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September 2018

Learning Fiddle Tunes

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As I’ve written in the How To Learn blog, learning and practicing fiddle tunes is a great way to improve your technique, plus, they are really fun to play. A lot of fiddle tunes are similar in structure and melody so once you learn one, it gets easier to learn others. You’ll start to recognize similar patterns and chord structures. Everybody plays fiddle tunes a little differently. They can be really simple or full of flourishes and fills. You want to find a version that seems manageable. That is usually the one that’s close to the “old-time” version where you get the skeleton of the tune or basic melody. If you listen to a few different versions, you’ll begin to understand what’s important and what is added color. Don’t get overwhelmed when you hear a ripping version with lots of notes. Just cut out the notes you can’t handle. As long as you keep the basic framework of the tune, that’s fine.

I mostly learn fiddle tunes by ear. Or, I’ll use a chart along with a recording so I can hear the correct timing. The Amazing Slow Downer app is an essential tool for me when it comes to learning fiddle tunes or licks from recordings. Youtube is also a really great resource. Any tune you want to find, you will most likely be able to find somewhere on the internet.

About The Capo

Fiddle tunes are generally played using a lot of open strings so that means you will often be using a capo on usually on the second fret. So a G shape chord becomes an A. The C shape chord becomes a D, etc. If you play with a capo, learn what key you’re REALLY in. Don’t say things like, “I’m in C capoed on 2.” The bass player, fiddler, mandolinist, may not know what you’re talking about. Just say, “I’m in D” and everybody will be on the same page.

Here are a few links below to help you get stared learning fiddle tunes.

Old Joe Clark

This is a great place to start. Old Joe Clark is a popular jam tune. It’s in A but it’s got this great old-time, modal quality to it which makes it really fun to jam on.

Here’s a pretty good lesson on how to play back up 

Note for Note. This will give you the basic melody of the song.  

Here’s the definitive version by Doc and Merle  Watson. It does not get much better then this . Players will often combine similar fiddle tunes. In this case they start with Bill Cheatum and go into Old Joe Clark. Listen how they harmonize toward the end. That is super cool.  

Cripple Creek

Here’s a nice, simple version of Cripple Creek. Another classic jam tune.  

Whiskey Before Breakfast

This is a very good lesson on flat picking technique and timing . It’s a note by not run through.  ( He also includes the Lyrics in the comments section which you don’t often hear. The lyrics to Whiskey are really fun )

Whiskey Lesson Note for Note 

Here’s Bryan Sutton playing a very pretty version of Whiskey. This is the kind of video I would convert into an MP3 and import into the Amazing Slow Downer  to learn. ( or pay the dough and sign up for his Academy Of Bluegrass course )

Bryan Sutton on Academy of Bluegrass 

Red Haird Boy

Nice Clean Version 

This funny Banjo Ben dude gives a pretty good analysis of how to approach “attack”. He demonstrates  adding what I call “color”. 

Here’s the definitive lesson. This is the great Tony Rice. 

Billy In the Low Ground

Here’s Tony Rice teaching Billy in The Low Ground. This is a great tune.I love how he finishes this and says, “that was a rather crude version”.   

Soldiers Joy

Here’s that Whacky Banjo Ben again. He’s actually a pretty good teacher. He offers tabs if go to his site. 

This is a pretty notey version but it’s shot really well to show the fingering and he plays it fast then slow.  

Here is a really pretty version by the great David Grier

Angeline the Baker

Here’s a note for note, more beginner version 

Here’s a very cool but technical version from Scott Nygaard

Another very technical and masterful version by David Grier


Guitar Resources

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I once attended a song writing workshop with Darrell Scott and he said something that I found really interesting. He grew up playing in a working, family band. From a very young age he was playing back up guitar on stage every weekend and later, more nights every week. He said that becoming a strong, backup player would later become his most valuable asset as a song writer.

Knowing how to hold the rhythm and support singers is just as important, if not more important, then being able to rip out hot leads. My advice is to spend time on becoming a competent backup player first.

Here are a few helpful places to go to pick up tips for learning good strumming and flat picking technique. I’ll keep adding to this list as I discover new resources and if you find anything you think would be helpful to share, be sure and pass it along to me.


Bryan Sutton  G Run 

Here’s Bryan Sutton’s Academy of Bluegrass course. 

Work On Your Guitar Rhythm

Classic Rhythm Guitar Boom Chicka pattern

Peghead course focusing on flat picking.  Great place to learn technique and tunes 

Basic Flat Pick patterns. This is a nice no-nonsense lesson showing a few basic, very handy patterns.