When I started writing for Fiddler back in 2012, after two or three articles, I figured that I better actually learn a bit about the fiddle so that I knew what questions to ask and not be confused when an artist or luthier mentioned some strange term. I played guitar, bass, and mandolin at the time, dabbled a wee bit on dobro, and looked at a banjo that I owned more than touched it.
I purchased a student model with soft case off of eBay for about $42.00, and from the stories that I later heard, I lucked out. The 4/4 model was no Strad, but the nut was properly cut, the bridge was satisfactory (I purchased a better one about a year later), and it was definitely playable. While it was able enough to kick out a jig or reel, I sure the heck was not! I picked up some books and videos, then tried my best to hack through a few old-time tunes. I was able to play about a dozen songs without too much squawks, but due to matters beyond my control, I let the fiddle practice slip away a little while after my bridge replacement.
Fast forward to about a year ago. I haven’t been living in my own house due to caregiving my elderly mother. Little by little, I found that I had time on my hands, though not enough to drive back to my house to make use. So among the items I brought over to mom’s place was the fiddle and books. I also started following some YouTube videos for instruction, and found one gent who calls himself Fiddlehed (www.fiddlehed.com) that was quite entertaining with his instruction. One suggestion he made a few months ago stuck with me – pick up your fiddle every day, even if it is just for a minute or two to drag the bow across an open string. That regimen stuck with me, as before I would play for an hour or so once a week. Now, I found myself doing 20 minutes or so every day, and it is part of my daily schedule just as morning exercise or evening dinner is. Plus, it has made me love playing the fiddle!
I pulled out the old lesson books and started from scratch. Lots of rust in many spots, but a few bright spots as well. I want to talk about the four instruction books that I have used for my lessons, which I recommend (in no particular order). I got them years ago when they came with play-along CDs. I believe all are still available, but you have to download the audio tracks from the websites on three of them.
My First Fiddle Picking Songs by Steve Kaufman and Conny Ottway (www.melbay.com) – Very easy to follow. It does not take too long until you start diving into easy songs. The accompanying CD has all of the songs played at a slow speed. Unfortunately, while there are short instructions on the musical notes and where they appear on the fingerboard and music staff, once the songs start appearing, you have to know where to finger as well as the notes on the staff. Also, there is no guitar chord markings on the songs for someone to follow along.
The American Fiddle Method Volumes 1 and 2 by Brian Wicklund (www.melbay.com) – This is probably my favorite of the lot! Wicklund has a good sense of humor, supplementing the lessons with cartoon drawings and witty thoughts. Like the other basic books, it covers the parts of the fiddle and how to position the hands. His instruction mirrors Mark O’Connor’s teaching philosophy, where you jump right into a popular fiddle tune that makes people dance (“Boil ‘em Cabbage Down”). With each new song comes a new technique, and all of the songs are fun (you can conjure up only minimal smiles for perfecting “Twinkle, Twinkle” taught through the Suzuki method). He also covers slides, drones and double stops, which is what makes this style of fiddling unique. Volume 2 continues with even more old-time and bluegrass fiddle tunes for intermediate players. There are also videos available for both books.
Fiddle Primer for Beginners by Jim Tolles (www.cvls.com) – This one is probably the most basic of the books listed. A lot more coverage of the rudiments on bowing and hand positions. It also moves slower, so if you are complete beginner that has no musical experience whatsoever, this may prove to be a good starter. There is also a companion video, and a very similar book (about 90% in content) entitled Violin Primer for Beginners by Tolles as well.
Bluegrass Jamming on Fiddle by Wayne Erbsen (www.nativeground.com) – This is a lot less of a beginner instructional book and more of a fiddle tune compendium and a simple way to play them (it even states in the introduction that this book is for those who have their feet wet, or at least “moist”) . Erbsen is laid back in his presentation, and gives some great information on bluegrass history. The music staff and tablature are a bit confusing compared to other books, so it takes some time to figure out. However, the songs are more bluegrass jam-centric than the other books, and he includes chord charts for the popular fiddle tunes. Erbsen is old school, so he still includes a CD with the book. He does have a beginner book called Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus.
The first three books listed have a lot of the same songs (“Soldier’s Joy,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Cripple Creek”), but it is interesting to see the variants of them. As I have all three books, I like to pull ideas from each one (i.e., whichever looks easiest) and work out my own version. What all of them do have in common is that they shy away from teaching via the Suzuki method, which may be fine for a three-year old but is monotonous to an older student.
I have enjoyed getting back to the fiddle, and still keep in touch with a few former co-workers that were also beginner fiddlers. In many ways, I could kick myself for thinking that the violin was a sissy instrument back in grade school, taking up saxophone instead and failing miserably. Perhaps by the time I was a teen, along with playing in high school orchestra, I would have been skilled at “Jerusalem Ridge” and found a great bluegrass band to work with.
Here’s “Forked Deer,” performed by Brian Wicklund. The music staff and notations appear in The American Fiddler Method Volume 2.
Chew on it and comment.