Jump to content

Blues fiddle

Julian Cossmann Cooke

Recommended Posts

For anyone who plays blues violin, what progression do you recommend to move into that style of playing? I have taken classical lessons off and on for the last 50 years. My skills aren't bad, if a bit rusty, and am a maker.  By progression, I am referring to something like: 1. Basic fiddle skills; 2. Listening to blues fiddlers; 3. Basic blues fiddle concepts, including fingerings and "licks"; 4. Find a blues fiddler who can provide tips; 5. Work from recordings (or a specific book?)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In my opinion, there isn't a straight path into it, because it isn't really a living tradition.  Most fiddlers who play blues have reconstructed the style in varying degrees.  First, I would start listening to a LOT of blues, concentrating on early lead guitar players (like T-Bone Walker), harmonica players, who I think absorbed a lot of African-American fiddle styles that never made it to the era of recording, and of course, singers.  I would start with traditional fiddle styles that include blues-tinged playing, so Bluegrass, Appalachian, Cajun, and so on.  My introduction to playing the blues was through bluegrass fiddling.  These styles draw on earlier African-American playing, which was mostly fading by the time people started recording, but you can be sure that most of what's in American traditional fiddling (that isn't in traditional fiddle music from Europe) came ultimately from West Africa.  While you can hear some African-American string bands from the 20s and 30s (Howard Armstrong, etc), and there are fiddlers on various 1920s blues recordings, I think a lot of the sound you are looking for had mostly moved into harmonica, guitar, and horns by that point...and into white fiddlers' playing.  Bob Wills, from your neck of the woods, grew up listening to African-American and white fiddle players, and I think the whole Texas fiddle style owes a lot to African-American musicians.

I'm trying to think of some fiddlers to listen to... Howard Armstrong, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Papa John Creech--though he was classically-trained... he picked up a lot of styles, but he was not raised in the tradition, really.  To me he was more like "Stuff" Smith, also a great player who had great ears, but was in fact a classically-trained player.  Personally, my favorite "blues" fiddler is Vassar Clements.  My son is very accomplished in several blues styles as a guitarist, and I found that I picked up a lot of blues vicariously from his years learning it, finding guitar players to be good inspiration.  My kid got me listening to Derek Trucks, and imitating his slide style has been an inspiration for me lately.

The main thing of course is to play the blues.  All the time.  Playing with accomplished blues musicians is great, because they'll tell you if you are getting it or not.  I suspect that my answer is not very useful.  Maybe people know of books, etc., but--I don't know--I think the first thing is to get the sound of the music in your head, and then imitate that. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is a tough area to approach. It is so much easier to teach Classical -styled music. On this site, the discussions often amount to "how authetic does one want to be?" To Maestro Cossmann Cooke, is it just the licks and fills that are of interest? Obviously, you know enough to want to play it. Here's my free advice. 

palousian's advice of playing and listening to blues ( all the time ) is good advice. I learned Papa John Creech licks note-for-note as best as a 5th grader might, sitting on the edge of my bed lifting and replacing the needle on my favorite solos. At the time the subtleties of phrasing and intonation were not noticed, thus truly not the Blues, but the notes were played. Hearing Gatemouth Brown on Austin City Limits also blew my mind as to what how expressive a guitar could be... Also heard him live several times and once with Roy Clark. Regardless, what I know and play is of course only an imitation. But this does not limit the amount of pleasure it provides me nor does it limit me to applying what has been "learn" or noticed to my Bach. #1, listen.

We learn to look at images in 2D, 3D then in color. Listening also takes the same dedication, listening to the notes, phrasing then the music.

There is a particular reverence to this area of study. I truly want students to understand the experience ( as best as I am able to understand it. ) Better that they experience for themselves and it varies quite a bit, mostly due to their willingness to learn, that they end up not being so good at it. From a practical stand point the natural minor scale and the Dorian mode ( like natural minor with a raised 6th ) helps in starting to hear how notes are bent down and raised. The degree of these changes are truly expressive. And it is an acquired taste for many. A lot of students show up not having listened to any Blues. #2, play natural minor scales and modes in different keys. Learn the tunes as they are the basis for licks. The tunes and the scales will overlap. One tune can be learned in an afternoon. Bettering it takes time. 

Some intonations are purely functional, all played in the 1st position, many pitches averaged trying to fit larger finger tips on to the fingerboard. Imagine, that playing the A- major scale in 1st position on the a and e- strings the wandering 2nd finger will be flat on the major 3rd and the 7th. And the 3rd and 7th will also be flat in E-major ( the ring finger missing the stretch. ) "Proper" intonation, though we spend our lives working on it, is not that important when it comes to communicating ideas. #1, listen some more.

