To help understand the difference between Texas Style fiddling and other styles, the following consists of an email conversation I had with Tom Weisgerber where we attempted to explain the relationship between Texas Style fiddlers and their guitar players. Along the way, we also delved into some of the actual mechanics of the guitar style itself.
The idea for this post resulted from a heated discussion in “The Fiddler’s Forum” on Facebook. We intend to continue adding to this page and will likely create others as a supplement.
Andrew Daring – I contend most people don’t understand the Texas rhythm. They don’t hear it, nor feel it. Without the Texas guitar backup, Texas style fiddle wouldn’t sound the same nor be the same as it is today.
Without the rhythm Omega developed and Bobby expanded and so on, Texas fiddle would be much like the other styles. The fiddling seems disconnected from the guitars – as you and I mean it.
Tom Weisgerber – Damn straight rhythm makes a difference. Some fiddlers keep playing fiddle tunes without Texas guitar players and saying it has the correct groove and feel. No it doesn’t! They think guitar is immaterial. Even though, to those familiar with the Texas backup, they are not meshing at all into any sort of groove. They just don’t get it.
I do take great pride in playing the best rhythm I can, all the time, with special attention to enhancing the fiddlers playing, whoever It may be. You can’t just zone out. It makes a difference.
Andy – Even many who claim to teach Texas style fiddling don’t understand its link with the guitars. They teach the notes, but something is missing.
Tom – Exactly. Yes, you’re right. Without Omega and Sleepy and Betty and Bobby and others who pay attention to what they did, Texas fiddling wouldn’t sound like Texas fiddling. That’s half of what makes it Texas fiddling. But, the non-Texas fiddlers will just start saying it should be fiddle oriented, not guitar oriented.
Omega is hands down my favorite rhythm. Joey and Bobby are close. Actually, the last few years I have prided myself on trying to sound like a mix of Bobby, Omega and Joey.
Andy – Texas guitar has little to do with lots and lots of chords combined with jumping up and down the neck, It has to do with the pocket, the hit in the strum that makes the pocket, and what I call the conversation between the fiddler and the guitar player(s). They function as a unit, which as you suggest raises the question: Should the song be fiddle driven or guitar driven?
Tom – It should be as you say, a unit. Everything should drive as one, not having the fiddle or guitar off in la la land.
Andy – The other styles don’t seek that connection.
Tom – Yes, other styles seem to be a showcase of whatever instrument is playing lead, with the backups barely holding rhythm most of the time. Although there is meshing in all styles of good music. If it’s good.
Right Hand Timing!
Andy – Now, how would you describe the right hand hit?
Tom – Lol, I was thinking of that earlier. The way I play is a combination of both hands..let the bass note ring as long as possible, to the point the sustain almost sounds like you’re playing an electric bass on the down beat, letting the note ring. Then the off beat is almost akin to a snare drum, and when you hit it, you lighten up the pressure on your left hand fingers slightly, ideally mainly the ones making the off beat of the chord, but not so much the one making a fingered bass note if possible.
Andy – That is almost exactly the way I would describe that part of the mechanics. I would add (much of this comes from my conversations with Dick Barrett) the right hand should play slightly early on the strum. Meaning it should get to the bottom of its movement or have hit all the strings, so they begin ringing, when the beat hits; rather than having the strum begin its downward move when the beat hits, and thereby cause the chord/string sound to arrive slightly after the beat.
For this style of rhythm guitar, the right hand should play slightly early on the strum. The arm should get to the bottom of its movement and have hit all the strings so they begin ringing as the beat hits, rather than having the strum start its downward move when the beat hits so the strings begin ringing ever so slightly after the beat. So the strummed sound is “out” at the same instant as the beat, the guitar player should begin the strum in advance of the beat, and be at the bottom of the move when the beat hits. Dick Barrett described it as the difference of a few hundredths of a second.
When the guitar player picks the bass note, it is done right as the beat hits. The right hand does not need to cover any distance, it merely needs to pluck the one string for the sound to be released at the same instant as the beat.
