A student once told me that Bruce Molsky in his fiddle workshops calls the violin bow a “rhythm stick.” I love that! Calling the bow a rhythm stick gets to the heart of what makes fiddling distinct from violin playing, and that of course is rhythm.
All fiddle music is dance music. From Canadian old-time fiddling to American old-time fiddling, from Irish fiddling to Mexican Mariachi fiddling, from klezmer to Cajun, all fiddle music was made for dancers. Even if nobody is dancing, even if you’re playing too fast for dancers (bluegrassers, I’m talking to you), dance is in the DNA of fiddle music — it should always have a danceable feel.
Although we come across many dance forms when we play classical violin (e.g., the gigue, the chaconne, the waltz, the minuet), almost none of the current classical repertoire is intended for dancing. It’s listening music. Music for the brain, not the body.
So, how do we turn our bow into a rhythm stick? One way is through shuffle bowing.
Shuffle bowing is nothing more than a repetitive bowing pattern. And a few of these patterns come up time and again in bluegrass and American old-time fiddling.
What all of these patterns have in common is that they emphasize the backbeat (the 2 and the 4 beat). In each example, I’ve indicated where those accents are (“>”).
When you see that symbol, give the bow a push. And don’t be afraid to use a bit of oomph, or even aggression, when you do this. I always tell students to imagine that they’re poking someone with a stick. That’s not nice, I know, but it seems to be effective!
On the other hand, as you work the backbeats more, you’ll probably find that sometimes it sounds better to ease up on the accents. If you’re too relentless in driving the beat, your playing can sound stiff, mechanical and un-subtle.
So, play around with it. Work the beat like a rented mule for a few bars, then back off for another few.
And remember what Duke Ellington said: if it sounds good, it is good.
The Nashville Shuffle
The Nashville shuffle is without a doubt the most common shuffle pattern. It’s also the easiest to play. It consists of a long-short-short, long-short-short bowing pattern that’s usually written like this:
Even if you’ve been playing bluegrass and old-time music for a short time, you’ve probably seen this pattern before.
It also goes by another name: “taters,” the classic kick-off for reels and breakdowns (i.e., faster tunes in 4/4, sometimes 2/4).
The Nashville shuffle is played with alternating bowing. So, if you start on a down bow: down-UP-down, up-DOWN-up (accented beats in capital letters). If you start on an up bow, simply reverse that pattern.
The Nashville shuffle can drive a tune like a crazy, and it sounds especially good when you pair it with double-stops.
And in fiddle tunes where we have longer notes — half notes, or several quarter notes in a row — we can “shuffle-ize” those longer notes to help drive the rhythm. I’ll talk more about that another time.
Split Bowing (aka, The Nashville Shuffle)
I’ve heard this called the Nashville shuffle, too, but to prevent confusion, I’ll call it split bowing.
This pattern consists of two eighth notes, slurred, followed by two eighth notes, bowed singly. Here’s an example from the common tune “Blackberry Blossom”:
Anytime you have a run of eighth notes stretching to the horizon like a long North Dakota road, you can use split bowing. There are hundreds of tunes that you can use split bowing on. Just take any tune where there’s a measure or more of straight eighth notes and try this out.
This pattern adds both rhythmic drive and smoothness to what can otherwise be a monotonous, robotically stiff-sounding run of eighth notes. But be careful not to overuse this pattern — that can wind up sounding just as stiff and mechanical.
And don’t be afraid to try this in reverse (two single followed by two slurred) — that can work, too!
I think what makes these patterns work is their predictability. Sometimes even a really random-seeming bowing combination can work, if you repeat it.
As they say in jazz, if you make a mistake, play it twice.
The Georgia Shuffle
The Georgia shuffle is the trickiest pattern to learn, but once you have it down, it drives the beat like no other shuffle. I like to use the Georgia shuffle to “punch” the backbeat, to really emphasize it. This can be really effective when you’re playing for dancers…or when you need to wake up your accompanist!
Here’s an example from Red Haired Boy (aka, Little Beggarman), another very common tune:
The Georgia shuffle isn’t always the easiest shuffle to fit into a tune, and there is one variation where we’d follow up that single accented note with a two-note slur, so consider this just a basic introduction. There’s more to say about this pattern.
Even though it can be kind of a bear to learn, it’s well worth adding to your repertoire of bowing patterns.