There is also a wide range of Blues that is being played, so to better understand what one likes, helps. Genres within genres. When I was in Texas last, I drove east to find a home blues concert and the afternoon consisted of storytelling around food and later, with a guitar. No Blues venues in South Carolina and Eastern Georgia that I was invited to given my limited stay. Listening to Klezmer violin to hear how the phrasing and pitch peaks helps. Klezmer is more obvious as to where the sonorous tensions are placed. It seems to be all melody or harmony. Early Jazz is also helpful in maintaing rhythm, keeping of, and destruction of it. My current crush is listening to any version of Cherokee that is online. Not only are the chord changes great, but tempos vary so much...#3, see where the Blues is applied as it is everywhere in American music. 

Blues has a musical structure or form and makes a difference as to how one might improvise. The simplest, the 12 bar, with the first phrase modified in the second is a great place to start. Learn a good first lick, then modify it further. #4, learn licks and then make them your own. No one faults others of repetition when it is effective and meaningful, though there are some who complain about BB King's one-dimensional vibrato calling his performances, not-the-Blues. 

Listen to the words. Blues can be a style or poetry or nothing more than loud noise at a bar. There are not enough fine violin Blues instrumentalists in different regions of the world. If one plays with care and develops a voice based on the work of others it reaches out and extends what might have been developed in the South. #5, context is key.

There is the issue of tone. I recently recorded a series of licks for a sound engineer and he complained that the tone was not to his liking - too clean. They were in the Venuti-style, a bit nasal, a bit compressed. The phrases were recorded on an early 20th-centrury 3/4 "Hopf" model with steel strings and he still considered it "annoyingly" clean. I found it very good. #6, the tone as one imagines it important. 

As a maker with hard strong fingers, the phrasing is built on bowing. When working out licks and patterns, Slur everything at first. Keep the notes connected. The emphasis will often come from the rhythmic placement of the bow changes. That variation can also be applied elsewhere throughout the tunes. #7, think about what you want to stay and learn to stick with it - until you want to change it.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hm, well, you didn't listen to much.  I mean, your guy, Sugarcane Harris, is a classically-trained violinist from Pasadena, CA who played rock 'n' roll with Zappa.  Great player, and sure there's blues in his playing, but Pasadena isn't the Delta, vathek.  Clements came from the Florida panhandle, and grew up playing a remarkable range of American music, claiming a considerable influence from big-band swing, blues, and country music. If you actually think country music and bluegrass have nothing to do with the blues---well, then, you're misinformed.  They are entirely intertwined, and Clements' style is heavily influenced by the playing of African-American musicians, as were many fiddlers in the South, including Bob Wills, Johnny Gimble, Arthur Smith, Chubby Wise (a family friend of the Clements', BTW), etc etc.   

It is an illusion to view various "styles" of American music as independent traditions.  In fact, just about everything that distinguishes American vernacular music from European music is West African in origin, and African-American music touches just about any sort of music we think of as distinctly American.  The blues are all over American music.  We distinguish "country music" from "blues" because of the race of the musicians/audiences, not the actual music---the music industry marketed the former to white audiences, while blues was marketed to African-Americans, but the musicians themselves freely mixed their styles.  In fact, many African-American blues musicians listened to the Grand Old Opry, and it should come as no surprise that white musicians playing African-American music were a major force in early country music.  Bill Monroe's evolving "bluegrass" style was contemporary with be-bop, you know, and Monroe adapted various features from jazz and blues in his music.  Ray Charles played country music, and uh, he could play the blues.  Clements' awesome improvisation chops and unique style made him fit right in with Dickey Betts of the Allman Bros (a somewhat stronger blues outfit than Zappa's) on 1974's Highway Calls or play jazz with Grappelli, or sure, sit in with Nashville legends.  One of my favorite examples of his playing was on John Hartford's Aereo-plain.  Listen to the end of "Goodle Days," and tell me that isn't the blues!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Could I add Regina Carter to the list of modern blues fiddlers? I know she's a jazz violinist, but to my ears there's a real strong blues feel to her music (sort of like Joe Zawinul, the great Austrian keyboardist). 

Palousian, that's a great post you made! I thought a lot about what you wrote & very much agree. But there's more to be said. Been thinking in particular about rhythm and beat. I kind of associate blues with a back-beat feel. Like it's always there, even when you're not doing it. Then there's that thing Billie Holiday did, where she'd come in just a little behind the beat. 

There's so more to think about when you're thinking about the blues. It goes way beyond which scale notes get flatted!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I know Ben--yeah, he's great!  He also started out as a classical player, too, but definitely has absorbed all sorts of traditional fiddle styles.  He definitely makes the connection between old-time fiddle and the blues, but as I said above, he has had to reconstruct the style from the evidence, not coming out of the tradition himself, as is true of any fiddler now trying to figure out how to play blues on the violin.  I would think his background would make him an especially good teacher, though. 


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.

  • Create New...