The Fiddle Tune Secret, Part One

The Fiddle Tune Secret, Part One

Mickey Abraham

Mickey Abraham

Many fiddle tunes follow the same form. In addition to the popular AABB structure, almost every fiddle tune melody falls into a four phrase format: 2 bar question, 2 bar answer, repeat of the 2 bar question, and the final 2 bar statement (commonly referred to as the tag). This form can be seen in countless tunes such as “Old Joe Clark”,  “Soldier’s Joy”,  “Salt Creek”, and “Temperance Reel.” There is also an exact phrase length that seems to be favored. While there are endless rhythmic and melodic variations it is this phrase length that will enable you to hear, play, and improvise over fiddle tunes.

The phrase length we are talking about takes up 13 eighth notes worth of space (typically lands on beat 3 of the second measure). For now let’s make sure all our licks end with the root note as well. Ex. 1 is a great representation of such a phrase. While this phrase is commonly played as the tag to “Arkansas Traveler” it can be applied to countless fiddle tunes.

Ex. 2 is a chromatic version of the phrase. I find it interesting that these first two examples are pretty much interchangeable! Ex. 1 uses only notes from the major scale while Ex. 2 uses a straight chromatic scale yet they both work as a fiddle tune tag. It is clear the the phrase length and ending note are more important than what scale we use. While different tunes will likely lean towards major pentatonic or minor pentatonic the contour of the phrase is more important than the note choice. 

Ex. 3 is a famous guitar version of the phrase that uses two pickup notes. Pickup notes are always optional. Note that even with the two added pickup notes our phrase still functions the same rhythmically. Before going to Ex. 4 try using the two pickup notes from Ex. 3 with Ex. 1 and 2. Next, apply the same idea to Ex. 4 (which has 3 pickup notes). Once you try Ex. 1-4 with 2 and 3 pickup notes we have quite a number of licks to choose from. It is important to note that once our phrase has 3 pickup notes we have completely eliminated the space between multiple phrases! If you can grasp that idea you are well on your way to connecting your phrases.

Ex. 5 is your standard Tony Rice hot bluegrass G lick. I’d like to think that when someone tells Tony to play Ex. 1 he plays Ex. 5 and says “That’s what you played, right?” What I’m trying to say is that Tony understands that these phrases are interchangeable and is likely to play a lick like Ex. 5 — even in tunes that don’t traditionally have many blue notes such as “Cripple Creek” or  “Bill Cheatham.” While I’m including licks that Tony made famous I decided to throw in a classic David Grisman version of the phrase (Ex. 6). I love using this Dawg flavored mandolin lick for fiddle tune tags.

Up to this point each example showcases a different way of interpreting the original phrase. By using major scales, chromatic notes, pentatonic scales, blues notes, no pickup notes, 2 pickup notes, and 3 pickup notes we can have endless flavors of this same phrase. To me, each idea acts as a springboard to create variations. Let’s say we ONLY use the major pentatonic scale (R,2,3,5,6). Ex. 7 contains ten different licks that use only notes from the major pentatonic scale. These ideas contain no blues notes, chromatics, or slides (hammers or pulls). I’m sure that as you play through all these examples you will begin to come up with your own lines that combine the major pentatonic scale with chromatics and blues notes. We could do this same thing with using only notes from the minor pentatonic scale, or only notes from the major scale. In the end it is a combination of what you like to hear that will help you create your own fiddle tune lines.

Ex. 8 includes two ideas that use mostly major pentatonic but also use the 4th to create a line. Ex. 9 is very similar but includes two pickup notes. When I was learning fiddle tunes I always found it interesting what notes are “skipped” and what notes are included in order to make the melodies sound correct. Ex. 8 and 9 demonstrate two common ways to combine notes of the major scale into a major pentatonic skeleton. I like how we use the 7th on the way up but not on the way down — and how the 4th can be the perfect note to add to make the line work out rhythmically. 

Ex. 10 is a cool lick that uses two chromatic pickup notes and a b3. Another thing I must mention is that when you are coming up with these phases you don’t have to meander to far up and down the scales. Ex. 11 and 12 demonstrate that by staying in one location and repeating the same notes we can achieve the same phrase. What I’m trying to say is that Ex. 2 (straight chromatic) and Ex. 12 (two notes repeating) are interchangeable in a fiddle tune context! Both ideas can function as a lick or tag in a tune.

Ex. 13 is a slick idea that uses a combination of many of the other previous phrases. It contains chromatic notes, blues notes, and major scale portions. Folks always ask “What scale do I use?” As you can see a typical bluegrass run can include elements from several scales. Lastly, we can alter the phrase length to create what we call early or late resolution. By shortening or extending the phrase by one or two notes in either direction we can create great syncopated lines. Ex. 14 and 15 demonstrates this idea.

Now for one of the most important things about these phrases. In addition to working over a static G chord these phrases will also work over multiple chord progressions. Each phrase will work equally over the following chord patterns:

I’m sure you can think of countless tunes that use these patterns. Try each phrase over these chord patterns and hear how the licks work in each situation. Folks are always talking about matching EVERY note you play to each chord. While they are correct this is an example of playing G over every chord in order to sound correct over every chord. Sometimes it sounds better to keep playing G even when the chords change to C and D. There is more than one way to go about creating lines that fit over chords. 

I call this lesson “The Fiddle Tune Secret Part 1.” I call it part 1 because this is just the tip of the iceberg. ALL these samples are in G and use mostly one octave. The next step is to learn these types of phrases over other chords and use other octaves. Each tune will also present its own unique way of using these phrases. Sometimes you will have to alter a few notes here and there or end on a different note to fit the particular tune you are playing. Stay tuned for “The Fiddle Tune Secret part 2” for more! If you’d like to work with this concept one on one visit and click private lessons.


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