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Bluegrass Fiddle Bluegrass Music

My Favorite Beginner Fiddle Books

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.

Categories
Musical Instruments

Lutherie: My Coronavirus Stay-At-Home Therapy

Last week a buddy asked me to check out a mandolin online that he was considering buying. I gave him the pros and cons, and he eventually passed on the deal due to the asking price for its condition. That got me motivated back into one of my old hobbies – basic lutherie, or stringed musical instrument repair, building and maintenance. Ever since my first bass guitar (a Magnum short-scale Jazz copy that I re-wired with a 3-band EQ), I’ve always loved working on guitars and other stringed instruments.

I could kick myself that I did not pursue that interest when I was younger. I always saw myself with a small guitar shop that people would come to try out my work and perhaps have jam sessions on a Friday night. But alas, I went the college route, got a degree that proved useless, and have bounced around at various white-collar jobs ever since.

However, I continued my love on a small scale throughout my life, repairing electric guitar electronics, minor amplifier jobs, building effects pedals, and stringed instrument setups/maintenance. After the above talk with my buddy, I got to thinking that, because of this stay-at-home virus situation, I should do some basic lutherie work again. All of my current instruments are in good shape, and as I have mostly acoustic instruments, there’s not a lot of electronic work to do.

I went on eBay and found a Rogue A-model mandolin that needed some work done on the back of the body. I bid on it, my highest price being something that I thought no one would come near as the mandolin’s shipping cost was pretty high. I won the auction, and the total cost came out to about what would be average – $41.95 – not a bargain, but not killing the wallet either.

The mandolin arrived a few days later via FedEx, and when opened, I got to see the actual damage. About 1/3 of the back had snapped out of its joining with the side, which made it look like either the back or the side was shaped wrong. Inspection showed that the glue joint was bad, very little glue was used, and the wood joints were dry. At first I thought that I would have to re-cut that part of the back and glue in a 2nd piece, making it look like something the Three Stooges would have built.

Fortunately, before I pulled out the tools, I wedged my fingers into the soundhole, flexed the back a bit, and it snapped back into place. I carefully removed that part of the back again, put in some hide glue, re-snapped it in, clamped it, and let it dry overnight. Voila! It held, and all that I have left is to clean off some glue residue, check for any rough spots on the finish around the repair site (it may need some sanding and re-laquering in spots), and re-install the bridge for set-up.

This has motivated me to go back to eBay, and the internet in general, to start looking for repairable guitars, mandolins, and violins. It’s not that I want to have an arsenal of low-end stringed instruments, no way! What I would like to do is repair them and make them available to kids that want to learn bluegrass and folk music on the cheap. Making a non-playable guitar playable again is an emotional reward. I don’t see me making even a part-time wage from this. And even this simple repair and maintenance stuff takes time and some money.

It has got me to thinking that perhaps I could help start some form of non-profit group that repairs string instruments and donates them to a charitable music organization such as Junior Appalachian Musicians, which helps teach music to kids (if you haven’t heard of this group, you need to check them out at www.jamkids.org). Or perhaps starting a JAM type group in my area (I have discussed this idea with the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association, as well as local multi-instrumentalist Aaron Jonah Lewis). Or at least do it on my own one instrument at a time. Hopefully some of the free time I have now can be used to research such an idea.

I would love to see young people in my area spend a lot less time by themselves in the basement playing XBox and more time with others (hopefully with a lot less social distancing) creating art and music. With technology taking over our everyday lives, now more than ever, I would hate to see creativity and socializing become a thing of the past.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Musicians

Violin vs. Fiddle: It’s All About Attitude

When I’m asked what is the difference between a violin and a fiddle, my usual answer is, “With a violin, you drink wine; with a fiddle, you drink whiskey.” It’s a rather silly question, because they are both the same instrument. “Fiddle” is just a moniker that was given due to the slang of one playing the violin was sometimes referred to as “fiddling” with it.

