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This section contains excerpts from our eight volume Flatpicking Essentials course.

Fiddle Tunes and the Guitar

While the guitar style and technique that we called “flatpicking” was born and began to mature long before Doc Watson picked his first fiddle tune on a flat-top acoustic guitar, the flatpicking style is most prominently identified with fiddle tunes and the way they have been performed on the guitar by the legendary Doc Watson, and those who have followed in his footsteps. Prior to Doc Watson, the guitar in string bands was primarily a rhythm instrument in bluegrass, folk, and old-time music. Doc was the first to popularize the playing of fiddle music on the guitar. [For a more extensive discussion of the history of flatpicking, refer to Flatpicking Essentials, Volume 1]

Guitar players who have learned to play the flatpick style usually spend the majority of their time and effort learning how to play fiddle tunes. Flatpicking instructional books and videos are mostly focused on teaching the student how to play fiddle tunes, and at most flatpicking jam sessions the majority of time is spent jamming on fiddle tunes. As time goes by, and more vocal songs and instrumental tunes from jazz, swing, and other genres find their way into the jam, this trend is slowly changing. However, the fact remains that flatpicking and fiddle tunes continue to go hand-in-hand, and they probably always will.

As a result of the close connection between flatpicking and fiddle tunes, most of the guitar players who are interested in learning how to flatpick start their learning process by trying to learn how to play fiddle tunes as performed by their flatpicking heroes. But is this the best way to learn? As a guitar player who did start learning how to play lead guitar with fiddle tunes, in retrospect, I’d have to say “I don’t think so.” If you have worked with the material in Volumes 1 and 2 of Flatpicking Essentials, I hope that you would agree.

As I stated in the special “Pioneers” issue of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine (Volume 11, Number 4), and in the last two volumes of Flatpicking Essentials, my contention is that a guitar player who is interested in flatpicking should first learn how to play solid rhythm in the style of the early acoustic guitar pioneers (as outlined in Volume 1), and then learn how to play lead guitar to vocal tunes in the style of those lead acoustic guitarists (like Maybelle Carter, the Delmore Brothers, Doc Addington, Edd Mayfield, George Shuffler, etc.) who came before Doc Watson (as outlined in Volume 2). Doc Watson listened to these guitar players and their techniques formed a foundation for what he, and others, would later develop.

Having talked about that process enough in the Pioneers issue and in the Flatpicking Essentials course (Volumes 1 and 2), I will not belabor the point again here. However, I do want to talk about the process of moving forward to play fiddle tunes once you have built a foundation playing solid rhythm and learning how to play simple lead solos to vocal songs. The steps we will use in learning fiddle tunes are going to be a little different than the steps that we used when learning the vocal tunes in Volume 2.

Most flatpickers start learning fiddle tunes by memorizing solos that have been arranged by other guitarists. In the early days of flatpicking, before tab was readily available, students took a Doc Watson, Norman Blake, Clarence White, or Tony Rice recording and learned to play those guitar solos by ear. Later, as books, magazines, and videos began to find their way to the music store shelves, the majority of students gave up on learning to play by ear and simply learned new tunes by memorizing the transcribed solos that appeared in these books.

There is nothing wrong learning a guitar arrangement of a fiddle tune from a guitarist’s recording, an instructional book, a magazine, or DVD lesson. These are fine ways to efficiently build a repertoire of tunes that you can play at your local jam session or festival, or with a picking buddy who knows the same tunes. However, at some point in time you are going to want to learn how to solo on songs that you have not memorized, songs that have not been transcribed in books, or even for songs that you have never heard before you arrived at the jam that night. If you have relied on guitar tab in order to build your current repertoire, it is not so easy to get away from it. I know this from experience.

Getting Away From the Tab

If you have relied on learning fiddle tunes from tablature, I recommend that you start learning how to get away from it as soon as possible. Not that guitar tablature is a bad thing; it does serve a very useful purpose and we will talk about that later. Most professional players learned to play by ear and they will all tell you that learning by ear is the best way to learn. However, even though I agree that learning by ear is the best way to learn, I do not recommend that you learn a new fiddle tune by taking a Doc Watson, Tony Rice, David Grier, or Bryan Sutton recording and learn their solo note-for-note. While that is a great exercise and does have value, it is best saved for later. I recommend that you start out with something that is much easier. If you are a beginner to the “learn by ear” method, you are going to become frustrated very quickly if you try to tackle a Tony Rice or Clarence White solo. You need to start training your ear in slow, attainable steps.

