Playing chords on the fiddle

Playing chords

In this workshop we looked at several different ways of playing chords on the fiddle – either as an accompaniment to someone else playing a tune,  or with a tune you’re playing yourself, when they can be played as a long ‘drone’, as a short accompaniment to a phrase within the tune, or as a percussive accompaniment.


We started off by looking at the bow hold, and its role in giving you control over whether to play one string or two at any given moment. We learnt the Irish tune ‘The Eagle’s Whistle’ playing with an open string played throughout the A part. We looked at playing the tune with slurred bow strokes, so the open string became an accompanying drone. Then we played with mainly individual bow strokes, which created a rhythmic accompaniment on the open string. It’s possible to add pushes on some of the up bows to add interesting rhythms. We also played around with leaving spaces in the tune. Then we tried out playing the tune up an octave. We focused on hearing the tune while doing this, and letting it come out of the fiddle without thinking about the different fingerings in the higher octave. Basic chords are formed from the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 8th notes in any octave (known as the arpeggio). Fiddlers only need to find 2 of these notes! Having found drones to accompany the tune, we split into 2 groups, and one group played the tune up an octave, while the other group tried to find chords to play as an accompaniment to the tune.


We learnt the tune ‘Egan’s Polka’. We added a percussive chord on an open D below the D in the tune. This involves letting the bow hit the open D, then ‘bounce’ off it almost straight away, allowing the D string to ring out. We also played around with emphasising up bows in the tune, and leaving spaces.


Playing chords on the fiddle
©Ros Gasson

We looked at common chord shapes. Where the first number is the finger on the lower string, and the second number is the finger on the next string up,  0-0, 1-1, 2-0 and 3-1 all create basic chords with notes a third or a fifth apart. 2-3 and 1-0 are other variations on notes from the arpeggio. Getting familiar with the hand shapes needed to create these chords allows us to make them readily while playing tunes.


We played through Spootiskerry, Leaving Lismore, and the Barrowburn Reel, looking at possible chords we could play

Chords as drones

Chords as drones

Tonight we learnt Jennifer’s Jig, written by Gordon Wilson. The tune was originally played at jig speed, but we learnt it as a very slow jig. It works nicely with some droned chords played on the open G and D strings, in both parts of the tune. It’s possible to play an open G drone against any of the tune that falls on the D String, and an open G drone with the parts of the tune that are played on the G string.


Chords as harmonies

Chords as harmonies

Chords played on the fiddle throughout a tune can create the effect of a harmony running alongside the tune.

This week we learnt Les Poules Houpées (Crested Hens). The tune is a Bourré, but we played it as a much slower tune.

We revised techniques for controlling how to play chords using the index finger (see the notes on exercises from last week’s class).

We added chords into the tune – I’ve uploaded a copy of the music with the chords added to the music page.

The we looked at putting some of the tunes we’ve learnt recently into sets. This is what we came up with:

Les Poules Houpées, Tolka Polka

Johnstown Reel, Islay (a slow reel that we learnt at the end of last term)

Walter Duglas MBE, The Ale is Dear – this worked well if we slowed the last couple of bars of the march down, then changed into the reel

Playing chords in tunes

Playing chords in tunes

This week we did some more work on playing chords within tunes. We learnt the four-part 2/4 march Walter Douglas MBE. We worked on adding some percussive-style chords using an open A string in various places in the tune. I’ve marked some chords you can try on the music – the phrase repeats throughout the tune. You can try out playing the chords on all the marked notes in the phrase, or just on some of them.

How to control chord playing

Rather than using movements of the arm to change the bow angle, you can control whether or not you play a chord simply by using more weight (which comes from the bowing arm) on the stick of the bow from the index finger. To do this successfully, you need to get into the habit of playing with your bow on the string where the melody notes are, and as close as you can to the string which you want to use to play the accompanying chord or drone notes. So if you want to work on using drones on the G string while you play melody notes D string, start off by focusing on playing cleanly on the D string, with the bow hairs as close as you can get them to the G string without hitting it. Once you can do this, adding a bit of weight on the bow through the index finger will be enough to push the bow hairs down on the the G string as well, creating the chord.

There are several benefits of creating chords in this way:

  • It’s much easier to control a change of weight from the arm than to keep the bow at a very precise angle that would be needed to create a consistent chord along the length of the bow. As well as being used to having fine control of our fingers, the finger is immediately next to the bow stick – whatever you do will transfer to the stick directly. To impact on the bow, a change in the angle of the upper arm  has to be transferred through the elbow, wrist and finger joints, which adds several possibilities for inaccuracies to creep in.
  • The impact on the bow is instantaneous, which makes it easier to be confident with timing of the chords you play – you can be sure the chord will start just when you want it too, which is particularly  important if you’re playing percussive style chords.
  • If you’re playing faster tunes, and wanting to switch between chords/no chords for individual notes, it’s much easier to manage at speed if you’re using a change in the weight of the arm resting on the bow to achieve this effect.

