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FIDDLE CHOPPING

 

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Fiddle Chopping

 

There is not much new in the way of fiddle technique.

Most of what a fiddler learns these days – ornamentation, variation, bowing, finger patterns and so on – is probably centuries old. Even the double stops, position changing and note bending which comes with bluegrass has now been around for 70 years or more.

So it was with considerable excitement that I recently discovered the technique of chopping which has spread through the fiddle world in just the last 20 years or so. It is a dramatic, novel and potentially extremely useful approach to rhythm fiddle playing, and the enthusiasm of its ardent supporters is equalled only by the scorn and derision of its many detractors.

In this piece I will attempt to explain what chopping is, how and when it developed, how it has spread around the world, and how to decide when and where it is appropriate.

First of all, what is chopping? You may well be familiar with the simple rhythmic off beat, played at the heel of the bow. That is NOT what we’re talking about, although unfortunately it shares the same name, and has some features in common. If you happen to be able to access youtube, before you go any further, look up “Casey Driessen Working on a Building”, and you’ll see what modern chopping looks and sounds like. Prepare to be amazed!

 

 

Chopping is a rhythmic, percussive effect achieved not by drawing the bow perpendicular to the strings (ie left to right or right to left), but by a mixture of up and down and backwards and forwards movement (ie, down the length of the strings).

The starting point is to bring the bow down on to the strings, right at the heel. Instead of dropping it vertically, twist your bow hand away from you so that the hair of the bow hits the strings at an angle. Don’t let the bow bounce back off, but hold it down. That deadened “chack” sound is the basic chop.

Now, starting from where you just ended up, with the bow under pressure on the strings, let it spring back up. This gives you a second sound, what you might call a “Ka”. This sound, unlike the first, has a pitch. The on and off together give you a “Chack-ka”. You can get a similar but slightly more muted Chack-ka by bringing the bow on and off not forwards towards the neck, but back towards the bridge. This up and down, backwards and forwards of the bow can eventually lead to a whole repertoire of rhythmic patterns from the simple to the complex and elaborate.

So where did this strange technique originate, and how did it evolve? If you are from a traditional folk fiddling background, this all may be a bit of a mystery, and you may well be thinking “what’s the point?”. The Irish tradition, for example, is for a fiddler based entirely on melody. The fiddle will play the tune continuously, either solo or in unison with other instruments. Bluegrass, on the other hand, is a different matter. This genre, which developed out of old time music in the 1930’s and 40’s, involves potentially four melody instruments; fiddle, mandolin, banjo and guitar., along with vocals. The fiddle shares and alternates melody and improvised solo playing with these other instruments . When not leading, the fiddle will often take the role of rhythmic backing, especially when the mandolin is taking a solo. Bill Monroe, who was the chief creator of bluegrass, expected his fiddle players to be able to mimic the deadened, off beat chops which were normally the role of the mandolin. In 1966 one of these fiddlers was Richard Greene. Unhappy with the timing of Green’s melodic fills, Monroe asked him to stick to rhythm when he was not soloing. Rhythmic chops had up till this time normally been done at the tip of the bow, but, finding that tiring over extended periods, Greene tried playing chops at the heel, and found this more physically efficient. It gave more weight to the bow, and was also more controllable. At the tip, the bow was bound to bounce, but at the heel it was possible to deaden the note properly, giving an effect much closer to that of the mandolin.

His principal innovation was to hold the bow down on the string after each hit rather than letting it bounce off. By cutting out all the horizontal movement of the bow, he removed all the pitch from the down chop. A second, distinct sound, this time with a pitch, was then produced as the bow was released . He initially called this the “chunky chop”. He went on to elaborate the technique, and incorporate it into his solos with progressive bands such as Seatrain.

 

Around 1975 he taught this technique to the young Darol Anger, a jazzy bluegrass fiddler who made his name working with the David Grisman Quartet. Anger refined the chop, defining a modified hand hold for the bow, with the thumb straightened rather than bent, in order to facilitate the forward tilt of the bow. He also added the backwards and forwards movement of the bow along the direction of the strings.

In the Grisman band there was little use for the chop, as there was a second mandolin player and the rhythm department was therefore already well catered for. In the late 80’s, however he became a founder member of the Turtle Island String Quartet, which fused classical with contemporary musical styles. The band’s repertoire included a good deal of improvised soloing, as well as arrangements of rock, jazz and pop numbers. In the absence of the normal rhythm section associated with these genres, chopping came into its own, providing a powerful “back beat” to drive the tunes along and support the solos.

“We really wanted to have a convincing sound. We wanted it to sound like the drums were there and the rhythm guitar was there.”