However, there is generally a big difference between violinists and fiddlers:

  • Violinists want perfection
  • Fiddlers work with what they have

I won’t get into the performance of music. There are tons of videos on YouTube showing classical violinists being exact with their playing, while bluegrass and country fiddlers are being improvisational, going where they feel like.

What I am looking at here is the choice of instrument. From what I have seen, classical violinists (as well as other classical musicians) feel the need to have the most perfect instrument in order to do their job. Now granted, their careers depend on having the right equipment, just as a carpenter needs the best tools to build a house. But I have seen so many examples of mid-level classical performers wincing and getting frustrated about making a mistake and blaming it on the instrument. Now I have never seen someone like Itzhak Perlman do this (that man can make a Fisher-Price toy violin sound like Heaven!), but I have seen a number of other classical musicians pull this, especially string players.

I recently watched this YouTube video of violinist Rob Landes comparing five violins ranging in price from $70.00 to $10 million.

After one listen, one can easily tell which one was the $70 cheap model. It sounded boxy, like one was listening to it through a paper towel tube. Yes, the others sounded better. However, he was still able to perform the three songs on that cheap violin without difficulty. He then proceeded to talk to the shop owner, who recommended the $450 model as a starter. Sorry, but I’m sure that there are a number of kids who would love the learn the violin but cannot afford even $450, let alone millions of dollars.

On the flipside, I rarely see someone playing roots-based music blame any mistakes on the equipment (although it does happen, especially with the male and female divas). I have seen old bluesmen make a pawnshop guitar sound like the Earth shaking. I have heard beautiful sounds from instruments that look like they were pulled from the trash. Yes, a 50s-era Gibson Les Paul Goldtop plugged into a 60s-era Fender Twin Reverb is going to sound a lot better than a Hondo LP copy plugged into a solid-state practice amp when you strum that open G chord. And the same can be said about violins to be sure. But how are words like this going to motivate the kid in the inner-city who actually has an interest in playing music to pursue it when they cannot afford it?

The past few years have seen tremendous improvements on beginner instruments of all sorts – guitars, violins, drums, even some wind and brass instruments. The problem is that many professional performers look their noses down on such products without even trying them, or go in with a pessimistic attitude trying the instruments out and refuse to change. It is as if they either do not want someone to start playing an instrument because it will eventually be competition, or they enjoy belittling those people who cannot afford an expensive instrument.

There are brands out there such as Glarry, Mendini, Paititi and Bailando that are producing decent-quality violins for the beginner. Yes, these are made in China or some other Asian country where the factories are paying terrible wages and are mass-producing these instruments to keep the costs down. However, this has been going on for decades, ever since someone figured out that every kid in America would want to play guitar just like Elvis. Fortunately, not all classical violinists and luthiers take the bad attitude toward these beginner models.

Esther Abrami is a French model/violinist who has a YT channel and often posts about product reviews. She is an absolute sweetheart to watch. Here is one where she reviews a Glarry violin:

Rosa String Works is a luthier shop in Missouri that works on all kinds of string instruments. In this video, owner Jerry Rosa reviews a Glarry violin and shows what he does to improve on its playability before donating it to a school:

This is a review of three different violins available on Amazon for under $100 (Mendini, Bailando and Paititi), which when played by a professional violinists, shows that they are great starters:

The Piano & Violin Tutor is a popular British instructor/reviewer. While I do not agree with most of what she says regarding beginner violins, she does have one good video on how to improve the sound and playability of a $100 violin:

I could go on, but I don’t want to get long-winded and start rambling. The truth is, there is very little to argue about a $100 violin not being a good beginner violin. Bluegrassers work with what they have when starting out. Not every beginner guitarist gets to start off with a Martin. Not every beginner banjo player can afford a Gibson or Huber. And not every beginner fiddler can have an Amati or Stradivarius at his/her disposal. Those of us already performing with quality instruments need to be as supportive as possible to those who are just starting out. Whether it is assisting with modifications, lessons, or just some advice, it should not be tolerated to lose a young person interested in music from discouraging words from an elder.

Chew on it and comment.