Chordal accompaniment part 3: “What do I do with these chords besides droning?”
By Kat Bula
If you’ve read the first two installments of this article (“Chords: What To Play When You Don’t Know What to Play” and “How Do I Know Which Chord to Play?”), you should have a pretty good idea about how to figure out which chords go in a song and how to play them on the fiddle. Now all you need are some rhythm patterns to help you blend in with what others are doing. Here are a few ideas for common song types:
First of all, droning often works just fine. Slow songs often sound nice with drones, for example. Droning quietly is also a great fallback plan in any situation where you’re having trouble keeping a consistent rhythm pattern or tempo, and need to just focus on the chord changes.
Off beat chucks are a common pattern for bluegrass, polka and other songs in 2/4 or 4/4 time. This is how to do it:
- Place the bow close to the frog.
- On beats two and four (the offbeats), play a short stroke, aiming for maximum crispness and punchiness. Most people do down bows; I prefer up bows because I find I can play more precisely that way. Try both and see which you prefer, or whether you like them both but in different contexts.
- If you’re confused about which beats are the offbeats, and there’s a bass player, see if s/he’s playing beats 1 and 3 and leaving the others empty. (Usually, the answer is yes, unless s/he’s getting really fancy and non-folky.) Your notes will happen between the bass notes. You are essentially providing two halves of the same rhythm part; the bass does the “boom” and you play the “chuck”. There’s no shame in watching her/his rhythm hand!
For waltzes, you can use a related strategy: just chuck beats 2 and 3, and let the bass (or whichever instrument is covering the bass—it may be a guitar, for example) take care of beat one. If you try this and it sounds too fussy and European for your particular song, try droning and see if that is preferable.
For jigs, which are usually in 6/8 time, use your discretion. A great pattern is to play beats 1, 3, 4 and 6, alternating down and up bow strokes. If the song is going really fast, you may find this is more than you can keep up with. In that case you can chuck on beats 3 and 6, the 6/8 meter equivalent of off beats. You can also get away with drones—one or two bow strokes per measure. Just try to keep the bouncy, lilting feeling in your body and make sure you’re locked in with the other accompanists, and you’ll be golden.
For rock and pop, use your discretion. Nothing is as rigidly defined here as in some of the folk genres, but it’s imperative that you do something that makes sense with what the other musicians are playing. Listen very carefully to them. You can choose to extend what they’re doing and play something slightly different or more complicated, but it always must support the groove established by the rest of the band; guitarist, drummer, bass player, etc. If someone glares at you, and not because you’re supposed to solo, that’s your cue to simplify. Drones are often effective here.
All of these ideas are meant as jumping-off points, not hard-and-fast rules. If something sounds good to you, and to the people you’re playing with, then it is good. So get out there and experiment. All this theory is good for your brain, but ultimately you can only learn this stuff by trial and error (and success). So stop telling yourself that you have to perfect this before you’ll start jamming or start a band. Playing with other people is both the means and the end!
about the author
Kat Bula (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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:// bellinghamfiddle.com.