Chords on the fiddle – pattern thinking vs. theory thinking

How can fiddlers, who are usually taught to focus on playing melodies, learn to play chords?  This is one of the most common questions people come to me with in private lessons.  It’s also been one of my most popular workshop topics.
Clearly, fiddlers (and violinists–I see you, fellow classically trained friends!) are curious about this topic, but aren’t sure where to start.  So let’s talk about it!

Why learn chords on the fiddle?

First of all, for those of you who haven’t ever considered why you might want to learn how to play chords on your fiddle/violin, here are a few reasons:
  • It’ll help you add double stops to the tunes you already know, without having to consult a book or teacher.

  • It’ll make double stops an option in your soloing (whether you’re improvising or writing them in advance), because you’ll be able to match them to the chord structure of the song.

  • It’ll open up the possibility of providing rhythmic accompaniment to other players–just like guitarists and other chording instrumentalists do–when it’s not your turn for a solo.
In short, learning chords on the fiddle does the two best things a musician can ask for:
  • It makes your playing sound cooler.

  • It enables you to support and connect more deeply with other musicians.
Boom.  That’s a lot of return on your time and energy investment.

OK, so how do I go about learning chords on the fiddle?

There’s plenty to talk about when it comes to chords.  (Like how the heck to play them in tune, when you don’t have frets!  It comes with practice, I promise.)
In this post I’m going to focus on two parts of the process, because they’re the ones that seem to stump people the most:
  • Learning where to find the chords on your fiddle that you need for a particular song.

  • The big one: learning to figure all that out fast enough that you can actually keep up in a real playing situation.

Learning where the chords are on the fiddle

Learning chords on the fiddle is a bit more complicated than learning them on guitar, banjo, mandolin and similar instruments.  Most chords have three or four notes in them, but the violin is really only built to play two at a time.
We get to choose any two of the chord’s notes, and let the other musicians (or the listener’s imagination) fill in the gaps. That means we have a lot more options.
From a creative standpoint, this is a blessing.  But it also means there’s no straightforward answer to “how to play a C chord on the fiddle,” because there are a bunch of different choices.  Any combo of C, E and G counts as a C chord for us.  So you can play C on the G string and E on the D string… or G on the D string and C on the A string… or C on the A string and G on the E string… you get the idea.
Guitarists, etc. have lots of options, too.  Generally speaking, though, they have a standard/easy one they learn first.  Then as they progress, they learn advanced options up the neck.
For fiddlers, there’s no real difference in difficulty level between most of the options for each chord.  Instead, we get to pick which version to use when, based on:
  • Aesthetics/creative decisions (for example, staying off the high strings if you don’t want to stick out too much, or staying off the G string if it’s too close to where a singer’s voice is)

  • How easy it is to transition from one chord we’ve chosen to the next.  (We don’t want to tie our fingers in knots unnecessarily.  Nor do we want to change octaves willy-nilly; it’s not just more difficult but also sounds too jagged for most situations.)
So where do we begin?

Strategy #1: Music Theory

I used to start people wanting to learn chords with a music theory lesson.  Here’s the formula for figuring out which notes are in a major chord.  And here’s what’s in a minor chord.  Etc.
I think a lot of music teachers do this, especially if they’re theory nerds like me.  It’s a linear, practical approach:
  • Learn which notes go in a given chord.

  • Find those notes on your fiddle.

  • Play those notes when told to by the chart/sheet music/your bandmates.

  • Eventually, learn to figure out on your own which chords to play, by studying common chord progressions and eartraining techniques.
This strategy works very precisely.  It has, however, a pretty major flaw–one that proves fatal for a lot of people:
IT’S SLOW.  This strategy requires you to spend a lot of time studying and practicing before you’re ready to actually dive in and play real music at full speed.
If you enjoy the dork-out factor of studying music theory (go #teammusictheorydorks!), you might not mind.
But most of you will get impatient, or bored, or overwhelmed, and give up on the project before you ever really operationalize this skill you’ve been working on.  So I present you an alternative:

Strategy #2: Finger patterns

Chords don’t show up randomly in folk or popular music.  There are common progressions that are so prevalent, our ears expect them even if we don’t intellecutally know what they are.

