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Fiddle Lesson One--
Grooving Your Shuffle

Five Reasons Fiddlers Groove the Shuffle

These may already be obvious to you. But let’s take a look at them anyway.

1. You get a danceable rhythm when you play your tunes. And fiddle tunes are dance tunes. Fiddle music is dance music.

2. You have better ensemble when you play with other players. Whether they play banjo, guitar, bass or fiddle they will hone in on your lead when you have a solid groove with your shuffle.

3. You have more enjoyment in your fiddling. Maybe playing in the groove releases endorphins into the brain. That’s my theory. Whatever the reason, I’ve seen this myself, observing other fiddlers. When they get a groove going, they get happier.

4. You get audiences to tap their toes. When you have the chance to play for a listening crowd, maybe they won’t get up and dance. But they do want to tap their toes. Let them do that by creating a groove and sticking to it.

5. Finally, you can “get that sound,” as Mark O’Connor says--that sound that announces your status as a real fiddler. This sound is authentic, vital, compelling, fun--and you can only get that sound when you groove your shuffle.


What You Will Learn

First you get to know each element of the groove:

  • rhythm
  • accent
  • evenness
  • speed

This is presented by the text discussion, by the tab charts and by the MP3 files.

In addition to what the elements sound like, there is a file for common errors. In the early stage of learning shuffle bow, there are several mistakes that are common for beginners. It’s easy to learn how to do this the wrong way. I’ve included MP3 files that show mistakes that my students have done before they learned the right way.

When you hear what the sound should be, compared to what it should not be, you are in a good position to evaluate yourself. Use "Professor Tape" for your instruction. Record yourself and then listen to the play back.
Do the drills that accompany each element. They are basic to playing your fiddle. If you focus on them one at a time, they are not hard to learn.

Finally, after working your way through the drills, apply your ability to the Top 10 Tune, Bilem Cabbage Down. You may already have the tab chart for that--either form the pdf file or from the book. But for convenience, I’ve added accent marks. (If this is overkill, just forgive and keep going.) As an added bonus, you will be shown how to apply the Power Stroke, (from Lesson Two, The Power Stroke ), to this tune also.

The Barn Dance Shuffle

This is also called the Nashville shuffle. It’s the most basic shuffle pattern for hoedowns and reels. The first example shows a total of four beats of shuffle rhythm. In my tab system it takes two bars to get this down on paper. (A bar is the same as a measure. Notes grouped within two of the vertical lines make up a bar.)

The shuffle is easiest on the E string. Now try it on the A string.

The next example shows the shuffle on two strings--A and E.

It’s a little ironic that, after struggling to get a clean sound on just the A string alone, now you have to drag the E string into the picture. But the truth of the matter is this: the bow moves in seven distinct planes, four for the four strings, and three for the three combinations of two adjacent strings. This double string pattern is useful for kickoffs. It’s called “four potatoes,” and goes for four counts just as you see above. The next example shows how this part hooks up with the beginning of Bilem Cabbage Down.

The first MP3 file has each of these examples in order--Download Shuffles MP3.

Accent on Rhythm

The next aspect of the groove is accent. This means emphasis in music just as it does for a word in the dictionary, or in languages that use accent marks for emphasis.

The way we get this emphasis in fiddling is through bow technique. In this case, we use our index finger of the bow hand to add pressure at the beginning of a stroke. As the bow begins to move, we release the added pressure.

Sometimes you here players talk about “digging in” with the bow hair, or “getting a bite on the string.” That tells you something about the feel of making an accent. You can hear the difference between an accented note and the same note unaccented. The next example shows how this sound would be notated. Download the MP3 file, accents,

Notice that an accent can be produced on a down bow or an up bow. The example of an accent in the sound file is a little exaggerated. But, only a little. When you are moving the bow rapidly, there is little time to “dig in” and get a “bite” on the string. Instead, you can just get more sound, briefly, on the note that you are accenting.

A Violinist in Fiddler's Clothing

Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. We are about to cross the great divide between fiddlers and wannabe’s.

