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How to Jam on Fiddle Tunes

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

Band Leadership Strategies in a Fiddle Tune Jam with Jay Ungar

Fiddle Tunes are known and loved by instrumentalists of many different folk genres - Bluegrass, Old Time, Celtic, Cajun… Often folks of different musical backgrounds can gather around common fiddle tunes that are shared across genres like “June Apple”, “St. Anne’s Reel”, “Temperance Reel” and “Liberty”.

Jamming in each of these genres looks a bit different, but the leadership skills exemplified in the clip above will show you how great musicians like Jay Ungar help large group jams like this succeed and stay exciting.

In Old Time Music, which originated as a dance music, tunes are often repeated several times and played by all in unison- with a rhythm section accompanying the melody instruments. Melody is often played by the fiddles. Old Time music originated with just fiddle and banjo, then later incorporated other instruments like guitar, bass, and mandolin.

In Bluegrass Music, instrumentals are usually played by one instrument at a time, with others accompanying. Solos (Also known as “breaks”) are passed around so that each musician can improvise or interpret the melody as they see fit. Bluegrass music is typically made up of banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and bass (Sometimes dobro)

In Celtic Music, instrumentals are also played in unison, but often are performed in “sets” where one tune seamlessly changes from one to the next. Melody is played by fiddle but also other instruments like tin whistle, flute, tenor banjo, and accordian. Celtic music also incorporates piano, and percussion, especially the Bodhran.

As you can see, musicians from each of these genres may come with different expectations. Here are some leadership strategies that Jay Ungar uses in these jams:

Choose Common Tunes:

Find common tunes that are shared among genres. I recommend organizing the tunes you know by key and category. Here is my list of tunes and repertoire

Err on tunes with less chords and simple melodies. Jay chose the following:

  • St. Anne’s Reel

  • Shove the Pigs Foot a Little Further into the Fire

  • June Apple

And in another set…

  • Big Sciota

  • Arkansas Traveler

  • Soldiers Joy

  • Liberty

  • Tom Bigbee Waltz

Other Common tunes include:

  • Red Haired Boy

  • Billy in the Lowground

  • Cripple Creek

  • Old Joe Clark

  • Angeline the Baker

  • Red Wing

Keep it fresh and interesting with different Textures:

Borrow from different jam traditions to keep it fresh.

Twin fiddling - is a texture in bluegrass music where fiddles or other instruments play the melody in harmony.You’ll hear that here with fiddles. You can do this with mandolins as well

Homogeneous Instrumental solos - Highlight other instruments in the group by calling “All Mandolins” (Seen here in the jam clip) or “All banjos” or “Percussion”/ “bass solos”. If you’re a fiddle player, plan to drop out or accompany the featured instrument in this moment. Shuffles make for a great accompaniment technique

In general, bass and percussion solos are best supported with a stop time feel, banjos with shuffles, and mandolins with a chop of some sort

Thin the texture with just fiddles - Try this for a couple sections, then bring accompaniment back full force for a nice energy build. Often the accompaniment will drop out completely or play “Footballs” (Whole notes) to create a sparse texture. Here is an example of this from the jam

(Notice Jay calling attention to this texture change with arms in the air and a big cry for “FIDDLES! ) Also notice the “Footballs” here as the band builds energy again.


5 Fun Arranging Ideas

for the New Year

Check out these time-stamped examples from Auld Lang Syne

  1. Start Sparse and build - This track uses Banjo and Fiddle to start the tune off - No bass or chordal accompaniment. You can do this with mandolin and fiddle, mandolin, and flat picked/finger picked guitar, or really any combination of instruments. This texture allows you to build interest and excitement throughout the arrangement.

  1. Arranged “Hits” - You’ll see here a great example of how to transition from a sparse intro to full accompaniment. Sometimes these are called “Footballs” - meaning whole or half notes. You can arrange “hits” on specific parts of the melody as well

  1. The False Ending - You can use this deceptive ending to keep the energy going! Just end the tune as normal, or in this case with a relaxed tempo- then jump back in just as strong!

  1. Unison Melody - Leave the rhythm to the bass and Guitar and have fiddle, mandolin, and banjo play the melody together. This creates a nice “last Hoorah” sort of feel and is great for the last time through the tune. This is an easy one to pull off in a jam with no rehearsal. You just need one big strong voice yelling “EVERYBODY!”!

  1. Rubato Intro - This can be a nice change of pace from the onslaught of “boom-chuck”... Bowed Bass and fiddle, tremolo mandolin allow for banjo or guitar to play out of tempo.

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