Different genres will tend to make more use of certain chord patterns than others.  It’s actually one of the things that we listen for (consciously or unconciously) when figuring out which genre we’re hearing.
This is great news for us.  It means that we can learn a sequence of finger positions for one song’s chord progression, and then use it again on another song with the same chord progression.
Once that physical pattern is in our muscle memory, we can play lots of other songs that use the same pattern, without having to think.
Have you ever set up a macro in a word processing program?  You take a few minutes to set up a simple direction (something like “when I press Ctrl+alt+43, input the text “I love playing chords on the fiddle! OMG!  It’s like the coolest thing I’ve ever learned to do.  Whee!”).  After that, for the rest of forever, you can just press Ctrl+alt+43, and that whole paragraph appears magically.
The finger pattern method of learning fiddle chords works the same way.  You spend some practice time up front “programming” the fingering sequence into your muscle memory, by playing it a bazillion times.  (How many a bazillion is depends on how you’re wired.  Don’t worry too much about how long it takes anyone else.)
The point where it becomes boring and you start to zone out is your cue that you’ve built a neural pathway that can now execute the program without you having to consciously think about every aspect of it.
Now you have a “macro! ” You no longer have to figure out each note contained in each chord, one at a time, for every song you play.  Instead, you can identify that a song uses (for example) a I-IV-V pattern in the key of E, and then just play that pattern.
You get to send just one message to send to your brain (“play I-IV-V in E”), instead of “let’s see, an E chord has E, G# and B in it, and I have a G# on the D string, so that means….” etc.
How cool is that?

Let’s be real, though: you need both strategies in the long run.

I know I titled this article “pattern thinking vs. theory thinking,” but don’t get caught up in the “vs.” part.  The finger pattern strategy is definitely an easier way to get started playing chords, but it won’t take you all the way. 
What happens when you’re faced with a chord progression that doesn’t follow one of the standard patterns you’ve learned?
Music theory.  Music theory is what happens.
A lot of the coolest songs are the ones that break the “rules.”  For example, let’s say a song is mostly I-IV-V in the key of E.  That’d mean you’re using E, A and B chords–but with the finger pattern strategy, you’re not really thinking about which notes are in which chords.  You’re just playing the finger shapes you memorized.
Suddenly, the songwriter drops a C chord into the middle of it.  Which a) sounds super cool, and b) has nothing to do with any pattern you would have practiced for the key of E, because it’s not a normal chord to be used in the key of E.
What do you do?  Either:
  • You go back to your theory study, figure out which notes are in the key of C, and find a C chord on your fiddle.  Or,

  • You notice that C is only a half step up from B (your V chord, which is part of your memorized finger pattern).  So you just slide your V chord shape up a half step.  (If you don’t want to shift, you might be able to change which fingers you’re using while keeping the same basic shape.  For example, if you’re playing the B chord with first finger on the E&A strings, you could play C using the low 2nd finger on both strings, instead of sliding your hand up into second position.)
Either way, what you just did is apply your music theory knowledge to solving the problem.
And that’s fine.  That’s wonderful, in fact.  Theory is so great.  It’s also a lot easier to apply in real life playing situations when you only have to do it every now and then.
As you get more and more experience, you’ll have more and more patterns stored in your muscle memory.  Eventually, you’ll have neural pathways built for so many different chord progressions (even the I-IV-V-bVI one I just used as an example of a “broken rule”) that you’ll rarely have to pause and think through the theory on a note-by-note level.
But there’s always going to be a song that throws you off for a second.  You’d get bored if there weren’t.

Things to help!

I’ve been hard at work creating a couple of different resources to help you with all this:
  • The first is Chords for Fiddlers: A Reference Guide.  This little ebook teaches a finger-pattern-based method of finding chords within a key.  This can help you hit the ground running so you can start building that muscle memory right away.  The book is also organized so that you can quickly look up the pattern you need for a given song.  So it’s perfect to print and keep with you in your case or jam book.  


    I’m pleased to announce that you can go grab this right now!  I kept it super cheap, because I know people often have trouble finding good info on this topic, and I don’t want money to be an obstacle for you.  You’re welcome to pay more than the suggested price if you feel like it!

  • The other resource will be The Musical Anatomy Workbook: Functional Music Theory for Folk Musicians.  This book teaches theory from the ground up, with an emphasis on getting the information off of the page and into your hands on the instrument.  Unlike a lot of books, it’s written specifically for folk musicians.  That means it does include certain terms that classical and jazz players usually don’t use, and doesn’t include information from those genres that is generally irrelevant to folk music.  It’s also written in as conversational a style as I could muster, since I know theory books are often pretty dry and intimidating for people.

    I’m putting the finishing touches on this book now.  (Holy wow; I wrote a book, you guys!)  Stay tuned; I’ll let you know when it’s ready to purchase.

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