Thirty tunes to play
Below are some of my favorite fiddle tunes to play. Sourced and tweaked over many years, these arrangements are of course inspired by other guitar player's arrangements, as well as from violin and mandolin books, recordings, and the wonderful players I have been fortunate to play with.
There are seemingly as many versions of traditional tunes as there are people that play them, but I have tried to keep the melodies simple, relatively unadorned, and what I think should be pretty universally accepted interpretations. And the same goes for the chord changes. I am confident that you can take these tunes to any jam and be on the same page as everyone else. There's a good amount of frequent fliers here, as well as what I think are some lesser known gems, and even a few of my own tunes, just cause.
When playing these tunes, it's very important to pick down on the downbeat, and pick up on the upbeat. Use a metronome or rock your foot. And remember to practice the chords too. Most of the tunes have a few notes in parenthesis at the end of a section, these are “pickup notes,” usually for the second time through a section, as a segue into the next section. The first through use the original pickup notes again when repeating the section. When in doubt, just trust your ear. If it sounds good, you did it right.
At the bottom of this page there are much more extensive performance notes and tips about flatpicking fiddle tunes on the guitar, with thoughts on picking, groove, analyzing structure, making variations, etc.
Click On Any Tune To Enlarge
So the idea of picking down on the down beat, and up on the up beat, is sometimes referred to as "rhythmic picking.” It is a common approach in this music. There are a few important benefits to this; mainly, that you're effectively turning your right hand into a metronome. You're also going to improve your tone, volume, speed, and articulation -probably dramatically. It's beyond the scope of this page to go into extensive technical detail, but you could certainly research this further online or ask your teacher. There’s also some discussion of this in my Thirty Day Guitar Challenge videos At first it is likely to be very challenging to do it consistently, particularly when changing strings. I highly recommend watching your right hand and actually saying the words “down, up, down…” out loud as you play for a while -don’t just trust that you’re doing it right.
This method of picking will become automatic in a short period of time, and you don't have to get too deep into it in order to reap big benefits. However, two areas where it gets a more complicated are slurs (hammer-ons, puff-offs, slides) and triplets. With triplets for example, let’s look at Fisher’s Hornpipe -open that file up now, I’ll wait. The tune starts off with a triplet as a pickup preceding the first full measure. One approach is to pick the first note with a down stroke and just hammer on the next two notes. This is what I might do in, say, Cherokee Shuffle. Another possibility though, and what I did with Fisher’s Hornpipe on the June Apple album, is to pick each note of the triplet "down, up, down." This is a very articulate way to go, but creates the problem of having to play beat one of the first measure as an "up" at faster tempos, thus turning around our pattern -you will see what I mean when you try it. What I do is play that first note of the first measure as an "up," as well as the next note (which is an upbeat so that makes sense), and then on beat two I’m back on track until the next triplet later in the tune. There are also waltzes and jigs in which you want to pick; "down, up, down, down, up, down" all the way through the tune.. With slurs it’s about asking what would have that note you just slid to or pulled-off to have otherwise been were it not slurred? would it have been an “up” for example? If so, in a line of eighth notes, then the next picked note would be a “down.” Think about it for a bit. Work on it with a teacher. I highly recommend not slurring for the first few weeks, or months, when learning to pick this way. It sounds way more complicated than it is, but it is tricky. And again, I promise all this will be intuitive and fairly automatic in time, and it will make every other style of your playing stronger too.
As far as the left hand goes, I thought about including some classical guitar style markings with specific fingerings, but did not because I wanted the page to be less cluttered. However, it is very important to think about this stuff. When you finger things consistently and ergonomically you play more cleanly, and you memorize things faster and more thoroughly. In classical guitar, the word “position” is used to describe the set point of the left hand first (index) finger. To play in the first position means that all of the notes at the first fret will be played by the first finger (index), and therefore all the notes on the second fret will be played with the second finger, and so forth. To be in second position means that the first finger will play the notes on the second fret, so the second finger will play on third fret, et cetera. There’s no reason to be too uptight about all this, in fact there’s plenty of reasons to break from these guidelines, but again, it’s a good general set point. Tunes that are in the key of C should be thought of as being in first position. Tunes that are in the key D are in second position. And for me personally, I think of the key of G as a hybrid; I’m most often in the second position for notes on the three bass strings, and in first position for the three high strings. Again, just a starting point, it’s more than okay to drift from that.
