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Rhythm, Chords & Back-Up - the Art of 2nd Fiddle

When you play in a ‘concert’ band, or to accompany a singer, you may need to create a fiddle ‘part’ that is something other than the tune itself. It could be a harmony line, for example, or sustained chords, or a rhythm pattern based on the chords. But how do you go about constructing it? 

Let’s start with some chord basics. Chords are made up of the notes of an arpeggio played together at the same time. An arpeggio consists of the first, third and fifth notes of the relevant scale, the key-note itself counting as the first. Thus, the chord of D consists of the arpeggio notes, D, F# and A (also referred to as the ‘triad’ of D). In the case of the fiddle, a ‘chord’ will consist, for practical purposes, of just two of these notes played on adjacent strings. The two lower strings are particularly suitable, since the tune itself tends to occupy the higher range of the instrument. My own standard two-note chord of D consists of the open D-string, together with a first-finger A on the G-string below it. Bow the two strings with long, even strokes, and listen to the interval. Playing two notes at once will expose any dubious intonation. To ensure that the A note is really in tune, you could practice sliding the first finger up to pitch from a semi-tone below, while also playing the open D, and listen for the exact point where it sounds true. (A finger slide like this, as well as being a helpful intonation guide, can sound quite appropriate in many folk styles).

You may have heard of the ‘three-chord trick.’ Thousands of songs and tunes in major keys can be played with only three chords, known to folk and jazz players as the 1-chord, 4-chord and 5-chord, and to classical musicians as the tonic, subdominant and dominant. For example, in the key of D, our 1-chord is D itself, our 4-chord (counting up from D, E, F#...) is G, and our 5-chord is A. To play these chords on the fiddle, remember that each is based on the notes of the relevant arpeggio, so for G we select any two notes from the triad, G, B and D. By playing a two-octave arpeggio you’ll enter ‘the house of G’ and realise how many combinations of these notes are available across the four strings. The easiest, and often best-sounding, G chord is simply the open G and D-strings. In the same way, for a chord of A, play the arpeggio and select your two notes from the triad A, C# and E. My personal default setting for an easy, effective A-chord is first finger across the bottom two strings. All of the chords I’ve described omit the ‘third,’ the note that makes them sound either major or minor, so they can work equally well for either. If you want to emphasise the ‘major’ quality of D, include an F#; for D minor, include an F natural.  

Get familiar with these chord ‘shapes,’ so that you can go to them instantly, as a guitarist does, and move fluently from one to another. Over time, add further chords to your repertoire, using the arpeggio construction method. In a fiddle music context, the most useful chords to know are Bb, F, C, G, D, A and E, and their so-called ‘relative minors,’ G minor (Gm), Dm, Am, Em, Bm, F#m and C#m. The ‘root’ of the relative minor chord (also called the Minor Sixth) can be found six notes up the major scale: the relative minor of D, for example, is (D, E, F#, G, A...) B minor. At a later stage, as you gain confidence, you can explore a wider range of harmonic colours by substituting the occasional relative minor for a major chord.

Learning to think harmonically, as well as in terms of ‘the tune,’ is not as common as perhaps it should be when learning a ‘melody’ instrument like the violin, though fiddlers who’ve followed the classical route will probably have learned at least some rudimentary music theory. To progress beyond Grade 5 in the Associated Board practical exams, for example, students must pass Grade 5 theory. When I learned violin as a youngster I found harmonic theory bafflingly abstract, and just got through the exam by rote. Learning the piano, guitar or some other ‘chord’ instrument - and the mandolin, of course, recommends itself as having the same fingering as the fiddle - certainly makes it easier to feel, as well as understand, the musical effect of a particular chord progression.

So how do you know when to change from one chord to another? In practice, most people have a reasonably good sense of when a chord sounds ‘wrong,’ even if they can’t immediately tell you what would sound ‘right.’ You can always try the chord suggestions given in song and tune books. Alternatively, find your own solution by trial-and-error. For tunes in major keys, the three-chord trick narrows the search. If the tune’s in G, expect to encounter the chords of G, C and D. If it’s in A, check out A, D and E. My own apprenticeship in this stuff was playing fiddle in American-style country bands, where the ‘changes’ soon become fairly predictable, especially if you can ‘read’ the guitarist’s left hand. When the guitar goes from, say, C to C7 (the triad of C plus Bb, i.e. the seventh note of the C scale flattened a semitone), the effect is one of tension and imminent change, and the next chord will be the fourth above (C, D, E...) F. Every genre has its own distinctive style of chord changes. Scott Skinner, in his major-key tunes, often gets to the 5-chord by way of a 2-chord, while countless ragtime tunes employ a 1-6-2-5-1 progression.

Composing a harmony is not so hard once you’ve sorted out the chord pattern. Generally a harmony line follows the contours of the melody, but lower in pitch so as not to obscure the tune itself. It may have exactly as many notes as the tune, or shadow it more skeletally. The most commonly used interval, for example in Northumbrian or Swedish fiddling, is a third below, or sometimes a fourth or fifth. When the chord changes, make sure that the harmony note is either the root, third or fifth of that chord. Writing ‘vertical’ harmony like this is most easily done on paper until you get the hang of it, and the whole process can be quite mechanical. Obviously the harmony needs to sound good, as well as following the rules, so if the fiddle part you chanced upon while noodling about sounds great, even if you can’t explain why, go with it anyway. For performance, you’ll need to memorise your harmony line (and indeed the chord sequence you’ve decided on, if you’re playing chords) in the same way as you would learn the tune. So ideally it should be memorable and pleasing in its own right.

What about tunes in minor keys? What chords do we use there? Well, it depends. A variant of the 1-4-5 sequence will sometimes work, in which the 1 and 4 become minor chords, while the 5 stays major. For a tune in D minor, for example, you’ll encounter D minor, G minor and A major. It’s a very classical-sounding harmonic framework, however, based on the diatonic musical system, and usually sits ill with English, Irish or Scottish ‘minor’ traditional tunes. Strictly speaking, these tunes are often ‘modal’ in character, usually in the Dorian (minor third, major sixth) or Aeolian (minor third, minor sixth) mode. Modal scales are originally based on a constant drone, as in much bagpipes repertoire, and need a different harmonic approach. In many Scottish and Irish minor tunes, for example, you get a bar or two of Am, say, alternating with a bar or two of G major, and returning ‘home’ to Am. This progression from the minor, then down one step to the major, and back, is very common. For a tune in Em, the ‘other’ chord will likely as not be D. If you’re after a third chord as well, take one further step down, to C. The C-D-Em progression has been a harmonic cliché of celtic music since the 1970s.

Back-up playing should reflect the style of the piece. To accompany, say, a lyrical, free-flowing English folk song, a few well-chosen, understated drones, or even a unison melody line, will probably provide better support than, let’s say, choppy, bluegrass-style, off-beat chonks! Similarly, for an Irish ballad, fit your playing style to the song, and use the same kinds of ornamentation and bowing as you would for an air. Traditional singers may vary the melody or rhythm slightly from verse to verse, for the sake of the words, so be prepared to follow. As a musician you should also defer to the singer when it comes to deciding on the key of the song, as even trained singers don’t have a physically unlimited vocal range. (What do you mean, you can’t play in Eb? Practice more!)

Pete Cooper © 2004

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