Your ear development would be best served if you were to first learn to add to your rhythm technique by ear (as we did in Volume 1), and then spend time learning vocal tunes by ear (as we did in Volume 2) before you tackle instrumental tunes. Why? If you’ve worked through the material in Volumes 1 & 2, I’m sure that you can answer that question. If you have not worked with that material, I’ll tell you that it is easier because learning how to play rhythm and simple vocal songs by ear is not as difficult as picking out fiddle tunes. You can pick out chord changes and bass runs by ear easier than you can pick out fiddle tune melodies, and you can also pick out simple vocal song melodies easier than you can pick out more dense and complex instrumental melodies.

You should first build an ear training foundation with rhythm and vocal songs. After building that foundation, you will then be ready to tackle fiddle tunes. However, even when you feel that you are ready to try to learn a fiddle tune by ear, I still do not recommend that you start with your favorite guitar hero’s arrangement. I recommend that you start with the simplest version of the song as played by an old-time musician.

Years ago when I interviewed my guitar hero, Charles Sawtelle, Charles said that when he was learning a new fiddle tune he would try to find the oldest recorded versions of the tune so that he could first learn the melody. Old-time musicians played for dances and for the most part stuck close to the melody of a song. As contest players began to embellish the melody with various ornamentations in order to win the contest and as bluegrass players, or “performance” players, began to add improvisations and play “hot” solos, it became more difficult to identify a tune’s simple melody.

Our guitar heroes have done the same thing with the fiddle tunes that they perform and record. When you hear a Doc Watson or Tony Rice guitar solo, they are not playing the straight, simple melody of the song. They have embellished that melody and have created their personal stylistic interpretation of that melody. While it is great to study their style and investigate what they have done with the melody and learn their signature licks and phrases, you cannot adequately do that unless you first know the basic melody.

A Brief History of Fiddle Music in America

Fiddle music has been a part of American culture since long before the country was founded. The earliest colonial settlers coming to the new world from Europe brought their fiddles with them, and fiddle music was a big part of their social lives. The music included ballads, dance tunes, minuets, sonatas, and folk songs from a variety of areas, primarily England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Italy, France, and Africa. Of all of the instruments that were brought over from Europe and endured in the new world, the violin was by far the most popular. Men from all walks of life, from Thomas Jefferson to indentured servants and slaves, played the violin, or fiddle. It was the centerpiece of the music that was performed in theaters, at formal and informal dances, and at every type of social gathering.

While the fiddle was at the center of the music that was being played in all areas of the country in colonial America (and later in the young United States), the repertoire that we as flatpicking guitar players have grown to know and love came to us primarily from the Southeastern region of the country. Although the majority of the fiddle technique and repertoire that was prevalent in this area of the country was brought over with the Irish, Scots, and Scotch-Irish immigrants, American fiddlers had started to develop uniquely American versions and variations even before the United States declared independence in 1776.

Prior to conducting research for this article, my assumptions about the origins of fiddle music in America were that immigrants brought over their fiddles and repertoire from Europe, performed at local social gatherings and dances, and handed down their fiddle tradition aurally to subsequent generations. Because America was a cultural “melting pot,” various European cultures and traditions mingled fiddle technique and repertoire and a uniquely American fiddle style developed.

While this story is certainly authentic for many of today’s fiddle players’ lineages, I discovered that there is much more to the story than I ever realized. While this article is far too short to do this topic justice, I will provide an overview and leave it to those who are interested to investigate further by reading more from some of the resource material that I quote in this article.

The Slave Musicians

One of the significant developments in fiddle music in America actually came from the hands of the African slave musicians. Plantation owners in the South loved to host dances, parties, informal gatherings, and other antebellum festivities, and it was not uncommon for them to have taught slaves to perform for these functions. In The Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery author Randall M. Miller states, “White Americans had never hesitated to appropriate for their own purposes the talents of their black slaves and those of the slave musicians proved to be no exception. During the seventeenth century, when the North American colonies’ black population was not large, black musicians learned to play European tunes on European instruments. Their musical ability earned them popularity in the white community and by the 1690s white Virginians, for example, considered the slave fiddler a valuable commodity. During the eighteenth century, slave musicians continued to prove their usefulness by performing at white functions throughout the colonies.”

Thomas Jefferson was a fiddle player, having learned to play fiddle tunes by the time he was fourteen and later said that as a youth he practiced for three hours a day. Helen Cripe states in her book Thomas Jefferson and Music, “In Jefferson’s later years, he was surrounded by his grandchildren and the family’s many music interests. It is said that they ‘often sang and danced in the evenings, either to the music of a Negro fiddler or to the old harpsichord.’”

