A Question to Fiddlers; Non-Classical

April 21, 2010 at 05:43 PM ·

     I would like to ask those of you who fiddle a question or two. I am interested in exploring Fiddling, as in Celtic, Blue grass, Apalatian Hill Billy, C&W, even Gypsy.  What books do you recomend as in learning how, learning tunes, and history?

     Any advice, in general?

Kindest Regards,


Replies (40)

April 21, 2010 at 05:49 PM ·

I like Melbay's Peter Cooper Complete Irish Fiddle Player, and Matt Cranitch the Irish Fiddle Book.  Highly recommend finding a teacher and a camp such as Swannano in NC, or open sessions to really get the feel of the genre. 

April 21, 2010 at 06:29 PM ·

I suggest you get on youtube.com and the internet sites you prefer and  find and do a lot of listening.  Maybe  hetzlersfakebook.com or ezfolk.com or the  fiddlehangout.com music sections and such. A lot of the music flow and techniques and methodology are not found in books.

The genera is better learned by listening and for many by ear.  Fiddlers fakebook and any of the fakebooks in your desired area are good as a source for melody and such.  Bookstores have a pretty good selection of folk and old time beginner and more advanced books also. 


April 21, 2010 at 06:47 PM ·

A good overview, especially since you are already a player, Is "The Contemporary Violinist" by Julie Lyonn Lieberman, published by Huiksi Music. 

The book is useful as a way to compare and contrast fiddle styles (with a CD and lots of testimonials from players).  It includes all the styles you mentioned + Jazz/Swing, tango, klezmer and more, with examples of how to take the bare bones melodies you find in resources like the Fiddler's Fake Book and dress them up in idiomatic ways.  It also has a great section on improvisation that can help get you started playing over chord changes.

While books like this can help demystify the fiddling scene a little bit, the other guys are right:  there's no substitute for learning the tunes and styles from real players with experience-- whether on record, on websites like thesession.org,  or in real life.  I think that Irish Sessions are definitely the most approachable, most of the players there are actually interested in you learning the tunes.  That said, bring a recording device or a great ear and memory, because there is little patience for trying to figure out a tune WHILE it is being played.

In my experience, Jazz sessions and some Bluegrass sessions can be much more insular and uncomfortable to newcomers.

Most importantly, have fun.


April 21, 2010 at 08:25 PM ·

I’m pretty beginnerish compared to you, but take classical lessons regularly and seriously, and am also surrounded by a LOT of fiddling, so I offer this humbly from what I see in my life.  We (violin playing friends/family) attend fiddle camps, arrange workshops by accomplished fiddlers that we have met through camps for our local kids (and adults) and the kids especially play in a jamming atmosphere as much as possible.  My input is to listen to it in person, attend a camp, and explore it as it is meant to be taught and shared, by ear.  Different styles may grab you that you didn’t even expect in this way.  There was a woman in my class at fiddle camp last year who was there to challenge herself as classical only player who just didn’t play without sheet music, as a different musical experience for herself.  She told me at the beginning of the week that she was kind of nervous, but she did brilliantly, and her classical training paid off big time and she was open to trying her ear - she did so well!  Where we live, the Contemporary, Celtic, Cape Breton, Metis, Bluegrass, Oldtime etc. fiddle styles are taught through camps and workshops, friends teach friends etc.  – and in the future our classical teacher is interested in exploring some gypsy music.


Some Cnd links anyway to a mix of amazing fiddlers, I don’t know what you like, but I hope they might be interesting for you?:





google Gordon Stobbe

http://www.nataliemacmaster.com/ (also posts sheet music, often her arrangements and notation)

http://www.calvinvollrath.com/index.php/home/link  (is teaching at a Montana fiddle camp, not tooooo far from you?)


Also http://caseydriessen.com/ – US – amazing! (he appears a lot on youtube)


Craig Duncan Adv Fiddling book (not all advanced, but challenging) & Gordon Stobbe (his tune books as opposed to the learning books, as you are already accomplished on the violin) would be good tries.  I would not buy again ‘fakebooks’ or condensed versions of fiddle tunes – as mentioned they are bare bones, but since the versions, keys and styles are so varied, I found once you hear a fiddler actually play them and if you want to be able to play with others, you are sort of starting from scratch again.  I don’t think they are worth the $.  But don’t just use books if you can – it all sounds so different when you hear any of it played by someone who understands the style and the feel, not that I pull it off yet, but I can definitely hear it.  There are several more teachers on this site who are also accomplished fiddlers, maybe they’ll also respond.  Sorry for rambling, my enthusiasm might be showing?!  I just wish there were classical camps near me tooJ.  All the best to you.

