Hi, everyone. I taught a fiddle bowing workshop at the 2017 Indiana Fiddlers’ Gathering a few days ago, and I thought it might be good to give it a recap in a blog post.
I feel like it’s really hard to make simple statements about old-time “bowing rules,” because there are always exceptions—every player is different, and techniques that sound right coming from one fiddler sound totally wrong coming from someone else. However, I think that in general there are often a few guidelines that can help someone who would like to improve their sense of old-time bowing.
Distinct from other styles like bluegrass or jazz, old-time has always been associated with dancing—whether that be social dancing such as square or contra dances or individual dancing like clogging. I believe that it is this connection to dancing that has cemented such a strong, straight rhythmic component in old-time music.
In most old-time music, the emphasis is on the strong beat rather than the weak beat. Because it is easier (and, in my opinion, feels more natural) to put an accent on a down bow rather than on an up bow, I believe the more common style of old-time bowing is the “down-bow style”—where the down bow is on the strong beat and the up bow is on the weak beat. There is also an “up-bow style” where things are vice versa, but it is not as common. I can’t really do it properly myself, either, so I don’t feel qualified to teach anything about it!
Common old-time bowing patterns
That said, I’m going to try to introduce some common patterns that I’ve encountered in playing, listening to, and observing old-time fiddling. These patterns all start on a down bow.
- Sawstroke (1-1-1-1) (D-U-D-U): This is just changing the bow direction for every fast note. It works very well until you have longer notes!
- Two-note stroke (2-2) (D-D-U-U): This happens naturally when you’re playing longer notes, but you can also slur every two fast notes for a fairly rhythmic sound.
- Nashville shuffle (2-1-1-2-1-1) (D-D-U-D-U-U-D-U): This is the “potatoes” bowing — it almost always comes in pairs, so if you do the first 2-1-1 then you’ll also do the second 2-1-1.
- Georgia shuffle (1-3 starting on off-beat) (x x D-U-U-U): This is good for playing notey tunes that don’t have too many string crossings. Here is an audio example using the tune June Apple. (It plays slow, medium, then fast.)
- Synco-shuffle (1-2-1-2-1-1) (D-U-U-D-U-U-D-U): This is a slightly syncopated pattern that I’ve heard some more modern-sounding fiddle players use. Here is an audio example using the tune Brushy Run. (It plays slow, medium, then fast.)
“Three equals one”
When I’m thinking about bowing, I notice there is the concept that “three equals one.” This refers to how if you slur three notes in a row, you end up on the same bowing as if you had not slurred at all. For example, down-down-down (slurring three) ends the same way as down-up-down. This means that you can slur three notes in a row and your bowing won’t get “backwards.” (By “backwards,” I mean that the down bow now is on the weak beat, instead of the strong beat. This feels rather unnatural to me, and it goes against the “down-bow style.”) In contrast, if you slur just two notes in a row, your bowing does become “backwards.” So, if I’m playing a bunch of notes on the same string, I will often slur three in a row because it feels smoother than just playing sawstrokes.
The other big topic I discussed was the pulse. As far as I know, it is fairly unique to old-time fiddle music, though it is not essential (there are old-time players who don’t use the pulse).
I view the pulse as a way to retain a strong sense of old-time rhythm during points in a tune where there is not as much going on in the melody—such as when there are longer notes—especially at the end of a part.
The pulse is almost always during an up-bow, and it usually involves two simultaneous actions:
- a gentle push with the right index finger on the bow, to add an accent to the up-bow
- a switch from bowing one string to bowing two strings, without changing the bow direction. The added string is always in the higher-pitch direction than the first one. For example, one might start by bowing the up-bow on the G string and then switch to the G and D strings. Or one might start on the A string and switch to the A and E strings.
Here is a video that demonstrates the pulse using the tune Sail Away Ladies (played slow, medium, and fast). There is a pulse at the end of every phrase in this version of the tune.