Because of the importance of this moment of instruction, I would like to take a little time out for a personal story. When I started fiddling, I was already a violinist. I was competent enough to play in the second violin section of the Florida Orchestra. That is even more of an accomplishment today then it was back then. But even in the early days of that orchestra, it was evidence of professional ability.

Have you ever seen how a violinist can whip off Devil’s Dream in a whirlwind of notes, but they don’t "get that sound." They just don’t get it. And what they don’t get is the appropriate use of accented and unaccented notes, for one thing. Their shuffle is not grooved, in other words.

I’m sure I must have fallen into that category in my early days of fiddling. And, of course, I was clueless. My lucky chance came when my old time string band made a trip to Galax for the big festival.

For several days I was drenched in "that sound." Fortunately, an inner switch was thrown. I began to build in that Galax groove in much of my playing.

It was soon after the band had come back to the Tampa Bay area that we played at a shopping mall in north Tampa. While I was on break between sets, a gentleman approached me and confessed that he played the same instrument that I did, but he was a violinist.

My first thought when I heard him say this was, "I’ve passed! Now I really am a fiddler."

Being a Fiddler

The key skill, the pivotal skill of being a fiddler, in my opinion, is having your shuffle grooved with the accent on the off beat. So, what is this "off beat" thing? ("It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it. Any old time you use it.")

Starting from the most basic definition of beat: a regular, measured pulse or stress. Because we know what a heart beat is, the beat is no mystery. But, what is a "back beat," and what is the "off beat?" Think about rock and roll with its one, two, three, four. With an emphasis on the second and fourth beats of the bar, you have the back beat. Now greatly speed up that rhythm. Do-bee, do-bee, d0-bee, do-bee. You have an off beat stress.

Closer to the shuffle, is Lawrence Welk’s "And-a one, and-a two." His "and-a" is the off beat. The one and the two are the beat.

There is a little sign in musical notation that indicates accent. It looks like this: >. Conveniently, it’s on our keyboard, too. When that sign is over a note in violin music it means, give that note an accent. I’ll use this sign in the tab just for this lesson to really do an overkill job on this issue. For example:

You will hear this as the second sound bite on the accents MP3 file.

Most students who can do a shuffle, but have not mastered the off beat accent, find they have to slow way down to work this in. Even beginners have to slow down a little and really concentrate to get this accent.

You must do it consistently on the first of those two short notes of the shuffle. From a starting point, the first accent is on an up bow, and the second is on a down bow. Then, it continues alternating like that. Be patient and attentive to your sound. Compare your sound to the examples.

Don’t Do This at Home

I hope it isn’t too negative to show the ways this is done incorrectly. I thought I had heard all the foopah’s until just a week ago. A new student came in and started playing the shuffle with three short notes instead of two. It was like, "Ta, ta-ta-ka, ta, ta-ta-ka."

Perhaps her destiny will be in Irish fiddling, where that triplet bow shake is such a standard ornament. More usual is to make the short notes too broad, which begins sounding like a triplet, or to short, which sounds jerky.

You can hear all three of these errors. Download the errors file. They are in this order: too broad, too short, three short bows instead of two.

Bilem Cabbage with Off Beats

Now you are ready to apply the lesson and really begin to groove your shuffle. On the sound file the accents are really exaggerated. They don’t have to be that aggressive. But they do have to be at the right time. Hear them on the MP3 file. Download Bilem. If it helps to see the accents, then print out the tab chart, Bilem Cabbage.

A Grooved Shuffle is the Beginning of Mastery

When you listen to advanced fiddlers, you will notice that they do not maintain the same shuffle all the way through a tune. They are changing every few bars. It almost sounds random and unpredictable sometimes.
But, they do have this groove at their command. If they had to, they could play through most tunes with the same shuffle.

The secret is this: they have mastered the shuffle and moved on. Don’t try to imitate their bowings until you groove the shuffle.

As an extra bonus, I'm adding an MP3 version almost up to tempo with accents, power strokes *PLUS* hammer on's and pull off's--the subjects of upcoming lessons. Bilem Everything.

If you liked this lesson, there are two more like it.

One is on The Power Stroke. The other is Hammer-ons and Pull-offs.


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