April 21, 2010 at 09:22 PM ·

"What books do you recomend as in learning how, learning tunes, and history?"

Hi Royce:

In my experience, using books to learn how to fiddle and to learn tunes is limited. I'm usually the most successful with sheet music if I've heard the tune first, and I'm just using the dots as a road map to re-create what I've heard. For that purpose, almost any source will do. If I try to play from sheet music without hearing the tune first, it always sounds, well, unsatisfactory. That being said, I still love books, and my faves are: (1) my 3 Gordon Stobbe books, (2) my 2 Jerry Holland books, and (3) my J Scott Skinner book.

As for learning about history, I am very interested to hear what others say, as I'd like to know too. I do find that if I read fiddler biographies, I pick up a lot about history along the way.

Good luck and let us know how you make out.


April 21, 2010 at 09:23 PM ·

Hi Royce; Gypsy you say? I just started working on a couple of gypsy tunes, I've always wanted to play a little gypsy, just never got around to it. I've got this Tascam DR-07 small digital recorder (they don't cost all that much but records good) It allows you to slow down the speed of a recording up to 50% without changing the pitch. So I just got some gypsy violin music, recorded it, and slowed it down to pick it out by ear.

For those of us who don't read music (yikes) the recorder is handy for all sorts of things. For instance, I'm playing a little back up to an acoustic guitar and keyboard for a funeral tommorrow. We couldn't get much rehersal time so I just recorded the peice to practice it. 

April 21, 2010 at 09:33 PM ·

I peruse garage sales and such, looking for sheet music. I find a lot of old sheet music from the 40s and 50s, one was a BPA sponsored book of Woodie Guthrie songs of the Northwest. I am weak at transposing, so I usually try to 'fake' it (check out the fake books mentioned above) instead.

For the most part, I just try and pick things out. I have tried a number of books, but usually revert to working out the tune instead of reading it.

April 21, 2010 at 09:46 PM ·

Hey Royce,

For some easy/intermediate fiddle tunes, there is the Fiddle Club Vol 1 and Vol 2.  What I like about it besides being not too difficult, there are several pieces that have 2 or 3 violin parts and they are really fun to play.  I've never heard you play, but I get the impression that you are a pretty decent violinist, so I'm not sure if these books might be too easy for you.  At any rate, my son and I have a lot of fun playing the tunes in them. 

BTW, most of the pieces are composed by someone named "Traditional."  Man that guy sure composed a lot of music :-)

April 21, 2010 at 11:04 PM ·

WOW!!! Thanks a million Old friends and New!

April 22, 2010 at 12:15 AM ·

Hi Royce,

Here're a couple thriving online communities dedicated to traditional fiddling styles.




April 22, 2010 at 04:21 AM ·

I re-read your original post, and I wanted to add this. If I were taking fiddle lessons:
I would like to learn to harmonize
I would like to learn about different bowing techniques, and what genres used those techniques
I would like to learn different rhythms, and the music theory behind them

I would like to put it all together, and get some theory behind what makes fiddle music sound good.

I did not take music theory anywhere in my education (not being a musician while I was in school), and although I fiddle, I still see that as a significant weakness in what I do. I wonder if other fiddlers have the same lack?

April 22, 2010 at 04:28 AM ·

Yes, I'd heard that this guy, "traditional' was a very prolific composer. But there's another composer named "anonymous" who may have him beat! ;-)

April 22, 2010 at 06:17 AM ·

I second what everybody else has said.
Also, I suggest you look up Marc O'Connor on you tube. He started out as an old time fiddler and winning many competitions. He then, started changing styles going to country and bluegrass, Texas swing, jazz, and eventually, classical. He has written some wonderful stuff and has recently come out with his own method books using the fiddle tunes he played for competitions and such. Speaking of fiddle competitions, if you run that search in YouTube you'll find quite a lot of interesting stuff-and a number of good players. Know also that much of fiddle music is supposed to be dance music so the accents become important-often falling on the two and four beats.

