I have a question and I wonder if you could help me in any way to resolve it. I am not a beginner on fiddle but equally I am certainly not an advanced player. Maybe somewhere around intermediate or slightly below. Anyway I heard your rendition of Ain’t Misbehaving‘ and I wanted to ask you when you go off the actual melody and play those little runs off the beaten track so to speak can you give me some tips to help me know what notes to play or think about playing so that I can at least start to make tunes more interesting. Just some tips to get me from where I am which is a bit frustrated to have some idea of how to move forward so that I can turn a simple melody into something really jazzy and cool to listen to. Any pointers would be appreciated – many thanks for all your videos and explanations. Look forward to hearing from you – Sean.
I don’t know if you got an alert when I replied to your comment, but here’s my reply from earlier with a few additions.
The simple answer is that you play over the chords of the song, I know that this isn’t all that helpful without the chords of the song or additional explanation. I am in Louisiana for the next week recording an album.
I will work on putting together some more practically oriented lessons on improvising around a melody.
In the meantime, you might find the Practical Music Theory Series helpful. It covers the structures of how chords fit together, which is the foundation for music.
You may also be interested in going through Pete Martin’s beginning improvisation series, which covers some of the basics of improvising.
Something else to consider when improvising in a fiddle tune is that you aren’t “just” playing over the chords, you are also playing around the melody. In Jazz or swing music, you can play over the chords, and be just fine, but in fiddle tunes, you are expected to stay close enough to the tune that it is still recognizable.
This leaves a number of options for starting your improvisation:
1. Add notes between the melody notes. These additional notes allow the melody notes to be connected to each other more closely.
2. Take away notes. You don’t want to be playing notes all the time. Sometimes you need to add some space. Try breaking down the tune to only the notes that are required for it to still sound like the tune.
3. Change the rhythms. Try pushing a note forward, or delaying a note for syncopation. Try slowing 8th notes down to quarter note triplets, or speeding them up/adding notes to be sixteenth note triplets.
4. Arpeggiate the melody (or de-Arpeggiate it). Where the melody is linear like a scale, try mixing it up with an arpeggio. If the melody is already arpeggiated, try turning the arpeggio upside down, starting on a different note, flipping it around backward, or making it more of a linear passage. Fisher’s Hornpipe is a good tune to play with this technique.
5. Slide into our out of a note. Slides can be up or down.
6. Add an ornament. Options include grace notes, trills, rolls, and smears.
In addition to these techniques, you can employ licks that fit within the song. Licks are essentially patterns that can be repeated in different songs. As you play more, you will find patterns that can be repurposed in other tunes. Licks can be as short as 2 or 3 notes, but are usually at least 4 notes, and can be as many as 20 or 30 notes. The general distinction is that licks don’t necessarily belong in this song as much as they work in this spot in the song. The more you play, and work to identify licks, the more versatile you will get at playing.
Something else that I find very helpful in approaching improvising is Jamey Aebersold’s Blues in all keys. It gives you a slow backing track to play along with in all 12 major keys. You can just riff around in each of those keys and find licks and melodies that work over the changes. You will feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it, the more comfortable you will become. Start with keys that you are fairly comfortable with, like G, D, and A, and work your way out into your areas of discomfort. This isn’t specific to fiddle tunes, but will help you build comfort with your instrument and in playing when there isn’t a specific “right note” for you to play.
I hope this helps!
I will post more info soon. Thanks for your question!