 It became clear that chopping was equally appropriate to viola and cello, as well as fiddle. Whereas Richard Greene had concentrated on developing the chop as a soloing technique, for The TISQ it was more of a “comprehensive accompaniment technique”. Darol Anger left the band in 1997, but the Turtle Island Quartet has continued unabated, and can claim to have been a catalyst to the burgeoning “alternative strings” movement in America.

 

Among the many young fiddlers to pick up on chopping was bluegrass player Casey Driessen. He had begun his own exploration of rhythmic playing in the early 90’s, before he became aware of Darol Anger’s approach. In 1995, attending the Mark O’Connor fiddle Camp, he got a chance to learn first hand from Darol, and later he got tuition from him when he attended Berklee College in Boston. His debut solo album “3D”, released in 2006 shows Driessen double tracking his violin, with chops used to deliberately imitate a drumkit. Along with an unbridled imagination and a generally wacky approach to music, he brought some very jazzy harmonies to the table. He began using 5 string violins, both acoustic and electric, and found that the deeper sound of the C string was particularly suited to chopping. Listen to the introductions to “Gaptooth” and “Jerusalem Ridge” to see how far he has taken the technique. Best of all on the album is “Footsteps so Near”. On this you can hear the funky, syncopated “bass line chop” combined with the infamous “triple chop”, a bounced high speed triplet where the bow scrapes backwards over the strings. He also demonstrates the unique value of chopping for fiddle singers, providing a much more driving and contemporary sounding backing than is provided by the more usual drones and shuffles. In “Good boy blues”, he also gives us a bizarre duet with a howling dog, but that’s another story.

 

Any fiddler who hears Driessen’s chopping is going to be fascinated, and quite likely hooked on the idea of learning it for themselves. To even begin to work it out just by listening is a hopeless task. Fortunately there are easier ways. Driessen, Anger and Greene all have youtube demonstration videos. Another great resource is the easily available 2005 DVD “Chops and Grooves- rhythmic explorations for bowed strings” This is the work of Darol Anger, accompanied by Casey Driessen and the cellist Rushad Eggleston.

On this DVD Anger starts out with the basics, describing his bow hold, playing close to the frog, and the importance of lots of rosin. In terms of teaching and annotating the technique, this video probably more than anything helps to codify the different aspects of chopping. Four different types of note are described; the hard chop (used for the main accent of a pattern), the soft chop (usually played back towards the bridge), the ghosted note (used mainly to mark time rather than actually make a sound), and the downstrike- a sounded and pitched note. The pdf sheet music which comes with the DVD shows how each of these note types can be annotated. With the help of Driessen and Eggleston, they describe and play through a set of increasingly complex patterns and tunes, including bluegrass, jazz, celtic, latin and funk styles.

 

A couple of interesting points are raised by the video. One is that Anger and Driessen have somewhat different approaches to chopping. Driessen, in particular, does not straighten out the thumb on his bow hand. Personally I have found the straight thumb unnecessary, uncomfortable and indeed painful, though it could well be that I didn’t get it quite right. As Anger says. “If it works, it works!”

This DVD then, along with various short youtube videos, has helped to rapidly spread chopping throughout large parts of the fiddling world. Another means of transmission has been fiddle workshops. American ethnomusicologist Laura Risk published a fascinating article in 2013 entitled “The Chop; the diffusion of an instrumental technique across North Atlantic Fiddling Traditions”. She was able to identify and interview many of the early “adopters and diffusers” of chopping, and to trace the routes by which it has spread through countries and genres. Initially, because it is such a difficult and counter-intuitive technique, it was only spread by first hand contact- it had to be taught face to face.

One of the key conduits for diffusion of chopping that she identified has been fiddle camps. We have already seen how Casey Driessen learned chopping at the Mark O’Connor fiddle camp. The Valley of the Moon fiddle school in California was another such hub for the early spread of chopping. A regular teacher here is fiddler Hanneke Cassel, who taught chopping to , among others Patsy Reid, now one of Scotland’s most successful young fiddlers. You can see an excellent example of Patsy’s chopping on her youtube video of “Painted Bride”, where she accompanies her own singing.

 

I asked her how she found chopping useful;

"At the time, it was just totally new and I suppose it appealed to me because it was a way to accompany other fiddlers, rather than everyone playing the tune all the time. At the time I was only playing in groups with other fiddlers and I have always been more interested in harmony/accompaniment that hearing 20 fiddles playing the same thing! Then as I developed my own style, I was playing in the band Breabach and as it is a big loud band, I either could play in unison/harmony with the bagpipes, or find another place to play, where I was adding something instead of doubling something that was already being played. It allowed me to lock in with the guitar too and so making the fiddle really versatile in that outfit."

