Bowing patterns and grace notes

Bowing patterns on the fiddle

Bowing patterns and grace notes

Tonight we worked on bowing reels with a down bow on the beat. We’re aiming to develop a ‘default’ bowing pattern, so that we can play reels emphasising the on beat naturally, and completely subconsciously. Once this pattern is ingrained, it becomes much easier to learn techniques and bowing patterns that will enable us to play around with rhythms in the tune.

Bowing reels

We looked at Coolies Reel as an example. Each time there is a crotchet or triplet in the tune, we slurred the following 2 quavers. (It’s possible to slur the preceding 2 quavers instead, if you prefer).

We also looked at an option for adding an extra slur in the B part, to push the emphasis onto the offbeat.

Grace notes

Bowing patterns on the fiddle
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Grace notes and rolls have a percussive effect on a note in a tune. Although often written as playing extra notes, you don’t hear grace notes as individual notes. They are an embellishment of the note in the tune. A simple grace note acts by briefly stopping the string from vibrating. You can use the finger above the note, or the 2nd finger above the note to create a simple grace note. The hand needs to be really relaxed. The finger action is a very short tap on the string, and is just enough to stop the string vibrating for a moment.


Rolls have more fingers involved! They can be played as 5 or 4 note rolls. As with grace notes, once you can play these fluidly, you won’t hear any of the individual notes of the ornamentation. When you’re first starting to learn to play a roll, you will play the note (already in the tune), followed rapidly be the note above, the note itself, the note below, and back to the note in the tune. For a 5 note roll on a B (played with the first finger on the A string), the fingering for this would be 1-2-1-0-1. A 4 note  roll starts on the note above the note in the tune (fingering 2-1-0-1 if played on a B). Rolls on an open string can be played 0-1-2-1-0.


Playing with relaxed hand – we tried out playing with a very light bow hold, holding the bow  with just the thumb and first finger. It’s possible to play the whole tune like this, as long as we don’t try to lift the bow off the strings at any point. This is purely an exercise! It gives an idea of how little pressure you need from your 3rd & 4th finger, and pinkie, while playing most of the tune. Those fingers are generally relaxed, and laid over the bow, giving it a bit of stability during the bow stroke, and keeping the bow running in a straight line, perpendicular to the strings. The pinkie will be used a lot more if we’re lifting the bow off the strings.

We worked on techniques for playing chords in the tune. If we’re playing part of the tune on the A string, and want to create chords on the D string, we can make this much easier by keeping the bow as close as possible to the D string throughout the bow stroke. When we want to include a chord, a small bit of pressure on the stick of the bow will then be enough to bring the bow hairs in contact with the D string as well.

We also tried out playing an open A, with a more percussive style of chord on the open D, on each down bow. Playing close to the heel on the up bow results in there being plenty of weight in the tip of the bow at the top of the bow stroke. Keep a little bit of pressure on the heel of the bow with the pinkie during the up bow. At the top of the up bow stroke, release the pressure with the pinkie, which allows gravity to drop the bow briefly onto the D string just as the bow direction changes.

At the end of the evening we played through Brenda Stubbert’s Reel, then Captain Campbell (Strathspey) followed by Coolie’s Reel. We ended off with the Eagle’s Whistle.