Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Monday, August 1, 2016

How To Chord For Fiddlers - With Brigid Drody

Today I'm cross-posting from our sister blog (Gaspesian Community Sound Archives) to share something extra-special and often overlooked when it comes to fiddle music: chording on the guitar.
One of the aims of this project is to provide aspiring musicians in the community with resources to develop their playing or singing. There's a lot of practical knowledge about playing music among the wider Gaspesian community at home and away. The archives can in a small way, help convey this know-how. In a region where resources for public and private music education are limited, I think this form of archival outreach could be valuable.
In July of last year, Brian Morris and I visited Brigid Drody at her place in the Chateauguay Valley south of Montreal (Brian and Brigid's music was featured in the previous post). I had been asked to give a rhythm guitar workshop at the 2015 Irish Week in Douglastown and I wanted to bring my students some videos of good rhythm guitar playing to learn from. We setup the camera to focus only on Brigid's hands to give viewers the best possible angle to study her style. I'll be giving another guitar workshop at this year's festival, on Saturday, August 6, 2016 at the Douglas Community Center as part of the Douglastown Irish Days. Voluntary contribution.
Brigid Drody-Miller at her home. June 13, 2013. (Photo by Glenn Patterson)
Today I'm featuring these videos of Brigid's chording and will provide an overall commentary on her style of backup for old-time fiddlers.
Brigid has six decades of experience chording for fiddlers, beginning in the 1940s with her own musical family in Douglastown. Her father and uncle, three brothers, and two of her sisters played fiddle. She began guitar at a very young age by strumming on a neighbour's guitar that was hanging on the wall of her home - she was forbidden to take the guitar down from the wall.
I've been playing music with Brigid for about 6 years now and she is a joy to play with. When you play with her it feels like you are having a conversation. She doesn't try to copy your rhythm but instead responds to and complements what you are doing.Her style has a lot in common with the older guitar style you'll hear on early records of fiddle music from the 1920s and 1930s (listen to old Joseph Allard recordings for an idea) but with her own unique twists.
Here is a YouTube playlist where you can see the videos of Brigid's guitar playing. 

Here's the address for the full playlist, should the above embedded video not work on your platform.

Common Rhythm Problems

One of the single biggest problems I notice with people new to chording for fiddlers—even if they are otherwise experienced players and especially if they come from a folk, rock, or post-1950s country background—is that they have an "undisciplined" right hand. Their style is just far too loud and "strummy." Every time they touch their strings it's always with a full-force strum across five or six strings, the pick flailing up and down in an unpredictable rhythm. There are a few problems with this approach besides its unsteady rhythm.
Firstly, from a fiddler's perspective, it completely overwhelms the melody simply because five or six strings constantly ringing out creates far too much sound. You will drown out the fiddle player and the rhythm you are providing lacks clarity. Second, if you are playing at the faster tempos required for fiddle music, your arm will quickly tire out and you will soon start to drag the beat and pull the tempo down. The music begins to feel like a quickly deflating tire. It is simply not possible to play for faster tempos or for the longer durations required for square dances if you strum like this.

The Alternating Bass-Strum Style

As you'll notice in Brigid's guitar style, there are two basic alternating parts to her chording style that she uses for most of her playing:
  1. The Downstroked Bass Note: First, there is a bass note in the chord played on its own. These happen on the three lowest-pitched strings (E, A, or D) and always happen on the downbeats with a heavily accented downstroke of the pick. It is the downbeat that creates a sense of drive in this music not the strums. [This is probably the single biggest misconception that I encounter. People think you need to emphasize the strumming aspect of rhythm guitar but this isn't really true for old-time music.]
  2. The Light Strum: Between these bass notes is where you put a single strum using a downstroke of the pick. Importantly, this single strum shouldn't be too loud—a light brush will do. Otherwise you will make the music sound like reggae (which it isn't) because you will drown out your downbeat bass notes. And this creates the opposite of drive: drag.
On the bass note that follows this strum, Brigid will often alternate to a different bass note in the same chord as the first step.
What you notice with the above is that there are actually no upstrokes in the this basic pattern. Both the isolated downbeat bass note and the offbeat strum happen on consecutive downstrokes. This basic pattern is most evident in her performances on "Leslie DeVouge's Tune," "Another one of Roland White's," and "Casey's Hornpipe." You'll also notice that Brigid often "walks the bass" to change from one chord to another. To figure this out, you need to use your ear to find the possible in-between bass notes from the lowest notes in the two chords you want to connect. These can come later after you've mastered the basic pattern described above. 
Sometimes, Brigid will put in a brief burst of rapid-fire strumming using alternating down and upstrokes to complement the fiddle part. However, these are the exception to the rule in her playing. They are effective but should be used sparingly (see her playing in "La ronfleuse Gobeil" for an example of this technique). I have met some solid guitar players around Gaspé who have a tight and non-overwhelming "strummy" rhythm guitar style with few bass notes. but this is rare in my opinion (it is a more common guitar style in modern Irish and Celtic music and is often used with a delicate right hand touch).
Enjoy and please leave a comment if you get something out of this or have any questions.