“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