When I was just starting to learn to play the fiddle I happen to bump into Joe Craven in the parking lot before one of his shows. Joe is a fantastic fiddle player and an amazing percussionist so I took the opportunity to get some pointers. “Joe, in 30 seconds what advice do you have for a new fiddle player,” I asked, and his quick reply surprised me. “Focus on the right hand, don’t worry about the left. The notes will come, but if you don’t have the rhythm, you got nothing.” What Joe was telling me was to make bowing technique my first priority in order to develop a strong, rhythmic, classic fiddle shuffle. You might be able to fake notes but you simply can’t fake rhythm. I believe this is the single most important piece of musical wisdom I’ve ever received.
The groove is everything. In a jam circle, the thrill, the fun, the fireworks all comes from a driving groove. Even slow songs have to rest on a consistent, well defined pulse. And here is a sad but real truth. If you are that person who consistently screws up the groove, people just won’t want to play with you. Here are two ideas for how to, at the very least, not get in the way of the groove. and at best, support and build on it.
- Don’t play if you can’t find it. If a tune feels too fast and too rhythmically complex, just bow out or keep it real quiet. There is honor in knowing your limitations.
- Shoot for “the one” or “ the two” and “the four” Some songs emphasize the first beat in the measure while other songs have a stronger “two” beat. A lot of country or bluegrass tunes have that “boom chuck” rhythm. The “chuck” is hard smack on the two and four beat. Try this. First, count one, two, three, four a few time in a flat even tone. Now try it again but bark out the TWO and the FOUR. See how different emphasizing the two and the four is? That’s the secret sauce for a strong propulsive groove. You don’t want to get in the way of that. If the song is moving too fast for you to hit every boom or chuck, don’t try. Just strum one beat every measure or just when you can really feel where it lands. The beauty of having a lot of players is that you’ve got plenty of backup helping support that rhythm. Oftentimes too many, in fact. My experience is in most jam situations, less is more. The bottom line is, “do no harm. Listen hard and contribute what you can maintain a steady, strong groove.
All About That Bass …
Sorry to tell you bass players, the grove is pretty much all in your hands. If you screw up, you can sink the ship. Bass players really need to have their chops down if they want to jump into a circle of strong players. It is your job to create the basic framework everybody will build on. You are signaling chord changes and creating an anchor for all those guitar players to work around. Keep it simple. Stick to that 1 and 5 until you feel confident branching out and make sure you really understand the chord changes of the song before the group launches into it. Don’t be shy about insisting on clarity from the leader before you start.
Mando Chop Can Make Things Hop
Mando players, get your “chop” down. That clean, woody smack that a mando puts out acts like kick drum or snare. You really want to practice getting that sound and chopping in time. I was at a jam the other day and sitting to my right was this older woman I’d never met. She was not the hottest lead player nor a great singer but she had this extraordinarily clean, precise, strong chop. There were a lot of players in the circle and it became increasingly clear to me that she was providing the anchor for the entire group. Her chop allowed the bass player to stretch out. The guitar players all locked in around it. That jam really rocked largely because of her, which I don’t think she was even aware of, but I certainly was.
If you haven’t learned how to chop yet, here is just the guy to teach you.
Put Rhythm Practice At The Top Of Your List
Wondering what to focus on for daily practice? Remember Joe Craven’s advice. “You got nothing if you don’t have the groove”. So how do you practice rhythm?
- Play songs with a metronome. There are lots of metronome phone apps. You can wear earbuds so you can really hear that click. Get the metronome going at the speed you want to play the song and let’er rip. Start slow! This can be torture. I hate playing with a metronome because it immediately shows how crummy my rhythm is and I like to think rhythm is my strength! Even the best players are challenged when they play against a machine but it’s really essential practice. It forces you pay attention.
- Play along with songs. This is more fun than using a metronome. I spend a lot of time jamming along with my favorite CDs or Pandora. This is a great place to use The Amazing Slow Downer app. You take a song and slow it down to a manageable speed and play along. You can also find “play along” or “backing track” videos on Youtube. There’s a lot of great instructional material out there that offer play along tracks too.
And why did I choose a shot of the Infamous String Dusters as the featured image for this post you ask? Because nobody drives a groove like The Dusters. They crowd in close, lock it in and rev it up. It is something to see. Check it out here