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Old-Time American Fiddle Music

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Old time music retains some of its Celtic roots, but a unique style evolved relying heavily on double stops (chords) and cross tuning (changing the pitch of the strings to facilitate drones and harmonics). Like Irish music, it uses modal constructs rather than keys.

Not to be confused with Bluegrass invented by Bill Monroe, a native of Kentucky, and the members of his band: Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, and Chubby Wise. They developed a hard-driving, intoxicating sound that incorporated anything that they heard that they liked: jazz, gospel, country, rock-n-roll. Together and separately they became national stars; they were sought after for radio, TV, national tours, mustic festivals, and movie soundtracks. The Bluegrass genre remains intensely popular.

"Old Time Music was the heartbeat of Anglo-Celtic Southern America for many generations... [Cecil Sharp, during his 1916-1918 song-collecting field trip] found American variants of many hoary British ballads with impressive pedigrees. Songs scarcely remembered in their land of origin still held a spell over Southern descendants of expatriated yeomen. But the ballad tradition was not static: newer songs of outlaws and train wrecks sprang up alongside old ones of knights and ladies...

"Despite the European background of much of this music and of such instruments as the fiddle, the influence of African-American phrasing and syncopation profoundly affected old time music. (This influence becomes particularly striking when you compare American stringband music to that of Canada, a New World culture which lacked a significant African-American presence.) The banjo is the most obvious legacy of African-Americans in old time music, for the instrument itself is African in origin. It came to white Southerners via the nineteenth century minstrel show... Compared to the banjo, the guitar was both a latecomer and a folk instrument by commercial fiat. It was in the late nineteenth century that such mail order catalogues as Sears & Roebuck made inexpensive mass-produced guitars widely available, and it was by such prosaic means that the guitar and mandolin entered Appalachia." — Mark Humphrey


When I joined an old-time fiddle jam group, I realized that in order to avoid being commandeered over to the Dark Side (Bluegrass!) as a short-cut to improvising to songs I did not know, I was going to have to learn a lot more about the structural underpinnings of old-time and modal music. Pentatonic, hexatonic and heptatonic scales and their modal variants form the backbone of much of the older old-time music. What I learned is explained in Musical Architectures: Modes, Intervals and Scales on this website.

Typical fiddle cross-tunings include GDAG, ADAD, DDAD, AEAE, AEAC#. This helps the fiddle player add the drones that mark so much of old-time sound. Droning involves playing two strings at once, but the secondary string is a drone and does not change often, as compared to double-stopped notes which can change as often as the primary note does. Cross-tunings do have an effect even if no drone on a second string is attempted; a sympathic vibration is created in the secondary string which enhances the sound.

"In oldtime music the tradition has not been lost, it may be resisting change but it has not been displaced, it is not a modern music. I for one celebrate the fact that oldtime music is not bluegrass or dawg music or new grass or even claw grass (which sounds like an agricultural disease or killer weed). Oldtime works from different tonal centers, it uses open tunings and harmonic resonant overtones and incidentals, it mixes non-tempered scales with harmonization or it's completely modal. Compared to bluegrass or country western its largely dance centered and not song centered, many of its songs are verses to dance tunes, and most of its songs were meant for solo and unaccompanied performance in their oldest form. It is often not strictly symmetrical in its rhythms; a-rhythmic fiddle and banjo tunes are common particularly in West Virginia and Kentucky. Drones, bowed or fifth stringed, are central and not incidental to the music." — Allen Feldman


"[I]n in the United States, most often 'fiddle' means the violin as used in Irish-Scottish-French traditional music and all the descendant American styles: Appalachian, bluegrass, Cajun, etc. On the surface, this kind of fiddle music is technically less complex than classical violin (though sometimes very fast!). Many fiddle players never leave first position. But fiddling calls for great skill in producing the rhythmic and melodic lift originally intended to get people dancing and keep them that way. Even when we're just listening to a well-played fiddle tune, chances are we're moving our bodies somehow – tapping our feet or fingers, or nodding our heads. The emphasis tends to be on rhythmic drive and a steady flow of melody through basic forms, often AABB. This structural simplicity opens up room for variations and impromptu embellishments; the fiddler's artistry lies in the nuanced bowing and subtle variety with which these deceptively simple tunes are spun out." — Gordon Swift

Tune Types

The strong influence on the rhythm is the type of tune it is.

Reel: 2/4 or 4/4 rhythm. Often both fast and smooth. The simplest description of the rhythm is that the strongest beat is on the first beat, a strong beat is on the third, and the fourth beat frequently serving as a pickup to the next measure. However, this means that more accomplished players will be generating a little excitement by emphasizing the back beats (2 and 4) rather than 1 and 3. They might also modify the feeling of the beat by choice of bow pattern... below.

Polka: 2/4 meter dance rhythm. The large intervals and frequent slurs give it its texture.

Bow Patterns

Choice of bowing will influence the perception of the rhythm a little bit to a lot. "Dr Jimmy Grey told me 'One Stroke, One Note, and that's the scientific way to play the fiddle." —John Hartford.