Scottish fiddler Kate Young also uses chopping when accompanying her own singing. She learned it whilst on the Newcastle University Folk degree course from American fiddle singer Laura Cortese, and immediately recognised how she could fill the job of guitarist herself by using chopping. “Green and Gold”, and “Push and Spark” are good examples of her technique.

 

One of Scotland’s finest fiddlers is Gordon Gunn. He pointed out to me some of the dangers and limitations of chopping

“It does have a lot of detractors and yes it can be over used. I believe it's an accompaniment tool that can't over power the melody or the words, it just needs to support. I think if used in the right content, it has a place and maybe some people let it take over, so the melody can suffer. It's the type of thing - once it's there, it's hard to take it out, kind of like a shaker. So I personally think it can have a subtle supporting role but with controlled dynamics.”

Referring to the rapid spread of chopping, Darol Anger told Laura Risk “I feel like Oppenheimer sometimes. I’ve released some kind of monster.” Describing it as a “monster” is more than just a casual comment. There are various reasons why chopping is not universally welcomed by musicians. Perhaps the most obvious is that fiddle players mostly work within a tradition- be it bluegrass, Irish, Scottish or whatever. These traditions each have a library of “appropriate” techniques which have developed through many years and have become accepted as part of the tradition. In the context of a traditional Irish pub session, the chop will stand out both visibly and audibly as an intruder akin to a bassoon or a set of highland bagpipes, and the offender is quite likely to be shown the door. Fiddle traditions come with a set of rules of etiquette, determining, for example, what a fiddler should do in a session or jam, if not playing the melody. There is no doubt that choppers can get obsessed, and there is a danger of overdoing it. In Darol Anger’s DVD, he stages an amusing little tableau where he and Driessen are happily playing away at an old country song, when Eggleston fires off with some excessive and ill-judged chopping. The other two get up and leave in disgust, to which Eggleston comments “I guess my chop technique’s too cool for them!”.

A couple of well-rehearsed lines summarise Anger’s warning about the over-use of chopping;

“Use the power for good, never for evil” and “the sound of chopping stopping is a beautiful musical thing!”

One of the important conclusions of Laura Risk’s article is that the fiddle world is divided on the subject of chopping, with a distinct difference between the older and younger generations. For the oldies, concepts of tradition and continuity are important, and having played for decades without chopping, they see no reason why they should start now, especially when it turns out to be a great deal harder than it looks.

There is a considerable perceived danger of undesirable tampering with tradition and purity. Swedish fiddler Anders Hall, part of the trio Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, told Laura Risk that, although they all enjoyed chopping, they took a deliberate decision as a band not to use it, because “everyone was doing it”. Scottish/Scandinavian fiddler Sarah-Jane Summers, likewise, said she felt dismay when she first heard the chop in Norway.

“It’s becoming so universal. I think it’s a mild dilution of traditions when everything is underpinned by a universal rhythmic idea”

For youngsters, it is simply one more fun and exciting thing to do with your fiddle, and one which , with its driving backbeat, adds a new and contemporary edge to your playing.

So, to chop or not to chop? Whether you are playing English, Irish, Scottish, Scandinavian, bluegrass or indeed any other fiddle style, chopping is certainly an option. I would say you should consider that within each of these genres there is a spectrum ranging from traditional to contemporary. This will determine, and be determined by, the instrumentation, arrangements, chords, rhythms and source of repertoire. Generally speaking, at the traditional end, even within bluegrass where chopping began, the chop should be treated with caution and will often be greeted by suspicion and hostility. At the contemporary end, where there is a greater openness to outside influences and modern trends, chopping can be a catalyst for innovation and an exciting new way of expanding your role as a fiddler and taking your playing forward.

In conclusion. I asked Sarah-Jane Summers about her attitude to chopping:

"I think chopping is a great thing! It's fantastic to see the role of the centuries-old fiddle extended through new techniques. What an incredible instrument it is. But, as with all techniques, I think chopping is only great in the right context. It comes down to awareness and aesthetics at the end of the day. If, for example, the melody is being played lyrically, is it wise to place something rhythmically choppy underneath it? Is that a juxtaposition that the players are aware of, have considered and wish to present? Is the internal groove enhanced through its use? I would question how good an idea it is to take a bluegrass rhythmic technique and place it together with music from a different culture, with a potentially very different mindset and attitude. No technique is in-and-of-itself a good or a bad thing; it requires musically intelligent handling from people who are secure with the technique. "

CHRIS HAIGH will be giving a workshop on chopping at the next London Fiddle Convention, on Feb 25th 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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