While you're at it, check out his Misty Moonlight Waltz!


April 22, 2010 at 01:31 PM ·

Mark O'Connor started as a guitarist, not an OT competition fiddler, and somewhere in his teens, traveled with Grapelli, so he went into swing fiddle early. // I would steer you away from books as much as possible. Good for hints, some historical background. Can be difficult to get the bowing & rhythm stuff w/o aural examples. Listen DEEPLY a lot, ID what style or styles grab your attention, find out who really plays the style well among living players, which source-players they follow or which ones you like. Then listen some more!! If there are jams around you, go to listen, and then SLOWLY work your way in. Pretty much always OK to record at jams, so you can learn the versions they use. Ask someone for tune names. Camp is a great idea! In addition to links given, check out Ashokan Fiddle & Dance. Sue

April 22, 2010 at 03:17 PM ·

First thing to do is pick a style you like, and listen, listen, listen. Find players you like and emulate them.  Get rid of the written music.  Learn to play by ear, and to improvise.

Most fiddling is an aural tradition, impossible to notate with any accuracy, especially since tunes are seldom played the same way twice by good players. There's a looseness there that you just can't get playing from written music. You can play the notes off written notation, but you have to listen to get the music.

I'm a fiddler who works a lot with classical players, and fiddling of any sort is a completely different aesthetic than violin playing. Most of it is dance music (with a couple of exceptions), and rhythm and drive is paramount.  Intonation and standards for tone are often very different, especially in Appalachian fiddling.

Your current skills will be of great value, if you can lose your classical focus.  I know a number of great professional fiddlers who started out with extensive classical training, and I've learned tons from the violinists I work with, but the frame of mind in fiddling is completely different. Kind of like learning another language - it adds to your skill set, takes nothing away.

April 23, 2010 at 12:55 AM ·

I agree completely with Michael. If your goal is to play the fiddle convincingly in any style, you have to listen a lot to get the feel of the style, and play by ear. Each style you listed is a world unto itself, and you won't be able to master all of them. Even renowned professional fiddlers keep (to some degree) the feel of their predominant style when venturing into other genres.

That being said, there's no reason to feel like you can't dabble in all those styles listed. Fiddling is fun, and there's no reason to take the fun out of it by feeling like you have to sound like Natalie MacMaster, Kenny Baker, and Calvin Vollrath all at the same time.

Maybe Sue can tell us how much work it took to stop sounding like a classical player reading fiddle music, and start sounding like a mean fiddler?


April 23, 2010 at 04:34 AM ·


You're right. O'Connor did start as a guitarist. I forgot about that!

April 23, 2010 at 11:09 PM ·

Hey Royce, I'm noticing that a lot of these responses advocate a dogmatic approach to learning fiddle tunes only by ear.  Don't buy that.

While it's true that you MUST listen to loads of music in the style that you wish to play, just like you must listen to lots of Mozart if you want to play it correctly, it doesn't follow that you must learn new tunes by ear.  I encourage you to learn tunes by ear, it is definitely easier to understand how to play a roll, for example, by hearing it done correctly than it is to read a description of how a roll may be played and trying to execute it with no way of knowing if you're doing it right.

However, once you have a handle on the "feel" of a style there is nothing wrong with learning new tunes from a fake book.  In fact, fake books are a phenomenon completely created by musicians for the benefit of other musicians to learn "standard" tunes.  Being able to read "the dots" is just another tool in your belt. 

In my experience, the denigrating of people who excel at reading comes mainly from two groups:

a) folks who can't read themselves

b) folks who want to maintain certain folk musical styles as an exclusive club (even though they themselves are not from Appalachia or Ireland, and may have spent thousands of dollars on lessons to learn that style.  Pay no more attention to them than to people who judge you by the name on your instrument).

Even a lot of people who pooh-pooh the use of standard notation often use other means of notation such as ABC or tablature. 

I recently heard a news story about towns in Northern Mexico where a large number of folk musicians originate and where musical literacy is nearly universal and greatly outnumbers language literacy.

May 29, 2010 at 12:41 AM ·

I was wondering about that book, however many of such called, "Fake Books" are not very good.  I'll look into it.


