Old-time bowing

After a discussion with user Fiddlepogo on Fiddle Hangout, I came up with some more things to talk about here. Here’s a comprehensive recap of my earlier bowing blog posts along with more content.


Clearly, there are many ways to move the bow when playing old-time tunes on a fiddle. But there are some patterns that I—and other people—tend to use more often. This is a compilation of all the bowing patterns that I use (or at least all the ones I’m aware of). I am not including theoretical bowing possibilities—only bowings that I personally use or have observed experienced fiddlers use.

Bowing patterns (or combinations thereof) are applied usually over the course of eight or more notes. I’ll separate them into three categories: fundamental patterns, short patterns, and specialized patterns.


Fundamental patterns aren’t really patterns—they’re more just the building blocks for patterns. However, I will also use them by themselves at the end of other patterns so that I can start the next phrase on a down bow, or to fake my way through a tune I’ve never played before. I’m further separating these into straight patterns and syncopated patterns, based on which beat is emphasized. (X) means there is usually a beat there but it is not a part of the bowing pattern—I’m using (X) to put the fundamental patterns in the context of where I usually put them.

  1. Straight fundamental patterns
    • Saw stroke:
      • D U (X X)
      • (X X) D U
    • Two-note stroke:
      • D-D (X X)
      • (X X) U-U
    • Four-note stroke:
      • D-D-D-D | (X X X X)
      • U-U-U-U | (X X X X)
      • (X X) U-U- | -U-U (X X)
    • Pulse: This is the technique of pushing into the string, or switching from a single string to a double stop, in the middle of a bowing, to emphasize a strong beat without switching the bow direction. It almost always occurs on the second beat of a bow stroke. It has a unique feel and I use it a lot.
      • Pulsed up-bow:
        • (X) U-*U* (X)
        • (X X X) U- | -*U* (X X X)
        • Rhys Jones in Hammer & String uses a bunch of pulsed up-bows at the beginning (and throughout) “Say Old Man, Can I Have Your Daughter?” (AUDIO DEMO HERE.)
      • Pulsed down bow:
        • (X) D-*D* (X)
        • I don’t play this as much, but it’s a necessary part of tunes like Candy Girl and Highlander’s Farewell. See more information below, under “3-1 pattern.” (EDIT: I misinterpreted Emily Schaad’s recording of Highlander’s Farewell. She doesn’t play a down-bow pulse—she just plays a lot of up-bow pulses. I can’t find any source that does a down-bow pulse for the tune. I think the tune sounds good with a down-bow pulse at the start, though.)
    • Coming into the down beat early:
      • (X X) D-D- | -D (X X X)
      • Pretty sure this is a Missouri thing. I do it a lot to start phrases.
  2. Syncopated fundamental patterns
    • Three-note stroke:
      • D-D-D (X) | (X X X X)
      • (X X) D-D- | -D (X X X)
      • (X) U-U-U | (X X X X)
      • (X X X) U- | -U U (X X)
    • 1-2 stroke:
      • D U-U (X)
      • (X X X) D | U-U (X X)
      • U D-D (X)
      • (X X X) U | D-D (X X)

Short patterns are the ones that make fiddle music distinctive. They combine fundamental patterns in different ways to produce various sounds. These usually last four to six notes. I’m going to further group them into straight and syncopated, based on their timing.

  1. Straight short patterns
    • Extended saw stroke: D U D U | D U D U
    • Georgia shuffle: (X X) D U- | -U-U (X X)
    • Two-note saw stroke (see “Two Note Slurs” under Fiddlepogo’s Catalog of Shuffles Part 1):
      • D-D U-U | D-D U-U
    • Nashville shuffle (see Fiddlepogo’s Catalog of Shuffles Part 2):
      • D-D U D | U-U D U
      • Like the Georgia shuffle, this pattern loops into itself, so it’s possible to play it ad infinitum. I’ve always felt that it’s overused to the point of being grating, so I tend to avoid it.
  2. Syncopated short patterns
    • 1-3 pattern:
      • D U-U-U
      • This could be extended, but I don’t like how it sounds when I do that, so I usually just play it if the melody and/or string crossings warrant it.
      • One good way to start a Georgia shuffle is to play a couple saw strokes and then the 1-3 pattern (see “Sawshuffle” in Fiddlepogo’s Catalog of Shuffles, Part 3).
    • 3-1 pattern:
      • D-D-D U
      • There is an optional down-bow pulse on the third down-bow.
      • This is not a pattern that I usually play. Right now, it’s difficult for me to play this without going into a 3-3 pattern, but I have examples of musicians who use this pattern.
      • Emily Schaad, fiddler of Old Buck, playing Highlander’s Farewell, uses a 3-3-2 pattern and then a 3-1-1-3 pattern during the first phrase of the beginning of the tune to get the right pulse timing. (AUDIO DEMO HERE.) She doesn’t use the down-bow pulse.
      • This is also played with the down-bow pulse in some versions of Candy Girl. I have a recording of Rayna Gellert teaching this bowing for the first phrase of Candy Girl during a fiddle workshop. (AUDIO DEMO HERE.) (She also emphasizes that this is not the only way to bow the tune.)
    • 3-3 pattern (see “3. smooth syncopation” under my blog post Fiddling Around; see “Smoothshuffle” in Fiddlepogo’s Catalog of Shuffles, Part 3):
    • 1-2-1-2 pattern (see “4. rough syncopation” under my blog post Fiddling Around; see “Syncoshuffle” in Fiddlepogo’s Catalog of Shuffles, Part 3):
    • Syncopated shuffle:
      • *D* U D *U* | D U *D* U
      • Usually I’ll finger a chord and play the high part of it during the notes with asterisks and the low part of it for the other notes. This spices up the rhythm of the tune. It also makes older players do a double take.
      • This is essentially just one part of a double shuffle.

Specialized patterns include gimmicks and patterns that are only appropriate in specific circumstances.

  • Ways to kick off a tune:
    • Potatoes (four Nashville shuffles):
      • D-D U D | U-U D U | D-D U D | U-U D U
      • This is a fairly universal old-time standard for kicking off a tune.
    • Chops (four staccato chops):
      • D z z z | D z z z | D z z z | D z z z
      • A bit less common than the previous method, but still quite recognizable as a way to kick off a tune.
  • Double shuffle (a.k.a., That Thing in Orange Blossom Special):
    • D U *D* U | D *U* D U | *D* U D *U* | D U *D* U
    • As I explained earlier for the syncopated shuffle, the asterisks here mean that you finger a chord on the fiddle and play the high part of the chord during the notes with asterisks and the low part of the chord during the other notes.
    • This is such an overused gimmick that they ban it at almost every fiddle contest.
  • I’m sure there are others, but I haven’t really looked into them. Long patterns are more a bluegrass thing, which I’m not as familiar with.

I might add more to this in the future, but that’s it for now. Thanks for reading!

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