Ideally then, the sound generated by the strum should also release the sound at the same instant as the beat. However, it is natural for our brain and body to seek symmetry, and the struggle begins.
During the strum, the right hand needs to cover the distance between the top of the strum and the bottom with the beat hitting sometime during that movement. If the beat arrives when the player’s arm is at the top of the strum, or when the player is just beginning the strum move, then the actual sound from the strummed beat can only be created and heard after the beat itself. The player will sound “late”.
Done this way, the first beat and its bass note happen at the same instant, then the second beat arrives very slightly before the sound from all the strummed notes, then the third beat arrives at the same instant as its bass note, then the fourth beat arrives just ahead of the sound from all the strummed notes. Consequently, you get – beat/sound – and beat then sound – beat/sound – and beat then sound – beat/sound – and beat then sound – and so on.
Ideally, the sound from all the strummed notes should arrive as a package at the same instant as the beat, just like the sound does with the single plucked string of the bass note on the first and third count of the measure.
In other words, having the arm at the top of the strum when the beat arrives, symmetrically corresponds to the arm position at the same instant when picking just the bass note. The symmetry of the right hand being at the top, poised to strike one bass note, or poised to strike the first of the strummed strings, is not only natural but very difficult to overcome.
Tom – Yeah, that’s how Omega played and the only difference I made adjusting from playing like Bobby. Joey does this too. That’s why I feel I am a meld of the three of them. But even though the strum might start early, it won’t sound that way if you let the bass note ring as long as possible. If you just did very straight pick-strum rhythm and strummed early, it would speed up.
Andy – Which is why fiddlers who aren’t used to it do speed up.
Earlier you described letting the bass note ring by saying, “The way I play is a combination of both hands..let the bass note ring as long as possible, to the point the sustain almost sounds like you’re playing an electric bass on the down beat, letting the note ring”.
Folks miss the power and significance of making the bass note ring all the way through the strum. As acoustic guitar players, we don’t have the benefit of electric sustain going on forever, our string sound quickly dies off.
As a counter measure, I always told students to be sure to hit the bass note a second time when making the strum. Many rhythm players create a kind of wimpy and late sound by picking the bass note, then actually stopping the right hand movement, before weakly strumming the rest of the notes in the chord. Those who do not completely stop their right hand movement after hitting the bass note, still tend to hit only the remaining strings left in the chord during the strum.
Bringing the arm back enough to hit the bass note a second time during the strum, and to hit it hard, then re-emphasizes the bass note while contributing to that electric guitar like sustain you mentioned. The sound and movement of the bass note remains prominent. I noticed this early on while watching videos of Bobby, Anthony, Joey, and Matt; although I do not know if they still do it, or if they did it consciously back then.
Tom – I don’t hit the bass note twice, maybe I used to long ago but I don’t do it anymore. I noticed a change in my guitar playing in 2002 when I stopped at Joey’s and played some with him and the Quebe sisters. Been playing the same way ever since.. Still mesh with Bobby but a bit different.
Fiddle Contests are a Life-Long, Small Muscle, Participatory Sport!
As a footnote: I know I have said this elsewhere, but it is important to involve folks in this vibrant culture so it needs repeating.
Parents of kids playing in fiddle contests: I urge you to learn to play rhythm guitar so you can play music with them on or off the stage. Fiddle contests are a life-long, small muscle, participatory sport. Unlike large-muscle organized sports run by adults who permit parents to cheer for their kids while watching from the bleachers, fiddle contests need parents to contribute and participate as backup guitar players with the kids. You won’t regret it!
Learning to play backup guitar provided me with the chance not to merely watch my kids and a whole bunch of others, but to be actively with them. Moreover, learning to play guitar lasts a lifetime. For more information, this is the link to the Second Edition of my book about playing rhythm guitar, “Applied Rhythm Guitar with Texas Style Walking Bass lines“.