Saw Stroke: this would be the One Stroke One Note technique cited above.

Syncopated 2/4 or 4/4; this can be a good way to kick a somewhat boring reel down the road. Maybe not a hornpipe in the Irish sense of the word, but the syncopated pulse produced by many mandoline and banjo players means the fiddle needs to pulse along too. Dwight Diller describes it as 'I Think I Can I Think I Can.' or the 'Boomalaka': BOOM-ah-LAK-ah.

Shuffle: 2/4 or 4/4 rhythm.

  • Most common 4/4: a quarter note followed by two eighth notes (long-short-short) (AKA Hoedown.). Michael Ismerio teaches a clever neumonic to get the shuffle across: DOWN up-down UP down-up DOWN up-down UP. (UPPER-case words are twice as long as the lower-case words.) As you play this you may find yourself syncopating the short up-down and down-up components.
  • Also common: long series of eighth notes, beats 1 and 3 slurred and 2 and 4 accented. This will emphasize the back-beat (2 and 4) since they are the notes being slurred into.
  • Also common but more difficult: the Georgia shuffle, common to Irish, Old Time and Bluegrass fiddlers. Accent remains on 2 and four, but all other notes are slurred. 4-and is slurred into one and one-and, accent on two, 2-and is slurred into 3 and 3-and, accent on 4, repeat.
  • Michael Ismerio' 'Sail Away Ladies' shuffle pattern: the DOWN is two beats long.
    DOWN up-down-up DOWN up
    DOWN up-down-up DOWN up.
    In a way, you could consider this an additive rhthym, since it is not square and the accent does fall on the ones: 12345123.
  • Fiddlehed's Offbeat Hoedown; long-short-short long-short-short with the accent on the offbeat (the first short in each group), no slurs.

Circular (or oval) bow pattern: It softens the bite and results in a nice swing at speed. Down-bow is the lower half of the oval; upbow is the top. A flat bridge helps.

Figure-8: on one or two strings. or on two strings, using one string as a base and touching down to another string on the off-beat. The bow moves in a circular or figure-eight pattern (depending on your point of view) (I see it as a figure-8 but I use a very flexible wrist when bowing). The on-beat note is often emphasized with double-stopping.

Slurring into the first beat: a bowing pattern that slurs into the first beat of a measure will soften the texture of the song and make it roll. If your music is written as 4/4 instead of 2/4, you are probably playing it as a 2/4 if you are playing to tempo, so count the pulses rather than the quarter notes.

The Paganini: John Hartford described this as playing three notes per stroke against a 2/4 rhythm. He called it 'the Paganini' because somewhile after John incorporated it into his fiddle playing technique he saw Paganini doing the same thing. This one also slurs into the first beat on most measures.

  • Slur the first three beats;
  • Slur the second three beats;
  • Slur the third three beats;
  • Slur the fourth three beats;
  • Slur the next two beats;
  • Slur the next two beats.
Or, in short:
This is based on a 2/4 rhythm, which means this pattern will take up a whole phrase in a typical American tune.

Double-Stopping: Playing two strings at once is an important part of much old-time music. It results in the violin equivalent of a chord. The technique is often used to emphasize the rhythm.

  • Variation on a double stop: while playing a string smoothly, allow the bow to touch, very briefly, an upper string on the strong beat. This gives a nice pulse.
  • Cross-tuning the violin is frequently employed to both simplify and emphasize the double stop.

Clogging: Using feet as a percussion instrument is fun for audience and performer. The simplest steps are little more than a shift of weight from left to right in a shuffle rhythm, with the short-short as a pickup to the long (1st and 3rd beat)step: short-short long, short-short long, step-back step, step-back step.

Map of the Southern Appalachians
'Geographical Position of the Southern Appalachians,' from English Folks Songs from the Southern Appalachians, Campbell and Sharp, 1917



David Brody, Fiddler Fakebook, Oak Publications, 1992.

Campbell and Sharp, English Folks Songs from the Southern Appalachians,

Eric Christopher, American Strings, website.


Dwight Diller, Dialoging With The Pulse Part One,, Songs for Primary Schools

Matthew Emmick, Scottish and Irish Elements of Appalachian Fiddle Music.

Maura Enright, Musical Architectures: Modes, Intervals and Scales,

Alan Feldman, Why Bluegrass and Old Time are Not The Same. Web,

Andy FitzGibbon's YouTube page with some of his excellent fiddling.


Mark Humphrey, What is Old Time Music, Web,

Michael Ismerio

Alan Lomax was famous for his many field recordings of folk music. He began his work in the 1930s, assisting his father with audio recordings for the Library of Congress. In the late 1970s and early 80s, he shot hundreds of hours of performances and interviews in several genres for a PBS series on American folk music. An archive of video of Central and Southern Appalachian musicians from his early 1980s field work is online at YouTube, courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity, founded by Lomax in 1983.

