David Lasserson reviews Chris Haigh’s latest exploration of American fiddle music 

Exploring Country and Bluegrass Fiddle

Exploring Country and Bluegrass Fiddle

Chris Haigh

132PP ISBN 9783795714895

Schott Music £25.70


When do two players play the same fiddle? When one is ‘beating straws’. This involves an assistant tapping rhythmically on the strings over the fingerboard with a pair of ‘fiddlesticks’, while the fiddler is bowing and fingering. Chris Haigh describes this in the opening chapter of his primer on country and bluegrass fiddle playing. The practice dates back to the pre-recording era of Appalachian music, where an Anglo-Celtic legacy adapted to its new setting. The old-time country classic Turkey in the Straw started life as an English tune, The Rose Tree. The Appalachian fiddler also played tunes with the kind of names that could never have been coined in Britain, such as Grease the Wooden Leg, Sally Anne and Up Bear Creek.

While this book is billed as an introduction to style and technique, its chronological layout means it is also a history lesson in the development of an industry, covering the advent of commercial recording, the waxing and waning of different styles and stars, the threat of rock’n’roll, and the new traditionalists who have brought their advanced playing and recording technique to a distinct musical history. Haigh tells the story with relish, revealing what at times resembles a rogue’s gallery of showmen fiddlers, outdoing each other with stunts, comedy routines, horse riding, rallying crowds for political campaigns, and doing time in jail.

Societal shifts, marketing imperatives and competing fiddle players all find their way into genres, techniques and repertoire, and Haigh delivers a cracking tutorial, covering genres from western swing to bluegrass. In his safe hands, and assisted by over 100 specially recorded audio tracks, you can take up your role in a band, develop your bow strokes like the Nashville Shuffle, the Georgia Shuffle and the rhythmic ‘chop’, and work on drones and double-stops with your melodies. Haigh invites you to develop your own soloing style, building a repertoire of licks and picking up tips from the great players. He even attempts the impossible, awakening your inner Vassar Clements. This bluegrass phenomenon created outlandish and daring techniques to build extraordinary solos, often at breakneck speed. One page of this book is devoted to building you up to playing a single phrase, Vassar’s ‘killer lick… a manoeuvre so outrageous it has brought grown men to tears’. The chromatic descending triple-stops are only the half of it.

The pleasure of getting stuck into the different styles is enhanced by Haigh’s comic prose, along with his thoughtful analysis of the way market forces developed the music – at times driving the fiddle out of the picture, only for it to re-emerge in the hands of neo-traditionalists. Throw in the excellent listening tips and some jaw-dropping anecdotes and you have a fine package for the aspiring country and bluegrass fiddler.


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