Additionally, the slave musicians performed for their fellow slaves at Saturday night “frolics” or “fiddling dances.” The plantation owners often sanctioned these events because, as Randall Miller states, “by encouraging music and dancing, they hoped to keep moody slaves happy, lazy slaves productive, and idle slaves out of mischief.” While these black musicians where taught how to play European songs on European instruments, they naturally mixed in their own rhythms, syncopations, and tempos. In her book With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow: A History of Old-Time Fiddling in Alabama, author Joyce H Cauthen writes, “…because of the interaction between the races on antebellum plantations, white fiddlers were enriched by black fiddlers who turned the British reels into hoedowns and added the ‘hot’ element to southern fiddling.”

Indeed, if we look at the fiddling lineage of some of the best-known old-time fiddlers of the 1920s and 1930s, we can see that many a famous white fiddler learned their craft from a black fiddler who was either a slave musician or the direct descendant of one. Cauthen relates the story of famous Alabama fiddler D. Dix Hollis (1861—1927) who “learned to play at the age of 10 from a family servant.” In his book The Devil’s Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling, author Charles Wolfe tells of how well-known Kentucky fiddler Doc Roberts learned many of the songs that he later recorded from his older brother, Leibert, “who, in turn, had learned how to play from a local African-American fiddler named Owen Walker. Born in 1857 and growing up during the Civil War, Walker was only one of a number of skilled black string musicians in the region.”

Additionally, Bill Monroe always credited black fiddler and guitarist Arnold Schultz as an influence. Because the black musicians moved on from fiddle music to play blues and jazz during the 1920s and 1930s, most fiddle players are not aware of the influence the black musicians had on American fiddle music as it is played today. However, one of the elements that helped define fiddle music in America was the mixing of European fiddle repertoire with black influences from African music.

The Minstrel Show

Another way that the black musicians had an influence on the spread of fiddle music was through the popularity of traveling minstrel shows, which began in the 1840s and stayed popular through the beginning of World War I. The minstrel show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, music, and dancing performed by white people in blackface or, after the Civil War, black people in blackface. While minstrel shows usually lampooned black people and contained racist content, they also offered white people a chance to become aware of black music and culture. Talking of the first minstrel group, The Virginia Minstrels (1843), Cauthen writes, “The group became popular immediately and spawned hundreds of all-male, all-white troupes, which traveled the country, ‘delineating’ the Negro character and carrying his style of fiddling to areas where black fiddlers had never existed.”

In Erynn Marshall’s book Music in the Air Somewhere: The Shifting of Boarders of West Virignia’s Fiddle and Song Traditions, she visits with West Virginia fiddler Rita Emerson (1908-2004). Rita recalls that her family (the Langford family) learned tunes from both the white and black minstrel acts. Marshall writes, “The Langford family was very influenced by the minstrel shows. These comic and often satirical performances took the form of mini-musicals. People would sing, dance, play musical instruments, and act out short dramas or skits. Admission was free, but donations were accepted. A can would be passed around during the show, and everybody would give the minstrels something. Afterward, the minstrels would be invited to different homes where they would be given food and lodging for the night ‘and that’s how they survived,’ said Rita.”

Later, Marshall states, “The shows were very popular, and Rita remembered that everyone in Cox’s Mills wanted to hear the minstrel singers, and they did not discriminate against shows put on by black minstrels. Just as many locals attended shows put on by black minstrels as put on by white minstrels. ‘We learned a lot of songs from them,’ said Rita.” The music performed in minstrel shows was primarily based on Irish and Scottish folk music, with added elements from black culture. In Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World, musicologist Dale Cockrell states that “early minstrel music mixed both African and European traditions and distinguishing between black and white urban music during the 1830s is impossible.”

Entertainers and groups who became popular in the 1920s—like Uncle Dave Macon, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, and Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers—often featured fiddle and banjo versions of old minstrel songs. Some of the songs that became popular during the minstrel era included “Old Dan Tucker,” “Carry Me Back To Old Virginny,” “Golden Slippers,” “Dixie,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “Blue Tail Fly,” “Lynchburg,” “Buffalo Gals,” and many others. As the minstrel shows toured through both cities and small towns, local musicians would pick up these tunes and add them to their repertoire.

The Civil War

The Civil War provided another opportunity for fiddlers in the South to expand their repertoire. When soldiers from various units throughout the South were brought together during the war, they had the opportunity to share their music and technique with one another and, as a result, regional fiddle music spread rapidly across the South. The war brought together soldiers from various areas of the southern states and from diverse economic backgrounds. Fiddler’s and fiddle music were in great demand as the soldiers used music to take their minds away from the stress of battle while in camp, and to later document their experiences. Many new tunes and songs with Civil War themes grew out of the conflict. After the war, when soldiers returned home, they brought back new tunes and fiddling techniques with them and thus the fiddler’s repertoire blossomed across the South.

