It’s all in the Bowing

My primary fiddling interest is learning Old Time Fiddling. The overall sound of a fiddle in the old time genre is different from all others. That old time sound comes from the bowing style. So, the key to unlocking old time fiddle music within me will be how well I am able to learn and duplicate the old time bowing style.

old time fiddler

The melodies and phrasing of old time fiddle music are simple and strait forward, but just playing the notes doesn’t produce that old time fiddle style and sound. Bruce Molsky, an American fiddler and fiddle teacher who performs old-time music of the Appalachian region, says the details are everything, and having an understanding and working knowledge of a few of the most important elements will give an energetic and authentic old time sound when playing these tunes. Below is an outline of these elements followed by Bruce illustrating these in a video.

Learn to Control the Effect of Gravity

Learning to control the effect of gravity is important. If you play with a fairly relaxed right hand, and you should in this music, then you can see how the down-stroke is really the power stroke. Prove it to yourself by holding your forearm steady and simply move the bow up and down using just your wrist. There’s just more natural strength in pulling than pushing, and that powers the entire thing. Dance fiddling especially takes advantage of this. Many of the great dance fiddlers were characterized as down-bow fiddlers. They led the phrases with a strong down-stroke, often catching adjacent open strings and marking the strong beats. For an example of this technique, watch the YouTube video of Clark Kessinger’s Sally Ann Johnson. It will knock your socks off!

Develop Muscle Memory

Remember that practice and muscle memory will go a long way in establishing good technique. Here are a few exercises that can help to master an old time sound.

Circular Motion  First, think about how you do one of the simplest things with the bow, just moving it up and down across the string. Does is stay in a straight line, or does it dip and dive a little when you change direction? Try this, on an open string, play a down-stroke so that the bow makes a downward arc, like the bottom half of a circle going counter-clockwise as you look at it. Then, continue into an up-stroke that is the top half of the circle, so now one down-up movement of the bow is not straight back and forth, but a complete circle.

Compare the sound you get playing straight back and forth across with the circular movement. The straight stroke puts the bite at the beginning of each note because of the abrupt change in direction. However, with the circular motion, that little bit of edge goes away, and any emphasis in the note moves from the beginning to sort of the middle. It might seem like a subtle difference, but once you’re playing up to speed, it puts in a whole lot of swing that wouldn’t otherwise be there, and it’s something you hear a lot of in the old players. Listen to Bunt Stephens’ classic recording of Sail Away Ladies which is great example.

Figure-8 Motion  Now, try playing straight back and forth, but let half of the down-stroke be half of a figure-8 on its side, like drawing a backwards letter “S,” and the up-stroke being just the opposite. It’s much easier to do it than say it. You’ll get a different kind of accent from this, but both the circular and figure-8 shapes add a pulse to the stroke that couldn’t be there any other way. Play these at a constant bow speed. Don’t slow down and speed up, the pulse comes from the bow’s angle, not its speed. Likewise, use constant pressure. Be neutral with everything, and when you do it right the sound will come naturally and from the right place.

Fulcrum Pulses  Start by moving the bow straight back and forth on the single D-string. Go for a smooth motion and an even sound across the entire stroke. Now, with each stroke in each direction, change the angle of the bow, let it kind of drop, so that it picks up the A string for a split second. The goal is to keep the D string note smooth and to its full value while the A string note pulses. This is a really powerful tool when gotten up to speed. (See Bruce’s video posted below.)

All of these techniques are learning to speak on the instrument. That’s the goal for everyone when they pick up an instrument. You learn the nuts and bolts, but what you really want to learn are the words and language of the instrument.

In this video, Bruce Molsky illustrates these elements and additional tips that can help achieve an authentic ‘old-time’ sound, including of playing Say Darling Say, a good example of using the circular bow technique.

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