In bluegrass and old-time fiddle music there are a number of standard intros — also called kick-offs –that players will use to start a tune.
These are intros that you can simply snap on — like a Lego block — to the beginning of any tune and they’re guaranteed to work, just as long as the key and time signatures of your intro match the tune you’re kicking off.
Before we start looking at some of these intros, let’s talk briefly about what these intros do. Why do we use them? Why not just launch right into the tune?
We use intros because they’re a practical, no-nonsense way to communicate to your accompanist or band and the audience how fast you’re going to play the tune and in what key.
When it comes to standard bluegrass and old-time fiddle tunes, we tend not to take liberties with a tune’s key. Bill Cheatem, for instance, is always in the key of A, while Billy in the Lowground is always in C. But sometimes your accompanists could use a reminder, and this is where an intro can come in handy.
But the most important reason to use a standard intro is to signal to your band/accompanists/audience how fast, or slowly, you’ll be playing the tune.
For this reason, it’s very important that you play the intro at the same tempo as you intend to play the tune. This sounds like common sense, the sort of the thing that goes without saying. Yet just about every player makes this mistake from time to time, usually playing the intro faster than the tune.
If there’s a mismatch between the tempo of your intro and the tune, you’ll confuse both your audience and your accompanists, and the transition between the intro and the tune will sound rough and haphazard. If the difference is slight, with the tempo falling off slightly after the intro, your tune will gradually deflate, like a tire with a slow leak. And at that point, half your audience will probably be on their phones, checking their email.
The best way to avoid this is to mentally rehearse a few bars of the tune before you start. If it helps, try fingering the notes with your left hand (no bowing) for a bar or two before you begin. Scientists doing functional MRIs (fMRIs) of musicians have found that mentally rehearsing like this, sans instrument, is neurologically indistinguishable from actually playing. Use that to your advantage!
Now for those intros…
The most common fiddle intro in bluegrass and old-time music is known as taters. Taters is nothing more than the Nashville shuffle bowing pattern (for more on that, see my blog post on shuffle-bow patterns here).
Here we play four “shuffles” (i.e., the long-short-short or one quarter-note and two eighth-notes pattern) using open strings — in this case, the A and E, since we’re in the key of A. If your tune has pick-up notes, play them instead of the last “tater,” then start the tune.
What do you do if your tune is in the key of G, for instance? Easy: just play an open D and A instead of an A and E. If you’re in the key of D, an open D will do.
What we’ve seen so far are the “open versions” of taters. Later, we’ll look at some “closed” versions of taters (where we finger one or more of the notes rather than playing them open).
But taters is the go-to intro for fiddle tunes, especially if you’re casually jamming at a bluegrass festival campground or a pickin’ party. Everybody knows this intro, knows how long it lasts and knows what to do when you’re done playing it.
If you wanted to change things up a bit, you could try what I call the “chunk-chunk” intro, like so:
You’ll notice that this looks like a tater-less (look, no eight notes!) version of the taters intro. And it leads into the tune in exactly the same way. If your fiddle tune has pick-up notes (which usually consist of two eighth notes), we simply drop those pick-ups in on the last beat of the last measure of our intro. And we can use the same notes we would use with taters (open A and E for the key of A, open D and A for the key of D, and open G and open D for the key of G).
This intro sounds especially good when it’s played staccato — with a short, choppy, sticky-sounding bow.
This post is getting long already, and yet I’m just getting started (I’m sorry, that was bad). These are the basic intros, anyway. In my next post, I’ll talk about ways we can elaborate on these intros, make them sound like something more than the standard taters you’d like learn in a fiddle book. We’ll also look at ways to play intros in different keys and with some classic bluegrass double-stop voicings.