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Old-Time Southern Appalachian Fiddle Music

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Old time Appalachian 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

Melodic Modes

One day I got tired of not knowing why a fiddle tune with two sharps was not automatically in the key of D or A minor, which meant learning about pentatonic, hexatonic and heptatonic scales and the modal variants which form the structural underpinnings 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

Rhythmic Modes

"[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

"99% of fiddle novices think it's about the notes when it's really about the bowing. When a fiddler develops the ability to accent and syncopate around the musical beat while borrowing from an arsenal of traditional bow patterns, the fiddler is born. It is a rhythm instrument with notes included." - David Bragger

Clogging while fiddling: 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.

Time Signatures

Ignore the following if you do not read music or if you read music but have developed your own dance-music style.

2/2, 2/4, and 4/4

In Old Time music, they all boil down to two strong pulses per measure. It is important to remember that these tunes were usually not transcribed onto paper and then performed; rather, it was more the other way around, sometimes with a gap of decades between the performance and the transcription. In addition, I believe that a key signature is sometimes chosen in order to represent the tune using quarter and eighth notes instead of the more dense and scary eighth and sixteenth notes.
  • 4/4: four beats per measure with each quarter note having a duration of one beat. I see this time signature used a lot on notations for modal tunes. I have seen it on fast tunes and on slow tunes. I have also seen it on tunes labelled 'Hornpipe' because the beat is, in practice, syncopated using a shuffle bowing, although it is notated 'flat' as though it were a reel. It CAN indicate a song with more than two pulses per measure: the music may call for a mild emphasis on 2 and 4 as well as a strong pulse on 1 and 3.
  • 2/2 (aka Cut Time): two beats per measure with the half-note having a duration of one beat. This means that a quarter-note has a duration of half a pulse, not a whole one. A quarter-note in 2/2 is the equivalent of an eighth note in 4/4.
  • 2/4: two beats per measure with the quarter-note having a duration of one beat. This will give you your two pulses per measure IF the music is transcribed with that goal in mind. In my opinion, 2/4 time signature can mean anythink. For instance: I am looking at a transcription of Barlow Knife in 2/4 which, IMO, exists only to get the notes on the page in the most skeletal fashion; when I was a newbie, I made the mistake of thinking that this would be an easy song for me to play at a dance. Now, older and wise, I instinctively play this particular transcription with one pulse per 'measure'.
  • For your final consideration: I have, in my sheet music collection, three transcriptions for Arkansaw Traveller. One is in 2/2, one in 2/4, and one in 4/4. The moral of the story is: let the music, not the time signature, be your guide.

3/4 (AKA Waltz time)

Three beats per measure, with the pulse on the first beat. This time signature is less common than the 2/2, 2/4, and 4/4, but if you play a dance, you will need a waltz or two. Warning; the general public will always ask for 'Ashokan Farewell', no matter how incongruous the context. Be prepared.

6/8 (AKA Jig time)

Two pulses per measure. Common in New England contra dance, but not in Southern Appalachian music. Explanations that I have seen on the Interwebs include the difficulty of rendering a jig on a banjo; jig rhythms not used in church music, so less exposure; the difficulty of clogging to jigs. I cannot defend any of these reasons, I merely submit them for your consideration.

Bow Strokes

"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.

Son Filé: the classical technique that plays several distinct notes on one bow has been adapted by fiddle players. Nathan Cole put out a training video on the one-minute-bow (see references) , which is overkill for fiddle players but still useful.

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.

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.

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.

Bow Patterns

Let us make this easy on me. Three types of shuffles covered here.
  1. Emphasis on the strong beat;
  2. Emphasis on the back beat (the & in the diagram below);
  3. A mix of the above.
Dan Anger describes using bow patterns as "painting a pattern on a tune." Fiddlers should not get hung up on using one pattern throughout an entire tune, nor on using the same pattern on each repeat of a particular phrase.
Accented stroke:  Normal stroke:  Slurred strokes:   
1 e & a 2 e & a 1 e & a 2 e & a  
                                Ismerio Shuffle
                                Georgia Shuffle
                                Double / Hokum
            Paganini Shuffle
Map of the Southern Appalachians
'Geographical Position of the Southern Appalachians,' from English Folks Songs from the Southern Appalachians, Campbell and Sharp, 1917

Time Line

Immigrants from the British Isles begin arriving in the Appalachian region. With them came the fiddle.
African slaves are brought into the region. With them came the banjo.
The mountain dulcimer, easier to make and simpler to play than a violin, appears.
Late 1800s: guitar, mandolin and autoharp appear.
1907: John Jacob Niles begins collecting ballads.
1916: British folklorists Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles begin collecting ballads in Southern Appalachia.
1923: First recordings of Appalachian music.


Abba Moses, The Way of the Fiddle, 58 transcriptions of old-time fiddle tunes.

David Bragger, Olde-Time Oracle, Sept-October 2008.

David Brody, Fiddler Fakebook, Oak Publications, 1992.

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

Eric Christopher American Strings, website.


Nathan Cole

  • Bowing: Son Filé, the one-minute bow.

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.


Thomas Fraioli

  • The Double Shuffle, clearly demonstrated.
  • The Georgia Shuffle, clearly demonstrated. He recommends getting used to starting on both down bow and upbow. He also shows variations with slurs and rest notes.

Titiana Hargreaves, Sally Ann fiddle duet using the Oom-Pah shuffle.

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Rothfield

Pete Showman, Tunes Page, is the gateway to his sheet music collection of over 200 tunes, plus links to midi files. In addition: the Tunes Lists page link at the top leads to a collection of Starter snips of tunes: the key and rhythm signatures and the first few measures for a lot of tunes.

Traditional Tune Archive of N American, British and Irish tunes, formerly known as The Fiddler's Companion.

Appalachian Music, Wikipedia.


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.

Blackberry Blossom

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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