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How to play the background violin from a pop recording

Michael Fox

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Published: June 6, 2015 at 6:18 PM [UTC]

Here are a few string players you might not have heard of before, but have probably heard their music.

Violist John Cale (Velvet Underground), cellist Lori Goldston (Nirvana), and violinists Scarlet Rivera (Bob Dylan), David Ragsdale (Kansas), Boyd Tinsley of (Dave Mathews), and Miri Ben-Ari with a variety of hip-hop artists, including Kanye West.

All these artists may not have been displaying the flashiest, most virtuosic technique, but they were masters at creating deceptively simple lines that subtly changed the way a song was heard. It’s one thing, and an important stepping-stone, to be “creative” by playing everything you know for an unlimited amount of time by yourself. But there is an underrated artistry to being able to play with others, and express yourself in two or four bar phrases that contribute to part of the whole.

Learning how to play with others and still exercise your creative voice is an important part of being a mature improvising musician. It’s also an important part of being the kind of person people want in your band so you’ll get more gigs.

John Cale was a skilled multi-instrumentalist and composer, equally adapt at composing influential proto-punk songs as classical works at the forefront of the avant-garde. Particularly as a member of the Velvet Underground, he changed music history with powerful and unconventional viola riffs. A personal favorite of mine is his unconventional use of double-stop harmonics on "Venus in Furs."

One example of strong string parts can be heard on the accompaniment of Nico’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” released in 1967 on Chelsea Girl.
Here’s how I go about learning memorable violin and string parts of recordings, as a way of learning how to create my own musical lines and phrases to contribute to an ensemble.

1) Listen, listen, listen!
This is key with learning music of any kind, but especially by ear. You need to listen to the song as much as you can, until you know it inside and out. With any song I have to learn, I listen as much as I can, sometimes in the background as I walk. At other times I listen more intensely, singling out a single instrument on which to place my focus.

2) Figure out what key you’re in
If it’s a song you don’t have the sheet music for, you will have to figure out the key by ear. I do this by noddleing around on my instrument while the song plays, playing long notes until I find the “tonal center,” or the note that seems to sound good through the entire piece. Once I think I've got it, I try playing along with the vocals, and seeing what note Nico ends on. Most of the time with music derived from traditional western musical conventions, the last note of a verse or chorus will be the tonic, or first note of a scale. When I did it with this song, I figured out that it was in D Major.

3) Look up the chord progressions
The key can tell you the notes you will be playing, but the chord changes allow you to go deeper and figure out how a tune is structured. It’s not hard to find a chart (the lyrics with chord progressions written above) of almost any popular song you’d want to find. When I did an Internet search for “Nico I’ll Keep It With Mine guitar chords,” this is what came up.

Careful! Sometimes the chords might not be in the same key as what I’m actually playing. I’ve already figured out that I want to play in D, but this chart is in C. “Capo 2” means that a guitarist would put a block on the second fret, instantly transposing up a whole step. Since violins don’t have capos, I have to figure it out on my own.

There are four chords in this song:
D Major – D F# A
G Major – G B D
B minor - B D F#
A Major - A C# E

Depending on the genre of music, a chord can have either 3 or 4 notes in it. To over-generalize a little bit, jazz-derived music tends to also want to play the 7th of a chord, while folk-derived music tends to sound better if you just emphasize the triad. This is a point at which it is very important to think carefully about the influences and expectations of the people with whom you are playing, to see whether it’s better to play with more consonance or dissonance.

4) Practice the scales and arpeggios
Find a guitar or piano playing friend, and have them play through the chords of the song. Then, run through both the scale and the chords, to give you a basic sense of the notes that will belong in the song’s structure. One really great way to do this on your own is with the program Band in a Box , where you can just type chord progressions and get a track of a full band accompanying you.

5) Play what you hear
The notes being played are an important part – but not everything can be written down on the page. Through repeated listens, you’ll notice details about the articulation, not just the “what” but the “how.” These little details can make a huge difference in how a line of music is heard.

There are essentially four riffs, or basic melodic themes in the string part:
A) After Nico sings the first line “You can search, babe…” the violin comes in with a staccato syncopated open As, followed by a motif descending down a G major triad.
Then, after “At any cost” this motif is repeated, except for the last note that goes up to a high G.
B) Near the end of “How long, babe?” plays the F# seven times and then ends on 3 G, all syncopated and following the guitar’s rhythm. This is repeated after “Can you search for what’s not lost?”
C) The string lay out, not playing at all “Everybody will help you,” but at “Some people are very kind,” there’s a line repeating the F# several times, with rests in between.
D) Finally, there is more silence until after “But if I can save you any time,” and then there are a series of double stops built around a triplet rhythm, following the chord progression, and this is repeated until the end of the verse. Just before the next verse, there are a few quick strokes of an F# and D double stop, and then you do the same thing for each verse, until the end when that note is held out.

6) Make up your own parts
Finally, use the provided parts as inspiration for creating your own part. Remember the key is to keep something simple and understated, creating something that blends in with the ensemble, rather than competes with the vocalist. The original record is actually a great example of this – you hardly ever hear the strings and Nico’s voice at the same time. Rather the two musical lines trade off, sounding like two lovers in an intimate, mutually vulnerable conversation.

From Karen Collins
Posted on June 7, 2015 at 5:24 PM
Great post!

You don't happen to have a transcription of the viola part from Venus in Furs, do you?

Posted on June 8, 2015 at 11:28 AM will quickly get you the chords if you have a youtube video of the song.
Posted on June 8, 2015 at 7:14 PM
Yes I love this kind of playing. Your violin/viola/cello is your voice and everything you play has to 'Serve' and 'compliment' the song and the other musicians. I can only explain that I play by 'feel' and ' instinct' it's like a musical conversation. I hope to do more of it. :)
From Karen Collins
Posted on June 8, 2015 at 10:23 PM
I know the chord progression. I was looking for just the viola part, written out.
From Michael Fox
Posted on June 9, 2015 at 3:06 AM
Karen, (and anyone else interested) I have figured out a way to play it that sounds pretty close to the recording. It might take a few days, but I can work on transcribing it and get it to you (and anyone else interested). Since I'm a violinist, I'll start with treble clef and then transpose.

Send me an email - if interested.

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