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American folk music alternative tuning A E A E- insight sought


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I recently read this passage in Wikipedia under tuning.

"American folk violinists of the Appalachians and Ozarks often employ alternate tunings for dance songs and ballads. The most commonly used tuning is A-E-A-E."

Can anyone familiar with this tuning add anything else?

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I'll hazard a guess:

It sounds similar to open tunings used by some guitarists, esp old

blues players.  On guitar, this makes it easier to create

chords, as you just barr-across the frets & then move your hand

position for the changes.  (it's especially useful when

playing slide)

Fiddles are typically set-up with a lesser arc on the bridge, so

three strings can be played at once, therefor A-E-A-E would make it

very easy to play rythmic chords, or to play 2-note "chords and

jump octaves back & forth.

It would be especially easy in the keys of A and E, two favorite

keys of guitar players.

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There are several reasons why fiddles are tuned this way.

1. Fiddle players tend to spend most / all of their time in the first position. For the average player it is easier to play the low C-sharp in tune with the second finger rather than the third on the G-string. Changing the G-string to A makes that possible.

2. Many fiddle tunes will play the same melody an octave lower to give it that 'cool' fiddle sound. Anything played on the A and E-strings can be played with the same fingerings on the lower "A and E-strings".

3. In many fiddle songs the A string can often be used as a drone when playing melody on the E-string or vice versa. So you can get more variety droning --- especially when playing on the 2 middle strings (while playing on the A-string you can drone either above or below and still be on an E-string).

4. It makes the fiddle sound different because there are more open string with "sympathetic vibrations" --- sort of gives it a brighter, more ringing quality.

5. Certain chords which would be double-stops in standard tuning are now just single notes with drones.

Besides the above, it's just plain fun. Many tunes were written specifically for this tuning and would be considerably more difficult in GDAE.

If you want to experiment further, try tuning ADAE for tunes in the key of D. Enjoy!

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I believe alternate tunings were also used by folk musicians in the British Isles, but are no longer common. Also in music for the violin as "scordatura" tunings.

There's a whole lexicon that goes along with the tunings too that varies from region to region and includes names for each string.

Here are a few of my favorite tunings (tuning for strings low to high):

Cross tuning sometimes is used to mean any of these alternate tunings, but usually what we call AEAE, though this was often more like GDGD or some other pitch in the same relationship.

High Bass-ADAE. As Bob mentioned this is common in some areas as a tuning for the key of D, but in W.Va. usually encountered with A tunes (Shaking Down the Acorns, Fine Times at Our House, Falls of Richmond).

AEAC#-best known for Jack of Diamonds, but we have a nice tune called Three Forks of Cheat in that tuning.

AEAD-Old Sledge tuning.

DDAD-Bonaparte's Retreat tuning. Some fiddle players get a bagpipe like drone with this tuning. I believe the modern waltz Midnight on the Water was written in this tuning, but you seldom hear it played there.

You can hear some samples from W.Va.'s Hammons Family at Amazon.

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Insofar as nearly all American folk music is imported by various immigrant groups, I would direct your attention to the Wikipedia article on Hardingfele (Hardanger fiddle). It's the last remnant of the viola d'amore, with its sympathetic strings and all, but more to the point of this discussion, it's commonly used with a number of variant tunings, many of which are mentioned in the above article.

And here's the link (if it works).

Yup. Function verified.

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Here's a short clip from some video I shot of Lester McCumbers, a great fiddler from Nicut, West Virginia. He's playing Cotton Eyed Joe in cross G (GDGD).

It's a 12.6 MB Quicktime (.mov) file and takes a minute or two to load so maybe open in a new window and come back when it's done, or you can right click the link (click and hold on a 1 button mouse) to choose to download it for your continued viewing pleasure.

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It is done alot these days in the Old Time jams because songs traditionally played in that tuning are still learned and sound best - in that tuning! Ditto what Bob K and Mark C mentioned. The tunings GDGD and AEAE are also called 'cross tuning' or G or A tuning and the banjo will tune to its own appropriate tuning too. It is not unuaual to play all evening in one of these tunings or 'keys'. There are more tunings and wonderful old tunes that only sound 'right' in these keys.

Another interesting bit is the tunes that will skip a beat in certain places or add a beat or two, it's fun stuff!


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AEAE is used by some fiddlers in the Cape Breton violin tradition as well, and often referred to as High Bass there. David Greenberg, in the DunGreen Collection (a great reference for CB fiddling), says "..the pitches of the violin strings then become a,e',a',e'', at least two of which will ring sympathetically to every note in the key of A-major! The ringing strings and the potential for use of more open-string drones make for a sound which is reminiscent of bagpipes... The additional volume acquired by using scordatura tunings would have been especially helpful to a dance fiddler before the modern age of electronic amplification and pianos... The high-bass scordatura also facilitated the playing of octave harmonies when there were two fiddlers playing; the back two strings are pitched the same as the top two strings, so one player could double the melody low or high without having to learn a new fingering for the tune." With their Scottish heritage, the CB fiddlers' repertoire includes a lot of pipe tunes that are in the keys of A major and A mixolydian with range of an octave or so, so I can see why this tuning would be fairly popular there. I wonder if Appalachian scordatura has the same heritage? -Steve

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  • 2 weeks later...

I wholeheartedly agree with what Bob and Mark and others said, about reasons for AEAE (ringing fiddle, easier double stops, playing an octave down) and about some common cross-tunings. As Don said, this is a very traditional approach in Southern oldtime and various other styles. Eck Robertson played his famous 13-variation version of Sally Gooden in AEAE (recorded in 1922).

When I was transcribing cross-tuned fiddle tunes for my book, Oldtime Fiddling Across America, I had to address an interesting question.

Do you transcribe as if the fiddle is tuned standard (as Thede did in The Fiddle Book), so that the automatic translation of written notes to fingers is correct, but what's written is not what's sounded? Or do you transcribe as if the fiddle is cross-tuned, so that you're writing the actual sounds produced, and the fiddler has to figure out the fingering? I went for the latter, and added fingerings above the notes to help out.


Dave Reiner

Leader and dad for the Reiner Family Band

Genial host of Fiddle Hell Massachusetts (Nov 14-16, 2008)

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Definitely transcribe the tune as it sounds, and make additional note of the tuning and fingerings if you want. It's really not very hard to figure out the fingerings if you have the notes as they sound, but writing them as they might be fingered would be very, very confusing from one tuning to another. Might work in tablature, but notation isn't tablature.

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