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Four Elements of Good Bluegrass Fiddle Playing - Bobby Hicks

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

"Lessons from a Legend" - Bobby Hicks talks about bluegrass fiddling. I watched the film and took notes on his presentation. Here are his four elements of good bluegrass fiddle playing.

1. Music theory

  • Familiarize yourself with the Nashville numbering system and learn how to read or create chord charts

  • Learn the notes on the common scales used in your genre of fiddling. Bluegrass commonly uses GDAE b-flat B and C

  • Know the chord progression for each of the keys. You want to know the 145 chord and their relative minor. Learn to recognize the chord progression when you hear a song

  • Learn to recognize a chord from the makeup of the chord notes. For example, you should be able to hear a G chord and know that it's a G chord simply from the way that the chord is built

2. Technique

  • Proper hand position for playing accurately. Anchor your hand to the same spot every time you pick up your fiddle

  • Use your bow arm effectively, loose wrist and use only as much bow as you need to get the sound you want. Instantly this is also the key to playing fast.

  • Stance, stand straight, tall and open

  • Keep your fingers close to the fingerboard In order to play efficiently and fast. You can't waste time moving your fingers around more than necessary. When not using a finger, keep it as close to the string as possible without touching it

  • Learn to properly tune your fiddle, preferably without the aid of a tuner. You may need a tuner to get one note. After that train your ear to hear when you are in tune

  • Your fiddle is tuned in fifths, from lower to the next higher string is called a fifth interval

  • Keep your bow parallel to the bridge about halfway between the bridge and the fingerboard for maximum sound

3. Intonation

  • Play your scales in tune. Develop your hearing so that you know when you're playing in tune and learn where your finger position is to get the proper intonation for the note you're trying to play. Make sure your hand position stays in one spot so you develop muscle memory.

  • Learn to play the scales in second and third position on the fiddle and develop your ability to easily move between all three positions on the fiddle neck

  • Learn your chord and double stop positions. Learn which notes make up a chord.

  • Play cleanly and crisply with proper spacing between notes. Think of it as the difference between someone speaking and a monotone and someone that speaks in an articulate and passionate manner.

  • Learn to invoke different emotions by using a variety of bow pressure and bow speed.

  • Develop bow control. Use exercises to improve your bow control

4. Style

  • Kickoffs

  • Fills, accompany singers and other instruments in a tasteful and pleasing manner

  • Breaks initially follow the melody line then improvise if there is another round of solos

  • Do exercises to develop your improvisation ability

  • Listen to other fiddlers weave in and out of tunes

  • Know when not to play. The biggest thing I see lacking in the fiddle playing today is tastefulness in playing. Just because you can play something doesn't mean you should. It may fit a lot better if you wait for the appropriate fill or break. Sometimes it's better not to play it all. Great bluegrass comes from a group sound, not one instrument flashing out above all others. Pay attention to how what you play affects others in the group. Does it allow them to play off of you or does it leave them in a rough spot to have to play out of?

  • Remember you are part of a team. Playing notes just for the sake of playing notes and filling up the song with fiddle is at best annoying and certainly won't endear you to other bluegrass instrumentalists/singers

  • When appropriate, chop while not playing

  • Learn to improvise a break using melody variations, bow / timing patterns variations

  • Bow patterns. Learn which bow patterns give you a punch to a riff. Try to identify which bowing pattern gives a certain drive to a song and whether it's created using a downbow or an up bow.

  • Harmony, twin fiddles. Learn to identify two and three part harmony and which notes make up the harmonies to the lead line. Practice playing the harmony parts (thirds and fifths above or below the lead or melody line)

  • Do not sacrifice any of the above for the sake of speed

Additional resources

  • Software, any software that will slow tunes down without changing the pitch.

  • Books, music theory made easy by David Harp. An excellent introduction to the basics of music theory, including the Nashville number system. Easy to read and sells for under $15

  • Discography. The bluegrass album band volumes 1 through 6, Texas crapshooter and fiddle patch, any Bob wills recordings, Vassar Clements, Aubrey Haney, Randy Howard, Johnny Gimbel, Buddy spicher, Dale Potter

Bonus tips:

Hicks tricks


Use ring finger instead of middle finger to play second, slide up to flat third and replace second with middle finger (Cheyenne example)

Shuffle bowing at end of Cheyenne, open string in between

Playing behind a singer

Playing the spaces

Don't double what he sings

Play the melody or close to it On a break and try to match the singers style

Learn Faded Love three ways

  • Basic melody

  • Johnny gimble smooth

  • Bobby Hicks swing

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