May 29, 2010 at 01:44 AM ·

Don't bother with any books - you can already read!

Just spend as much time as you fancy, and then some more, copying by ear.

Listen, sing it, copy on fiddle

There is no other way.


PS, @Randy,  I do read, and I am not interested in maintaining a tradition. My suggestion is based on focusing on what one needs to improve, rather than relying on what one can already do.

May 29, 2010 at 02:17 AM ·

How Strange! I just came online to ask the same question myself!

I've trained in the classical way and usually describe myself as more or less 'intermediate'. My sister in law is a fairly accomplished fiddle player and so after listening to her play I became interested in playing various kinds folk and traditional music. When I asked her about it she was very secretive! 'Oh, you just learn by listening' she said and then changed the subject. For someone brought up on reading notes this was very daunting. I've tried listening and copying but one thing I really struggle with is determining the key. A lot of pieces are normally in simple keys like G maj and D maj, right?

I'm thinking that the way forward might be to learn the notes from one of the recommended books in order to get the 'gist'. Memorise. Find a recording. Play along and try to get the right feel. Is this ok as an approach? When I just try to 'copy' I get about 5 notes in and then just seem to loose it. I think I need a leg up somehow!

I really enjoy this forum by the way. Thanks everyone for the advice. :)




May 29, 2010 at 04:36 AM ·

May 29, 2010 at 11:20 AM ·

Its Appalachian and  the term Hill billy we could live without, that genre is called old time.   Fiddling is different from classical in that fiddlers learn tunes mostly by ear.If you need a book, Mel Bays deluxe fiddling method by Craig Duncan is a good place to start in my opinion.

A lot depends on what style you want to play, Irish is different than bluegrass.  Bluegrass is different than old time even though they share some of the same tunes.

By all means, learn to fiddle if you love the music, but use the book only  to get yourself started, its the ear that matters in fiddling.


Good luck to you

May 29, 2010 at 11:37 AM ·

Been thinking a bit more.

I have a DVD of Bill Frisell talking about his approach, and he says he does things like imposing daft rules on himself , just to stop himself from always doing the same thing.

He might say only use one finger, or stay on one string.

Then I might add, just use index and third finger. only play on "ands".

If you play a phrase play it again immediately backwards (or inverted)

ANYTHING just to break up your stream of normal thought.

I have written a few articles, which are on my website - you might find something in them:-



May 29, 2010 at 01:12 PM ·

 There is a downloadable program called "the amazing slowdowner".  Costs fifty bucks but you can slow down tunes and not lose pitch.  You can also vary the pitch incrementally if needed.  Choose your stop and starting points to pick out phrases at a time.  I use it alot. 

May 29, 2010 at 02:11 PM ·

     Oh crap let me try this again..... one heck of a week with two people gone and covering their areas on top of mine which is an extended area already.....

     I could read music but was very limited.  I relied heavily on playing by ear.  As a child (4 or 5)I could sing songs in tune and would find those notes on Mom's piano and could bang out the melody lines!  I learned pieces by ear on my violin and only then did I follow the music. My sight reading was nearly non existent until the 2nd semester in 10th grade when I quit orchestra and joined choir.  THEN I learned how to read music better than I ever did at that time but still relied heavily playing by ear. I learned pieces like songs on the radio, rather quickly, then find the notes on my violin by playing them and then played them with the correct rhythm.  I really didn't look at the sheet music as much as the other kids.

25 years later, returning to the violin, I am more dependent on sheet music...... I still do play by ear but the pieces are more complex and complicated (I suppose) or I have been away from playing an instrument other than singing.

And as far as the term Hillbilly, my family never uses it as a derogatory word.  My family, both the German & Scotirish, settled in the Tennessee Appalachia in 1720.  Got the documentation from my mother who looked up our family in the Tennessee Archives.  However I do know that their are people that take offense by the term.  And thanks for the politically correct terminology.

May 29, 2010 at 02:50 PM ·


Kevin suggests a source for "slowdowner" software at about fifty dollars...

But there are a bunch of free alternatives.

Perhaps the most widely used is Audacity, and it will do far more with an MP3 file than slowing it down without changing its pitch. It can manipulate an MP3 in every way you might imagine, and a few that are likely to be a surprise...

You might want to check it out at http://audacity.sourceforge.net/.