We spent some time playing a simple note sequence on the D string (DEF#G), and adding an open G drone below it. We used separate bows for each note, starting on a down bow on the D. To start with, we focused on playing long slow notes, and getting the G drone to really resonate . It helps to watch the strings while doing this. On the G string, you can clearly see it vibrating. Played up the DEF#G, then left a 1 beat rest before returning to the D again. We aimed to have the open G ringing out through the length of that rest beat.

Then we worked on controlling which notes we chose to accompany with a drone. We played an open G only with the notes on the down bows (so with the D and the F#), and then switched to just playing the open G with the notes on up bows (the E and 3rd finger G). We tried splitting the class in two, and one half payed the chords on the up bows, while the other half played the chords on the down bows.

Fiddle bowing with a flexible wrist

Playing fiddle bow strokes with a flexible wrist

Tonight we focused on playing our fiddles with a relaxed and flexible wrist in our bowing arms. We got into pairs and one person played the reel Lay Dee at Dee, while the other held their elbow steady. This pushed us to use the wrist more in moving the bow. One person then held the bow steady in front their partner, so they could move their bowing hand up and down the shaft of the bow, paying particular attention to keeping the wrist supple. The wrist is effectively ‘leading’ the bow’s stroke. As we reach the end of the bow, the wrist leads the change from an up bow to a down bow, so when the arm is still travelling up at the end of the bow stroke, the wrist is already starting to bend to change the bow to a down bow.

We then played through the B part of Lay Dee at Dee, and worked on using our wrist action in the section of the tune which crosses from the E string to the A string and back. With a flexible wrist, it’s possible to use a clockwise circular motion with the hand to keep the bow moving from one string to the other. This will allow us to have much cleaner control over the bow, so we can play the notes more crisply, and have more precise control over our timing. It will ultimately help us to be able to play the tune faster.

After this we worked on our technique for playing percussive chords in the B part of Braeroy Road. We were using the open D string to play a note and octave below the Ds in the tune. We bowed the C# before the D on an up bow, and moved up close towards the heel of the bow. We then allowed the weight of the tip of the bow to drop the bow onto the open D string as we played the D in the tune on a down bow. We spent some time practicing using our index finger to push into the stick of the bow, using the added pressure to create a chord on the adjacent string. We tried this out while playing an F# on the D string (2nd finger), using the open A string to create the chord. We also worked on playing this chord in the B part of Bill Sullivan’s polka.

How to develop a flexible wrist action for bowing when playing the fiddle
Photo @Ros Gasson 2013

To finish off, we reminded ourselves of the steps for learning to play the fiddle with vibrato. Practicing this for a few minutes each day will help to build muscle memory for the vibrato action, making it easier to integrate it into tune playing.

At the end of the class we played trough the Shetland Molecule together.

Playing polkas with bounce

Playing polkas with a bounce

Tonight we learnt Bill Sullivan’s Polka, and spent the evening working on techniques for playing polkas with a ‘bouncy’ rhythm. We were using our first finger to push down into the notes, allowing the bow to bounce just clear of the string in between notes in the tune.

Playing polkas with bounce on the fiddle
Photo ©Ros Gasson

We also played around with a chord version of the B part of the tune – it can be played as a variation on the tune, or as an accompaniment along with the tune. We tried experimenting with different rhythms.

We worked on technique for playing chords within the tune in the A part. We were playing an open A along with parts of the tune that were played on the D string. We tried out playing the tune on the D string while keeping the bow just clear of the A string, but very close to it. By pushing down on the stick of the bow with the first finger, the bow hairs  are compressed so they also touch the A string. This can be done without changing the angle of the bow on the strings at all, and allows a lot of control over which of the notes in the tune the chords are played on.

We played through several tunes at the end of the class – Road to Banff, Leaving Brittany, The Eagle’s Whistle, and finished off playing through Lay Dee at Dee.

Bowing patterns and grace notes

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.


Bowing chords on the fiddle


How to bow rhythmic chords on the fiddle

This week we spent some time looking at different ways to bow chords on the fiddle, to get a rhythm  in behind the tune.

We started off by playing through the slow reel from a couple of weeks ago. Then we learnt a new reel called Iggy and Squiggy. This one works well at a fairly fast pace. It uses the fourth finger a lot in the B part, combined with triplets and some rapid string crossing – it’s a good tune for a left-hand workout!

