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Chords: What To Play When You Don’t Know What To Play – Part One

July 2011 6 Comments

by Kat Bula  

Have you ever had either of these thoughts?


  • “Man, waiting around for my turn to solo is really boring.  I should really take up guitar, so I could get more playing time in—but then we’d just have one more guitar player, and no fiddle!”
  • “What do you mean, play something besides the melody while someone else is singing or soloing?  What the heck am I supposed to play, then?”


The simplest answer to both of these problems?  Learn to play accompaniment chords!  Just like the guitarists (or pianists, etc.)!  If you can play double-stops, you can be part of the foundation the rhythm instruments are laying down for the melody instruments to build on. 


Learning to identify chords and the relationships between them also helps you better understand how music is put together.  You’ll start to recognize patterns that are repeated from one tune to another. Among other benefits this makes memorizing tunes easier.  So let’s get started.


How do I do this on the fiddle?

-Pick two: Accompaniment chords in folk music have three notes (or, in the case of 7th chords, four).  Since for all practical purposes a fiddle can only play two notes at a time, you can pick any two notes from the chord to play as a double stop.


-Use the tonic: The tonic (also called the “root”) is the note the chord is named after.  For example, D is the tonic of a D chord.  If you pick the tonic as one of your two notes, the chord will sound stronger and more grounded.  Generally speaking, that’s what you want.  But if using the tonic means you have to twist your fingers around more awkwardly than you want to, go ahead and use the two non-tonic notes.  It’ll still sound okay.


Whoa, whoa, wait!  How do I know which notes are in a chord?


Major chord formula

tonic – major 3rd – fifth

example: C – E – G


Minor chord formula:

tonic – minor 3rd – fifth

example: C – Eb – G


Dominant seventh chord formula

(often just called “seventh chord”):

tonic – major 3rd – fifth – flatted seventh

example: C – E – G – Bb


Ack! Jargon!  No, it’s okay, really.  Here are some definitions to help you:


Tonic (or “root”): remember that this is just the note that has the same name as the chord.  So C is the tonic of C major, C minor, and C7, which are the three chords in the examples above.


Major 3rd: two whole steps.  So if you’re looking for the middle note of an A chord, count whole steps up from the tonic:

AB (one whole step), BC# (another whole step)  = C# is a major 3rd up from A
(Don’t forget: B#/Cb doesn’t exist!  Neither does E#/Fb!)


Minor 3rd: one and a half steps. C to Eb is an example.  (CD = 1 whole step; DEb = half step)


Tip: the minor third is always a half step below the major third. If you have
memorized the notes in a major chord and want to find the minor chord that shares the same tonic, just drop the middle note by a half step.  Thus A-C#-E (A major chord) becomes A-C-E (A minor chord.)


Fifth: three and a half steps.  Fiddlers have this one easy because our strings are a fifth apart.  For example, D to A is a fifth. F# to C# is also a fifth—even though these aren’t open strings, it’s easy to remember because you’re using the same finger in the same place on both strings.


Flatted seventh:  All this means is that you take the seventh note of the scale (in the case of C major, we’re talking about B) and drop it down a half step (in this case, to Bb).


“What about 6 chords and 9 chords and minor flatted 13th chords?” you may ask.  You’re probably playing jazz, or maybe a nice jazzy, Texas-style contest waltz.  I encourage you to find a good jazz theory book at your local library to help you with this.  Don’t be shy, though; now that you know the basics I think you’ll find it pretty intuitive.


Stay tuned for part 2: How to know which chords to play and how to do this with other people

 Printable Version

about the author

                        Kat Bula (kat@bellinghamfiddle.com) is a performing and teaching fiddler/multi-instrumentalist/music theory nerd living in Bellingham, WA.  She helps adults and teens who want to have more fun playing music but feel stuck in their progress or don’t know what to play when there’s no sheet music in front of them.  When not teaching, Kat practices being a beginner by learning to play the drums, which angers her cat, Audrey.  For more information about Kat, visit http://www.bellinghamfiddle.com.


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  • Alan Justice said:

    Just a week ago, the bandleader said, “Play whatever the singer isn’t singing.”

  • Ed Tillman said:

    Thanks Kat–All I have to do now is “sharpen-up” my double stops. Would love to fiddle more at jams & gigs and this could be the answer.

  • “Chords: What To Play When You Don’t Know What To Play” posted on Fiddlesessions.com « Bellingham Fiddle said:

    [...] a blog run by the music instructional publisher Mel Bay, has posted an article I wrote.  “Chords: What To Play When You Don’t Know What To Play” is part 1 of a 3 part series about how to accompany other musicians during jams or band situations [...]

  • Red said:

    Hi Kat! Man, this info really helps! It’s surprising that greater confidence in playing only comes with more time actually spent playing; and that I tend to play more when I am confident of my playing!!! The circle of musical performance!!! I know when I am playing well that time seems to fade away, and that I really enjoy myself so much more being absorbed in performing the music. Thanks for sharing this!!! Red

  • “How do I know which chord to play?”; also, Big Sur in Seattle. « Bellingham Fiddle said:

    [...] and in case you missed part one, it’s here. [...]

  • John Dufford said:

    Just a beginner. Went to Montana Fiddle Camp & learned a lot; am playing alone (loose gravel, Montana sort of place), reading a bunch of teaching books, etc.
    Never have understood the ‘fifths’ ‘minors’ ‘thirds’, etc, so this really helps. Thanks for sharing and making it simple. And thank the MelBay outfit for making it possible.