As a side note, and connection to the minstrels, it is known that General J.E.B. Stuart employed fiddle and banjo playing minstrel Sam Sweeney to provide musical background for cavalry raids and impromptu parties. Sam Sweeney was the younger brother of Joel Walker Sweeney (1810–1860) who had learned how to play the banjo from local African-Americans in Buckingham County, Virginia, and is thought to be the first white banjo player. Joel Sweeney is also credited with inventing the five-string banjo.

After the Civil War, freed slave musicians were no longer forced to play music that their masters dictated and thus the old cakewalk tunes that they had learned to play on the plantations eventually turned into ragtime, the Negro spirituals developed into the blues, and when the black musicians picked up the brass instruments that had been used by the regimental bands during the Civil War, they started to develop the music that would later become known as “jazz.”

By the 1930s the black fiddler was rare. They abandon the traditional fiddle tunes of the British that they were taught to play during the slave years on the plantations and moved onto develop musical styles of their own. However, the role of black fiddle players in the development of American fiddle music can not be ignored.

Fiddle Conventions and Contests

All the way up until the 1950s, when the popularity of rock and roll began to overshadow more traditional styles of music, fiddle players throughout the South were the “stars” of their day. Fiddle players were called to play at barn raisings, corn huskings, square dances, political rallies, store openings, and any other place where people would gather. Other big events which focused directly on the fiddle players were the fiddle conventions and contests. Records of fiddling contests date all the way back to 1736.

The fiddle contest circuit really blossomed in the mid-1920s when Henry Ford sponsored fiddle contests at Ford dealerships across the country. Ford was determined to bring traditional morals and values back to communities at a time when jazz music and dancing was sweeping the nation. Many of the famous fiddle players of the day made a name for themselves as a result of the Ford contests.

Fiddle conventions also flourished during the early 1920s, and all the way through the 1950s. Joyce Cauthen writes, “In the early 1920s, news of fiddlers’ conventions began to appear regularly in county newspapers across the state. Scholars often attribute the new popularity of conventions to Henry Ford’s attempts to revive old-time music and dance in the midst of the Jazz Age. In Alabama, however, the frequency of fiddler’s contests began to increase prior to 1926 when Ford sponsored his highly publicized conventions. It is clear, though, that the surge in contests in Alabama came from the same impulse that inspired Ford’s efforts. Contest announcements often disparaged modern music.”

Recordings and the Radio

While minstrel shows, fiddle contests and conventions, and Civil War co-mingling played a role in spreading fiddle music across the South, two technological advances did more to revolutionize American fiddle music and make “stars” out of fiddle players and string band musicians than anything America had ever seen: the invention of the phonograph record and the broadcasting of music over the radio airwaves. The first two fiddlers to record their music were Eck Robertson of Texas and John Carson of Georgia. Robertson recorded “Sallie Gooden” in 1922 at the New York offices of the Victor Talking Machine Company. Carson recorded “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster Is Going To Crow” for the General Phonograph Company at a temporary studio in Atlanta in 1923.

String band music of the 1920s consisted of a guitarist, who provided accompaniment; a banjo player, who was usually the comedian; and the fiddle player, who was the star of the show. In his book, The Devil’s Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling, Charles Wolfe writes, “Only the fiddler was the really serious instrumentalist, the one who kicked off the tune, played the melody, took the breaks, drove the band.” In this book, Wolfe profiles some of the most prominent of the fiddling stars who came to fame due to the advent of the phonograph and/or the radio, including Eck Robertson, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Cowan Powers, G. B. Grayson, Doc Roberts, Clayton McMichen, Clark Kessinger, Arthur Smith, Bob Wills, Slim Miller, Tommy Jackson, and others. If you have not heard recordings by these great fiddlers, I highly recommend that you start listening! All of these distinguished fiddlers recorded the tunes that flatpickers now love to play, and then some. If you are looking for great old versions of fiddle tunes that you already know, or if you are looking to add some new songs to your repertoire, the recordings from these early recording artists can provide you with a gold mine of material. I also highly recommend Charles Wolfe’s book.

With the growing popularity of rock and roll, the television set, photograph records, and radio, the role the fiddler played at local events, dances, and social gatherings began to decline and old-time dance music lost its appeal. Bluegrass music, and to some degree country music, have continued to keep fiddle player’s employed, however, the fiddler is no longer the star of the show. While the times have changed, looking back we cannot deny the historic role that fiddle music and fiddle players held in the development of American music. And as flatpicking guitar players, we can learn a lot by listening to, and learning about, the fiddle music and musicians of the past.