Bruce Molsky demonstrates old-time bowing tips.

Henry Reed collection at the Library of Congress. "Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection presents traditional fiddle tunes performed by Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, Virginia. Recorded by folklorist Alan Jabbour in 1966-67, when Reed was over eighty years old, the tunes represent the music and evoke the history and spirit of Virginia's Appalachian frontier. Many of the tunes have passed back into circulation during the fiddling revival of the later twentieth century."

Mitch Reed, Playing Two Streings at a Time, Video. Mitch Reed is a very accomplished young Cajun fiddler.

Austin Rogers, Dr Fiddle Old Time Fiddle Tunes lists of sound files and transcriptions.

Gordon Swift, Learn the Difference between Violin and Fiddle,, Web.

Old Town School online list of sound files for many fiddle tunes.


Learning, performing and improvising by ear (without sheet music) is an important skill set. The music is expected to come from the heart and in synergy with other performers. Printed music is often provides the initial information about the song for people who have learned to read sheet music, but as the musician works towards performance quality the sheet music will be left behind.

28th of January

Abe's Retreat, A Modal

All Young

Angelina Baker (aka Angeline the Baker)

  • Lonesome River Band in a stellar performance during which the banjo player and a guitar player break strings at exactly the same time [2:27]. The fiddle player never misses a beat.

Arkansas Traveller

Betty Liken, A Mixolydian

Bonaparte's Retreat


Cluck Old Hen (A Dorian

)(Cross tune AEAE)

Cold Frosty Morning A Dorian

Cookoo is a pretty Bird

Cuckoos Nest

Cripple Creek in A major

  • Ian Alexander and friends performing Earnie Carpenter's distinctive 5-measure per phrase version of Cripple Creek.
  • Ian Walsh teaches fiddle version of Cripple Creek.
  • Tommy Jarrell and friends in a session-like rendition, complete with lyrics by Jarrell while he plays.

Cripple Creek in G major

Ducks on the Millpond

Ducks on the Pond, A Mixolydian (Henry Reed)

Forked Deer: D to A

Greasy Coat, A Modal

I don't drink and I don't smoke,
and I don't wear no greasy coat.
I don't cuss and I don't chew,
And I don't go with girls that do.
I don't kiss and I don't tell
And all you sinners gonna go to hell

The Gypsy Laddies (Raggle Taggle Gypsies, Black Jack Davie)

In this Scottish variation, sung by Jeannie Robertson, the Lord hangs the gypsies after the Lady declares that she will not return to the castle.
For there are seven brothers of us all,
We all are wondrous bonnie oh
But this very night we all shall be hanged For the stealin of the earl's lady oh.

Hawks and Eagles

Hickory Jack

House Carpenter (Daemon Lover)

June Apple: A Mixolydian

A B C# D E F# G
Bring me spring water
Bring it in a cup
Me and my love we fell out
Ain't gonna make it up.
Hand me down the old banjo
String it up with twine
The only song it will play
Is 'Love that gal of mine.'

Kitchen Girl (Henry Reed)

(Swap between A Mixolydian and A Dorian?)

Little Pink

(Pretty Little Miss?)

Liza Jane in A

Liza Jane in D

Mississippi Sawyer

Old Joe Clark, Mixolydian (A, E)

  • Rosinators string group, heavy on the lyrics, by a UK group.
  • Ian Walsh fiddle lesson format.
  • John Fiddle Lesson with lyrics and a explanation of the shuffle, which he didn't really use a lot of: more a great reel state.

Possum's Tail is Bare in D

Pretty Little Dog

Pretty Little Indian A Modal

Quail is a Pretty Girl (A Mixolydian)

(derived from Sandy Boys?)

Queen of Earth and Child of the Skies (D Major)

AKA Wounded Hoosier.

Rain and Snow (A Modal)

Well I married me a wife,
Gave me trouble all my life.
Ran me out in the cold rain and snow.
Rain and Snow...
Ran me out in the cold rain and snow.
Well she came down the stairs,
Combing back her long held hair.
And her cheeks were as red as a rose.
As a rose.
And her cheeks were as red as a rose.
Well I did all I could do.
Try an get along with you.
And I'm not gona be treated this way.
This a way, oh lord.
I'm not gona be treated this way.
Well she came into the room.
Where she met her fatal doom.
And I'm not gona be treated this way.
This a way. Oh Lord.
And I'm not gona be treated this way.
Well I married me a wife,
Gave me trouble all my life.
Ran me out into the cold rain and snow.

Rock Andy (A modal)

Sail Away Ladies

Sally Ann in D

Salt River

Sandy Boys (A mixolydian)

Sandy River Belle

  • Sharon Shannon: Sandy River Belle goes back to Ireland! Great accordian solo.

Shady Grove

Squirrel Hunters

Tater Patch (A Mixolydian)

Turkey in the Straw in G

Yew Piney Mountain (French Carpenter)

(AAB, no second B part)

Walking in the Parlor

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Latest revision: April 2017
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