All the best,


May 30, 2010 at 01:01 AM ·

 The fiddlers fake book is what your looking for

great book


Western swing fiddling by stacy phillips

The fiddle music of scotland by james hunter


I use everything In my arsenal,from learning a tune by ear , written music ,to improvising, to using software to slow down music, anything.The problem with learning fiddles tunes from note is that usually the music is simplified and a  lot of important musical notation is left out.I think it is silly to rely on one source.I have never heard anyone great play any piece of music the same way as some one else, it's best to learn your own way, make the tunes your own.



May 30, 2010 at 01:34 AM ·

 To answer Jude Mathews question.

I find a lot of  fiddlers don't know how to describe their techniques.It seems they've  learned them naturally over time and haven't really analyzed the breakdown of the basic movements.There are no secrets. A lot of fiddle music is poorly written and simplified , if you learn the music strictly from notes you are not going to get it.For example the term "trill" could be used to describe mordants ,turns, 3rd mordant tap , grace note  etc..Another thing classical players do is play with the pinky on the bow -it tightens up the hand ,your not going to get a real feel for it.One more thing , the accent , some may think that you require more bow speed to get a good accent , not always so .It's good to learn to apply pressure without speed at the tip of the bow ,bottom the string out slightly, learn to put an open string out of tune with the bow.



May 30, 2010 at 01:30 PM ·

I remember as a kid the fiddlers at the Texas Old Fiddler's Contest pretty much said, "Whatever works for you that is what you do."

May 30, 2010 at 01:51 PM ·


I share your pain with learning by ear and this is something I'm working on right now. What I find difficult is trying to learn an unfamilliar tune by listening to it at full speed.

Slowing the tune down is one option that I like to use, but I find that I learn a tune a lot better if I listen to it repeatedly until I know it so well that I can hum it. That way, if I don't get lost after a phrase or two. After doing this for a while, you'll be able to pick up a tune a lot faster, by being familiar with certain phrases and patterns that recur in fiddle music.

You can develop your ear by picking out melodies (or bits of melodies) of songs you already know to sing, but haven't played on the violin--simpler ones first, then more complicated ones. Or you can take a tune you already know and play it in another key--maybe if you play Devil's Dream in A, try it in D, then in C, and so on.

Sheet music is great. If it weren't for sheet music, there would be a lot fewer fiddlers out there. However, it doesn't tell you everything you need to know if you're trying to develop your fiddling style. Things like bowing, phrasing, accents, ornaments... these are often missing or incomplete. This is absolutely fine if you just want to have a good time playing the notes, on your own or with others. A lot of players do this and are perfectly happy. But if you're looking at different fiddling styles, these things matter. Once you have a good understanding of the style you want to play, then you often find that if you're following sheet music, you automatically put in those stylistic devices that are not notated.

Do not be afraid of reading, but don't be afraid of learning by ear either. If you're interested enough in fiddling to be asking about it, you're probably ready to learn by ear. Of course it's okay to mix the two, if that's what brings you the most happiness.


May 30, 2010 at 02:00 PM ·

Oh, and Jude, to determine the key, you'll often find the tune resolves on the tonic. Tunes can be in almost any key, but you're right, the most common are pretty simple ones like A, D, G, C, F... usually major. Sometimes you get minors, sometimes some funny modes.

Can you ask your sister in law for some tunes to work on? If she's receptive, maybe the two of you can play some tunes together sometime. Feels great.


May 31, 2010 at 03:21 AM ·

Thanks for the comments! (She says whilst hijacking the thread).

I think I might look for a  teacher who can teach both classical and folk and then I might do better learning those important techniques which can't be expressed on sheet music. It really wouldn't hurt to try and learn some pieces by ear. I've been playing pieces from the Suzuki books (4 and 5) but never managed to put any of it in to my memory. I'm sure that playing from memory is a big part of making music sound like music as compared to a series of unrelated notes.

My sister-in-law might help me! If I ask nicely.....





