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Beyond "the chop"- an approach to extended rhythmic techniques

christian howes

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Published: September 9, 2015 at 7:26 PM [UTC]

Chopping, strumming, and other techniques for the bow and plucking hand are popular among string players, but rather than focusing on the mechanics of one technique, I’m more interested in helping you take a broader approach to creating your own rhythmic accompaniment.

Many students and teachers ask me to teach them some specific groovy/funky thing to do, but learning one rhythmic pattern will only serve you in very limited musical situations, and furthermore, learning “a technique” or “a lick”, is just like studying classical music, and you’ve already got plenty of that on your plate, right? For balance, you need strategies which will enable you to think for yourself to discover things that haven’t been dictated down note for note. In the video below, I’m demonstrating a process for subdividing rhythm physically with your arm, whether strumming or playing arco at the tip or the frog. I hope this approach will help you as much or more than any specific technique (like “the chop”!).

Incidentally, one of the most important aspects of accompaniment for any bowed string player should be knowing when NOT to play, and different instrumentations require different approaches to accompaniment. For example, I would almost never use a “chopping” technique while playing with a drummer, since the drummer is already covering the percussive role. Often, even without a drummer or percussionist, a minimal use of percussive effects on the violin, viola, or cello is more tasteful.

Another reason to play less is that it’s so important when playing a percussive or rhythmic role to be playing exact rhythms. Oftentimes, string players have the luxury in classical music settings to develop a lazy rhythmic sense, playing with a constant give and take of the pulse. Groove-based music requires a higher standard of rhythmic precision, so if you’re a classical player you should retrain yourself to approach these scenarios differently. Oh, and by the way, much of classical music is dance music. If you focus on learning how to groove, you’ll make people want to dance when you play Gavottes, Allegrettos, Rondos, Andantes, etc., and that would be a good thing :) You can begin to retrain yourself with educational materials here.

Chopping and strumming on the violin can be cool, but the coolest thing is always to “never do harm” to the music. So by all means, practice these techniques with a metronome and listen back to yourself to notice and improve your rhythm. In the meantime, on stage, heed the wisdom of jazz musicians and “when in doubt, lay out”.

From Geoff Caplan
Posted on September 10, 2015 at 11:23 AM
Terrific advice - the best take I've seen on rhythmic comping. Thanks for posting.
From Paul Deck
Posted on September 10, 2015 at 1:51 PM
Interesting and useful post. I'm playing now in a Brazilian-themed group (all bossa novas and sambas, lots of Jobim and Bonfa tunes), with guitar/bass/percussion, and I'm trying to figure out how to do some comping behind the guitar, just when he's doing kind of a lead-line type solo (when he goes polyphonic, I lay back, just as I would on the piano). It's the experimental approach for me. I'm less concerned about rhythms because I have jazz piano background. For me, it's more about figuring out which double-stop to play and what sequence of double stops that will not have awkward voice-leading. In this kind of music it's not going to be a lot of fifths, but rather I find I'm using a lot of sixths and tritones. The voicing issue is much less of a problem on the piano because you've got 10 fingers and a lot more opportunities to make subtle voicing adjustments on the fly. With violin I'm finding that has to be planned out mentally three or four bars in advance. So yes, I've shedded some of the trickier ones at home. I think home-brewing a few rhythms (or voicings, or turnarounds, etc.) is okay as long as you do not become dependent upon them over the long term.
From christian howes
Posted on September 10, 2015 at 8:27 PM
thanks for the feedback. In terms of voice leading on the violin, I generally recommend playing the 3rd and 7th of every chord, and of course always moving the smallest distance to properly voice-lead within a progression. However, comping for a guitarist can be problematic because of the range of the violin, which sometimes is too high. An alternative approach is to play upper extensions of the chords higher on the violin to sit above the gtr solo- but of course you have to be sensitive to the extensions implied by the guitarist's improvisation. EIther way, practicing basic double stop voicings of 3rd/7th on the violin is extremely useful, and once you get familiar with the lay of these shapes you can expand into many other options. I created a "chord glossary" with many voicings for violin in my "Jazz Violin Harmony Handbook" . thanks again.

From Paul Deck
Posted on September 13, 2015 at 1:38 AM
I agree that thirds and sevenths are a good starting point although for voice leading as well as some convenience (to avoid playing fifths that arise in major-seventh and minor-seventh situations, they are just really hard to get in tune) I find that I use some fifths and tonics as well. The fifth works especially well with half-diminished sevenths.
From Mark Roberts
Posted on September 15, 2015 at 12:58 PM
I've written some music for violin electric guitar drums and bass, available on facebook violinists, these techniques might be useful for the next set...
From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on September 15, 2015 at 7:42 PM
For a good demonstration of this rhythmic technique, watch a bluegrass mandolinist. When not playing the melody, the mandolin plays a rhythm chop, taking the place of percussion instruments (which aren't used in bluegrass). A good player's left hand is like a metronome - down on the beat, up on the off-beat - so a pattern on the beat is played on downstrokes while a syncopated pattern is played on upstrokes.

When the mandolin is playing the melody, the rhythm chopping is taken over by another instrument, typically the fiddle - which brings us back on topic here. :-)

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