The advertised requirement is “able to change smoothly between simple chords”. A fiddle doesn’t exactly chord, but a fiddler needs to be able to follow simple chord progressions, and be aware when the song is on a G, or on a D, etc. That allows for playing of correct backup notes for either bowing or “chopping”, and if she ventures a lead, using licks that are most easily categorized by what chord(s) they go with.
Important: For bluegrass jamming, it is not really sufficient for a person to know only how to play tunes and lead lines. This is where bluegrass and other kinds of music differ: All instruments are expected to play backup, for which there is no printed music available. You just have to watch (the guitar player’s left hand) and listen for chord changes, and play something appropriate, even if it’s a single note for each chord. So it’s important for fiddlers to know what the different notes are that go into a G, C, or D chord, and to get to them quickly and smoothly. It’s actually ok if they just hit the root notes, G, C, and D, and that is a basic workable place to start.
Aside from that, a new fiddler would benefit a lot from being able to find melodies by ear. It’s fine to start slowly and haltingly, but after a while it should come more quickly and accurately, and that’s a great place to be when the camp gets going, so that she can try faking a melody in a jam now and then. To start that, suggest some favorite songs that she could hum, and the likely key (G or A works for many). If you can sing the song slowly and play guitar while she tries, that could really help get her going. Watch out, though, husbands and wives don’t always match up so well as pickers when one is ahead of the other one. Just being encouraging is the best thing, especially if she’s sensitive to criticism.
Either way, tab or standard notation, is just fine as a way of learning solos that someone else has created. But in bluegrass jamming, people have to “think on their feet” and learn to come up with solos based on their ability to follow chord progressions with notes that fit in the chords, and put in melody notes or pre-learned “licks” where they can. So we actually don’t use written notation at the camp at all, but work on developing ear skills. Since you are already a singer, you probably can already find melodies by ear, and that’s the kind of thing we encourage at the camp. Since we keep the tempos nice and slow, learning to solo this way gets a chance to happen at an easy pace, and there are lots of chances to try solos on good but simple bluegrass songs.
You’ve probably noticed in seeing other people play bluegrass, that people are not playing from paper. Nor do they usually have from-paper solos memorized. They make do using the above methods, and that’s what we teach at the camp!
“I am being taught to play fiddle as a lead instrument and I don’t understand about chords on the fiddle.”
This is typical, if that’s any comfort. Our teachers have taught the basics to a lot of fiddlers, even though many of them don’t play fiddle!
“I thought arpeggios were just extended chords broken up into single notes the fiddle can play, and a way to beat into the brain just which notes are acceptable choices when everyone else is playing a certain chord.”
That’s exactly right.
“But you say I need to learn honest-to-goodness chords on the fiddle.”
More experienced fiddle players learn which pairs of adjacent strings might BOTH have acceptable notes (one might be an open string, while the other is stopped), and then you actually would have a 2-note chord. But one “legal” note is sufficient.
“Or a definition of what a chord actually is on the fiddle? None of the books I have lying around address this. I don’t know whether to play double stops on the G and D strings, or on the D and A strings, or on the A and E strings, or something else entirely, and sometimes there’s more than one double stop that might be used.”
A chord means any two or more notes which harmonize together. If you are playing arpeggios of the “acceptable notes in a chord”, then any one or more of those same notes can be used. If you’re playing two at the same time, that can be called “a chord”.
To jam in bluegrass, you mainly need to know what notes are “acceptable” choices behind each of the chords. The choices change as the chords change.
On our Slow Jam video, we start out with a bunch of two chord songs. They use G and D chords. For those two chords, the acceptable notes are (for G:) G, B, or D, and (for D:) D, F#, A. So, for instance, as the song changed from the part backed by a G chord, to D chord, on the fiddle you could note a G and then an A. Or a G and then a D. Or …. a D and then a D!
When you look at it that way, the technical end is pretty simple, but you do have to keep the “acceptable” choices in mind, and as you follow the chord changes, make sure to “stay legal”.
This kind of thing gets much easier the more you do it, to where after a while you can almost stop thinking about it, while still doing it correctly. That’s why I strongly recommend the Slow Jam video for both you and your husband. The chord changes are shown right on screen, and as the songs go by, you can just follow along. The video has 17 standards, all played slowly, and the entire chord vocabulary is G, C, D, and A. Play along enough with that video, and you’ll be able to fit right in at the camp, and set your sights on more than just the basics of “being legal”.
If you are willing/able to try for double stops, then the trick is to find which pair of notes that are both in a chord can be easily enough sounded when the time comes. Example: For a G chord, you can just play the open G and D simultaneously. For the D chord, you can play D and A simultaneously. Those are nice easy choices, no left hand!nnIn case it’s not spelled out in your books, the acceptable notes in a chord are: the FIRST, THIRD, and FIFTH note of the scale the chord is based on. Example, for a G chord, use the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the G scale. Those are: G, B, and D.
“Are there suggested ways to improve learning chords?”
Pick two chords that are commonly played in the same song, and practice switching between them. At first, once you’ve made the chord, pick the strings one by one to make sure they’re all clear. Then change the chord and do the same. Then back and forth, and in time, more quickly. With practice, you will definitely get it.n
“I teach Texas Style or ‘contest style’ fiddling. Most of my fiddlers jam quite often and almost all also play guitar. I am not sure my kids would fit into the bluegrass perspective.”
From what you say, not many of your students might find this class “for them”. But it’s also true that being able to “fake” solos and do tasteful backup on songs that come up at a jam is a skill that some “contest style” fiddlers might want to add. This skill is less about well-practiced technique than just getting out in a bluegrass situation and “learning how to play shortstop” where, while there are ground rules, no one really knows just what’s going to happen. Depending on what sort of jamming experience a student has had or wants, this kind of opportunity might be helpful.