May 31, 2010 at 11:35 PM ·

I'm a classically trained violinist who now plays both classical and nonclassical music.  I've taught classically trained violinists and violists how to play fiddle style.  The most important things I tell them are (1) not to play as smoothly as they do in classical music and (2) to emphasize the rhythm more strongly.  They don't really "get it" until they play a lot with me and watch fiddlers on Youtube.  Most of my students now want to play nonclassical music.  I start them on American Fiddle Method Vol.1, which has fun tunes and very helpful advice on basic technique.  Some editions come with a very helpful DVD which, alas, I have not been able to pirate illegally.  The book teaches the basic "ornaments" / techniques of fiddle music:  drones, double stops, chord backup, and chunk style bowing.  American Fiddle Method introduces new tunes and gives more complicated versions of some of the tunes in Vol. 1.  Some of the advanced tunes in volume 2 are fairly advanced.  I highly recommend both books.  I agree strongly with everyone's recommendations for books, youtube, and listening in person whenever possible.

June 1, 2010 at 02:11 AM ·


Here is one other technique I find helps me jam along with others. Learn to easily play the scales and arpeggios of each chord used in the song. For most fiddle tunes these will be the basic I, IV, and V chords. Oh, and don't forget to learn them in minor as well. Eventually you should be able to cycle through the Circle of Fifths, although I suspect there are many accomplished fiddlers out there who can't do it! The above skills will help you to hear the chord changes about to happen.


June 1, 2010 at 06:07 AM ·


I just bought this book:

Best of Metallica for Violin: 12 Solo Arrangements with CD Accompaniment

Thought you might enjoy playing it too on your fiddle; since it is very "non-classical". hahaha

Happy fiddling!


June 1, 2010 at 05:17 PM ·

@ David- Thanks!  That is a good Idea!

@ Shawn! Metalica, Yes!  But check out this act doing lady Gaga's poker face with a hammer dulcimer at the biginning.  The best redition of this piece on violin so far!


June 1, 2010 at 05:36 PM ·

Fiddler's Fakebook is an awesome collection. It is so invaluable to be able to look up almost any tune, and they reference several recordings you can listen to (including the one from which they transcribed the version in the book). I think that some intermediate/advanced  DVD's such as those put out by stacey phillips, darol anger, or mark o'connor by the Homespun company are a great resource. Listen to lots of fiddlers:

Bluegrass: Bobby Hicks, Casey Driessen,Vassar Clements, Stuart Duncan, Kenny Baker, etc...

CW/Western Swing: Bob Wills

Jazz: Grapelli, Venuti, Stuff Smith, Eddie South, Jean Luc Ponty, Zbigniew Siefert, Didier Lockwood, Christian Howes, Regina Carter, Sarah Caswell, Alex Hargreaves (also bluegrass/new acoustic)...also listen to non-violinists - Benny Goodman, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Miles Davis, lots of singers...

"Gypsy": Earlier Taraf de Haidouks recordings, Kalman Balogh's Band, anyone from the Lakatos Family, the Balkan Blues compilation, The Smithsonian's Romanian Music Collection, etc...

I prefer using ITranscibe! to the amazing slow downer...better sound quality, same cost. Try to learn stuff without slowing it down too, a great practice. One technique I use, since I am too cheap to buy these programs and just use them on my husband's computer on occasion, is to visualize my fingers and bow playing the notes I am hearing throughout several listens...then I pick up the inflections and bowings for the most part, can step away from the recording and actually play from memory pretty acurately..takes practice, but works well...those mirror neurons are amazing!

After you've learned a few tunes in a style, try to write one using what you've learned..it can help you internalize the knowledge more completely....then learn a few more, and try to hone in on stylistic details even further...then write another tune.


have fun!

June 1, 2010 at 05:37 PM ·

Oh, forgot a couple of  things: Appalachian Hill Billy music prefers to be called "Old-Time"....Listen to Tommy Jarrell, Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Tatiana Hargreaves...



Liz Carroll, Martin Hayes, (irish)

Aly Bain (Shetland)

Alasdair Frasier (Scottish)


June 1, 2010 at 09:49 PM ·

I am classical violinist and have been fiddling for a long time now--and although I love classical music, my heart is in folk music. 

Don't get books, video's, stuff like that---go to festivals, folk gatherings, jam sessions, fiddle contests, go any where that has people playing music and bring your fiddle along. 

You can learn from everyone--not just the best of the best--those who are "trained."  The ones who are not trained are the best.  they are the reason we love the art of folk music, tapping our foot to the great music of the people from yester-year. 

Just play!

Fiddle On!

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