The second point I want to make about the left hand is about what strings to play the notes on. So usually the default in this music, like classical guitar, is to play the notes on open strings when possible. However, many times it might be best for efficiency at higher speeds, or consistency of tone within a phrase, to play the notes elsewhere. In all three keys that these tunes tend to be played in, the note where this dilemma pops up most frequently is “B.” The default is to play it on the open second string, but of course you can also play it on the fourth fret of the third string. Let's look at Blackberry Blossom. If I wanted to play this tune very fast, putting all the "B’s" in the first section of the tune on the third string would make it much more efficient for the left and right hand. But at slower tempos, or perhaps if played in a more “crosspicking" style the open B would be more desirable. You decide.
Let’s open up Billy In The Lowground and have a look at the “E” note that is the very first note of the second section of the tune, or "B part." Playing that “E” at fifth fret of the second string would get me into a better neighborhood (third position) to play the high "A" note coming up midway into the following measure. On the other hand, maybe the open “E” would sound better for another approach. Just options.
Okay, one last left hand thing. There’s also the idea of what I like to call “trapdoors,” which is when you use an open string to buy a moment in which to switch positions without breaking the flow of notes in a phrase. Let’s quickly look at St Annes Reel. In the second section (or B part), measure three, I would use the open “B” note -the second to last note of third measure- to quickly switch positions so I can play the next note "D" in third position, thus setting me up to get that high "A" in the following measure more cleanly. I could use the open “E” in the beginning of bar five of this section to return back to first position again. And with a little practice you can use trapdoors to shift all the way up or down the neck. This is something you see quite a bit in classical guitar. I think in the video above of Tim and I playing The Locktender’s Reel, during my improvised solos, you can see me doing this quite a bit to get up and down the neck in the middle of a phrase.
It's important to understand the basic structure of a typical fiddle tune. For almost all of these tunes the first eight bar section we refer to as “the A Part.” And the second eight bar section we refer to as the “B Part.” Since we almost always repeat both sections, the “form” of the tune is "AABB." And you might not see it at first glance, but there is typically a lot of repeated melodic material. If we look at the tune Temperance Reel (open it up now so you’re looking at it too), this is the classic prototype of what I’m talking about. We will divide each eight bar section into four “phrases.” Here I am defining a phrase as two measures -it is probably best to primarily think of a phrase as a complete thought, like a sentence. So in some tunes it might actually be that the phrase starts a beat or so before the measure (as a pickup), and ends a beat or so shy of it -use your ears.. But again, it’s usually just about exactly two measures. And again, there are four phrases in each eight bar section. So in Temperance Reel, notice that in the A Part, that phrase one (measures one and two) is exactly the same notes as phrase three (measures five and six). Also notice that the same thing happens in the B part; again, phrase one and phrase three are identical. And then lastly, notice that phrase four of the A part (measures seven and eight) and phrase four of the B part (last two measure of the tune) are exactly the same. Now, this will not always be the case, and the notes in the phrases might vary slightly… but to some degree of this happens in almost all tunes, and your awareness of this big picture stuff will help you memorize tunes much more quickly. Moreover, when you go on to make your own improvised melodic variations, these larger patterns are something you likely want to replicate, to some degree, to maintain the spirit of the tune. When learning a new tune, always start off with this kind of big picture analysis of a tune to get the lay of the land.
Practice the chords. The typical protocol of this music is such that you'll be playing chords at least half the time. You want to get them memorized right away. You also want to practice just being able to "hear them." I recommend humming the melody and trying guess what the right chord would be. Keep the paper handy to see if you're right. You really can develop the ability to just hear when a melody indicates a chord change. There can be several "right" ones, but there are clearly wrong ones too. Don’t just learn the chords via muscle memory. You want to know where you are in the harmony at all times via a combination of having learned them intellectually, and by hearing them, if that makes sense. Once you know them well, then you can try different voicings and substitutions to personalize things in the moment. But again, first you have to have a command of the basic harmonic grid. Also, and perhaps more importantly, if you want to improvise, you want to be thinking of the chords (along with the melody) at the same time. I always tell students that I can't take a decent solo on any tune that I can't put the guitar down and just say the chords out loud to.
It's beyond the scope of these performance tips to explore single note improvisation in great detail but here are a few key points: First; while especially in the bluegrass world, there's seemingly a lot of emphasis on blues ornamentation -use of b3, b5, and b7, it is important to note that the melodies themselves are very much based on the major scale. Your ability to make your own variations is highly contingent upon knowing the simple major scale well in the key of the tune. Since the sound of open strings is a big part of vernacular of this music, the melodies are almost always played in the open position (we often use the capo to then get many of the tunes into more fiddle and mandolin friendly keys like, say, A). And so tunes are almost always physically played in just the keys of C, G, and D.