To keep our basic bowing pattern of starting the bar with a down bow, we slurred 2 quavers on an up bow after each triplet in the tune. We’re aiming to develop a ‘default’ pattern to our bowing which is played subconsciously. Once the down bow at the start of the bar has become a habit, it then becomes easier to vary it when we want to add different rhythms into a tune.

Keeping a relaxed bow hold

We looked at another way to help develop a relaxed bow-hold. first of all we shook out our bowing hand, to relax all the muscles. Then we placed our bows onto our fiddles in the usual playing position, holding the bow between the thumb and middle finger only. After this. we laid the other fingers gently onto the stick of the bow, without bringing any tension into the hand or fingers.
Bowing chords on the fiddle

The stick of the bow should sit in the first joint of the first finger (the joint nearest to the palm of the hand). This allows he first finger to be used to help control the direction the bow is traveling, so we can keep it perpendicular to the strings. The fingers should be spread out a little, and the whole hand should be slightly rotated anticlockwise, so that the back of the hand is pointing a little towards the tip of the bow. This gives us a basic relaxed playing position which will allow the wrist to be flexible when playing. The first finger and the pinkie can be used to help control the bow, using the thumb as a pivot.

How to bow rhythmic chords

There are several different ways to bow chords on the fiddle, which gives us some different options as to how those chords will sound.

In the last phrase of the B part of Iggy and Squiggy we tried playing an open D string to create a chord on each of the notes were playing on a down bow. If the notes of the tune (which are all on the A string at this point) are played with the bow positioned very close to, but not touching, the D string, then we can create the chord on any notes we choose just by using a bit of pressure on the index finger to bring the bow hair in contact with the D string. Playing the chords in this way adds a stacatto, almost percussive, rhythm beneath the tune.

A different way to create the chords using the open D string is to use a circular wrist action. We’ve tried this action out before when we’ve been playing tunes that switch backwards and forwards from one string to another. The wrist moves in a small clockwise circle which results (in this tune) in an up bow on the A string and a down bow on the chord. The wrist action can be modified slightly, so that instead of changing from one string to the other, we’re switching between playing the note on the A string, and playing the note plus the open D string. Creating the chord in this way allows the open D to ring out after we’ve played the note, so it sounds different to the previous method.

We ended the evening by playing through Leaving Brittany. We then played Aird Ranters, Barrowburn Reel and Spootiskerry in a final set. Next week we’ll look at some options for bowing Spootiskerry.


Playing fiddle harmonies

Harmonies on the fiddle

Tonight we started the class by going back over the waltz we learnt last week, then we learnt a harmony to play along with it. The written music for the harmony is on the music page. The tune and the harmony have short phrases which repeat several times. Listening to the tune while you’re playing the harmony will help us to hear how these parts fit together.

The B part of the harmony is a set of simple repeating chords, played on the A and E strings. We broke into pairs and one person played the chord sequence while their partner gave them feedback to help them keep their bow perpendicular to the fiddle strings. We then spent some time looking at how to improve our tone while playing these chords.

* We’re playing a long down bow followed by two up bows and lifting the bow up off the strings in between each chord. As we were bringing the bow down onto the strings for the down bow, we tried getting the bow moving downwards before it hit the strings.

* We practiced playing the down bow as a long bow, starting at the heel of the bow, and playing right to the tip. Bringing the heel of the bow onto the strings, rather than the centre or tip of the bow, gives us a lot of control over when the bow actually starts to come into contact with the strings.

* We tried playing with slightly less pressure on the A string than the E string.

* It’s worthwhile practicing playing chords as much as possible when you’re practicing alone, where you can hear both notes, and hear when they are in tune with each other. Playing chords is a great exercise for hearing tuning more clearly.

We played through Roxburgh Castle, and then went over the chord accompaniment that we learnt for the tune.

We finished off the evening by playing through Ramnee Ceilidh and Da Merrie Boys of Greenland.

Learning harmonies in the String Circle fiddle class, Edinburgh
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Chords and harmonies

Playing chords and harmonies on the fiddle

Tonight we spent some time working on finding chords and harmonies to play with a tune. We put some chords into Charlie McKerron’s tune ‘Fionn’s. We also looked at some of the grace notes we can add. We talked about making the drone notes into an accompanying rhythm. The way that we bow the tune will have a big impact on this. Using different bowing patterns will vary the rhythm of the ringing strings as they accompany the tune. We also learnt a harmony for the third part. The written music is on the website’s music page.

Learn about playing chords and harmonies on the fiddle
Photo ©Ros Gasson

After the break we learnt the first part of the Gordon Duncan tune ‘Break Your Bass Drone’. This is a lively driving reel in A. It’s a good tune to put at the end of a set of tunes, as it adds a real lift.