. Learning how to play behind fiddle tunes like that will make you a better all-around bluegrass player and allow you to hang in the fiddle-tune jams without having to learn melodic playing.

hicotton Says:
Wednesday, August 19, 2015 @7:35:25 PM

I just came across this blog and have to weigh in with some comments, starting with... "What did you say, dear - teacher?" Are you putting fiddle tunes and Scruggs style banjo at odds here? What about those banjo pickers that can't/don't sing (ahem!) and when it comes their turn in the jam circle they need standard tunes to play - and FMB or Joe Clark is only allowed once? Sound like anyone you may remember? :-).
Yes, standard fiddle tunes require lots of practice (remember that too?), but there are so many fantastic licks and phrases that can be folded into other songs as you develop your playing style. For the fiddle tunes you may not be familiar with, rolling the standard 'AA-BB" format in D or A often fits perfectly. I certainly agree that a solid guitarist is priceless on these tunes since many fiddle players can't tell you what chord progression they're playing, but aprt from that, just settle in and go for it. I promise you that most fiddle players genuinely appreciate you trying to back them!

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