Learning those three open major scales is, well, key. I strongly recommend practicing the scale three times, starting and ending from the root of each of the three chords of the key. So for example, in the key of C, a fiddle tune is very likely to use the chords C, F, and G. So practice playing the C major scale from C to C, pausing on the note C each time you come to a it to reinforce that "C-ness" of the scale to your ear. Then play that same C scale again, but from F to F, again pausing on all of the F’s. It’s very important to understand that you are playing the same C major scale, but from F to F, not the F major scale. Read that last sentence again. Lastly, play that same C major scale, but this time from G to G, pausing on each of the G's as they go by to drill it into your ears, eyes, and fingers that it's now a C major scale molded around the important notes of a G chord. Later you can play the scale targeting what you think is the most important note or notes of the melody in each measure to play more mindfully (for want of a better term) rather than just the root. But the root-to-root thing is the gateway for sure, it often is the melody note, and it always sounds great in this music. So drill down on root to root thing for a long time. This concept is actually pretty simple, but may look a little intimidating written here in english. There's an old video of mine on Youtube wherein I describe and demonstrate this stuff in more detail. I used a jazz standard as the example, but it makes no difference. The bottom line is to not just mindlessly blow scales overtop the chords, but rather contour your thinking to the chords of the moment as they go by.
And more important than the scale information above, by far, is your complete digestion of the melody. Scales are just building materials, the melody is the architecture. You should be able to play the melody in at least two octaves, and in a few different places on the fretboard. And it's okay if you have to change a few notes to fit it into a new octave. You should be able to sing the melody too. Don't be the person that just takes solos that have nothing to do with the melody and are seemingly mostly about just guitar playing. "Play melody, not guitar" has been a useful mantra for me. Try to limit the plopping down of favorite pet moves in a modular way. Some of that is totally fine of course, I sure go there often too. But respect the tune, and shoot for taking themes and elements from the melody that resonate most with you and twist and turn them, thread them through your own ideas and all the cool things you can do, creating a little journey. It’s infinitely more interesting to the listener to go on that ride. It’s okay to do a few triple lutzes along with way, but shoot for telling a longer story. Okay, that's the end of my stogie old guy rant about guitar solos.
Last, and very much not least -in fact, probably first in importance is, working on the feel of this music. As my local students know, I am annoyingly found of saying something along the lines of music being made up of both pitches and rhythm. Yin and yang. The tendency -and this is an enormous understatement- is to concern ourselves disproportionately with the notes. Way more of our thinking is about where to put our fingers, than when. The listener is actually quite forgiving about getting a few pitches wrong, but far less so with the feel. They may not be conscious of it, but it’s the fundamental way they lock into music, or not. I recommend going on YouTube and checking out the video for my Thirty Day Guitar Challenge Day 1 -Groove I'm not saying I always have perfect time, I sure don't. But I can say that when I have worked hard at it, I got a lot more positive feedback from people, and even some free beer.
In the Guitar Challenge video mentioned above I go into some detail about using a metronome. When you are fairly comfortable with a tune, you should try the ideas explained therein. Specifically about using a metronome to mark beats "two and four." It’s very simple, but not at all easy. The reward is that it will add a lilt to your music that people will lock into and love, even if they’re not clear why. Groove is the catnip of music. Start by just “boom chucking” the chords on "two and four." So for a nice fiddle tune tempo of, say, 150, set the metronome to 75. The knocks of the metronome will represent the "two and four," and the silent space in-between are the "one and three." The “boom” (bass note only) is played on beats "one and three" (when the metronome is silent) and the “chick” (strumming of the rest of the chord) is on beats "two and four" (when the metronome makes a sound). There's a demo of this in the aforementioned video. I would practice this way for a few weeks daily before even trying the same thing with the single note melodies. This is difficult, but I promise you will eventually have the big aha moment about groove. There’s a zen thing that happens when it hits. Once it does you'll be after that feeling forever. Getting better at anything is about pushing through barriers. It is work, and it is frustrating. “Consistent perseverance” is a useful manta. Practice early in the morning. And always buy the best quality coffee you can afford.
If you need help with these tunes, or want to get deeper into improvising, exploring options, etc, I strongly recommend finding a private teacher in your area, even (perhaps especially) if they play another instrument. There’s just no substitute for sitting in a room and playing music with and learning from another actual human being -something chemical happens, it's different, trust me. But if you just don't have someone in your area, I do offer Zoom sessions. Or if you're passing through the Pacific Northwest and want to do a private lesson, look me up.