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23 Fiddle Mistakes to Avoid
Paul Anastasio

“Profit from the mistakes of others, ’cause you’ll never live long enough to make ’em all yourself.”
— Alfred E. Newma


1. Leaving your fiddle under a bed in a Louisiana motel (or anywhere else, for that matter). I did that once and was pretty darn lucky to get it back. I wouldn’t want to try that again.


2. Going to a gig, recording session or jam without spare instruments and vital spare parts. Ideally, it’d be good to have a second fiddle. Failing that, though, you’ll at least want to have a spare bow or two, spare rosin, extra strings, and maybe even a spare shoulder rest, if you use one. During one gig with Merle Haggard’s son Marty, I broke all the hair from my best bow and broke the tip off my second bow. Good thing I had a third bow along.


3. Heading off to a gig, jam, or whatever, without a phone number and address of the place where you’re trying to go. Back in the 1970s I missed a chance to go to a party with Stéphane Grappelli.

Ike Issacs, his guitarist, and I were trying to follow the car Stéphane was riding in, but we got separated and, with no phone number or address, had no idea where we were going.


4. Playing too loud or too soft. If you’re playing acoustically, you’re in control. If you’re going through a soundboard, the volume level that your audience hears may be beyond your control. A good trick I use when playing gigs such as the Northwest Folklife Festival is to play through both an amp and a microphone. That way, if the mic isn’t working, you can turn up the amp. If for some reason the amp isn’t working you can work the microphone a little closer. If you have a friend in the audience, it’s a good idea to ask them to listen to your volume in relation to the rest of the band and report back both to you and to the soundperson immediately after the first song. Don’t let them come up to you when you’re through with the gig and say, “I couldn’t hear you all night.” It’s a good idea not to get ego and volume mixed up. If you’re battling the ubiquitous too-loud guitar player, you can suggest that they point their amp at their ears rather than at the back of their legs. Few guitarists have ears on the back of their legs. In Asleep at the Wheel, some of the players would literally rip the speakers out of 400-watt amps, and the only reason that I can hear at all today is that I always used, and still use, Mack’s Pillow-Soft silicone earplugs on all electric gigs.


5. Playing out of tune. I practice with two tuners turned on constantly. Modern tuners read quite rapidly. There are good iPhone tuning apps and a nice computer tuner for Macs called Vocal Lab. Korg tuners have a fairly forgiving green “in tune” light, and I try to keep that light on all the time as I practice. Regardless of how long you practice, if you practice out of tune, you’ll play out of tune, and precious hours are spent merely reinforcing bad pitch habits.  


6. Playing out of time. I was playing for Joe Venuti at his home one day, and my time got a little sloppy. He beat his hand on the arm of his chair and bellowed, “Time, time, time! That’s the most important thing!” Electronic metronomes and programs such as Band-in-a-Box will keep you honest, if you synchronize with them rather than simply having them turned on as you ignore them. One caveat, though — it’s a bad idea to let an external time-keeper such as a metronome or computerized backup band rush you into playing out of tune. Make sure the pitch is right, and then, still keeping a good eye on your pitch, you can start to work on your time. If you practice out of time, you’ll play out of time.


7. Being a “jam hog.” We’ve all had the misfortune of playing in a jam session with someone who lives in an inward-facing hall of mirrors. It’s not all about any of us, so share the solo riches!


8. Stepping on a vocalist. As backup musicians, we should be the frame for the picture that is the vocalist. A backup musician who recorded behind Billie Holiday called playing backup to vocals “filling in the windows.” While sometimes a pedal-to-the-metal, non-stop backup line can successfully drive a vocalist (see Joe Holley fiddling behind Tommy Duncan’s vocals in the Bob Wills band), more often than not, “If you get too busy (with your backup), pretty soon you won’t be too busy,” as they say in Gnash-ville.


9. Playing with a feel that clashes with the one played by the band. Most Latin music, a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, some boogie-woogie, fast fiddling, and classical music as it’s played today use what are called straight eighth notes. They are played evenly. Swing, Dixieland, bebop, western swing, country and blues shuffles and many other styles feature eighth notes that “lope” to some extent at all but the fastest tempos. This is a tricky thing to learn, as the loping eighth notes lope less and less as the tempo increases. Listen to the guitar and piano to see if they are loping their eighth notes as if they were triplets with the middle note left out, playing them straight or something in between. You’ll almost certainly want to match your eighth note feel to the one being played by the band.


10. Leaving your fiddle unprotected on stage between sets. I know, I’m guilty of this too sometimes. However, a Seattle-area violinist left his fiddle on top of a piano between sets, where it was destroyed by a falling bass. Play it safe and put it in the case.


[For the other 13 tips, purchase the Summer 2013 issue!]


Copyright 2013 by Paul Anastasio


[A former student of Joe Venuti, Paul Anastasio is a veteran of the bands of Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Larry Gatlin, and Loretta Lynn. For information about opportunities to study with Paul, as well as recordings, his "The Impressionist" form-fitting chin rest insert, and an upcoming book containing all of his past Fiddler Magazine On Improvisation columns, please visit www.SwingCatEnterprises.com.]