Lessons from a Legend
By Paal Juliussen

©Photo by Tom Robertson

Paal Juliussen
Recently transplanted Winnipegger now living in Montreal
 Free-lance writer trained in philosophy and journalism
  Likes food and contemporary culture
 Musician and avid cyclist
 Working on second novel and studying French

Legendary bluegrass fiddler Bobby Hicks has just released a new teaching video on DVD: "Bobby Hicks Teaches Fiddling, Volume 1." The DVD is designed to expose the student to repeated demonstrations of musical licks and finger techniques, until the student can summon up the lessons anywhere in any musical situation and apply them to tunes other than those played in Hicks’ demonstrations. The lessons are not, then, simply of the songs as played, but they can be applied universally.

Bobby Hicks
Fiddlers Hall of Fame 2002
Grand Ole Opry Performer for 50 Years

The introduction of the DVD says that it is for intermediate to advanced students, though beginners will benefit from knowing what’s on the road up ahead too. With improving technical facility from working with the DVD, the student will grow in sensitivity and respect for the bluegrass style and repertoire.

©Photo by Senor McGuire
Bobby Hicks

The DVD concentrates on teaching method, as opposed to having the student memorize a small bagful of tunes. The method can be absorbed, through the medium of the songs “Cheyenne” and “Faded Love.”  Simultaneously playing on two strings is called “double-stopping. ” The two notes played together are thus “double stops.”  The student's new-found ability to play a lead note and a harmony note can be applied to the songs and tunes already in his repertoire.

"Bobby Hicks Teaches Fiddling," opens with Hicks playing his five-string fiddle (most fiddles are four strings), alongside his guitar player, Eddie Rose, and bassist Gary Allan. The group is comfortably ensconced inside a cozy farmhouse, complete with stovepipe coming out of the potbellied stove. Hicks starts the DVD with soft-spoken words of explanation about his playing, then he lets his impeccable fiddling take over. The opening strains are delivered in a visually deadpan manner that provides the perfect counterpoint to the groups’  considerable musical skill.

Hicks introduces the concept of a tune as a lead line with moving parts around it – a tune is not a static thing to be duplicated, but rather it is a process of dynamics which are contingent on a score of factors. He introduces the four pillars of good fiddling – theory, technique, intonation and style. For example, in speaking on intonation, Hicks tells the student to invoke different emotions through use of varied bow pressures and bow speed, and he exhorts the student to be diligent in doing exercises to improve bow control.

Bluegrass is more than playing tunes, and great bluegrass stems from the musician’s inspiration gained from exposure to thousands of other musicians in this medium, both present and past. With strong roots in folk music brought over to America hundreds of years ago, bluegrass became an established musical entity by the late 1930's when Bill Munroe formed his first Blue Grass Boys band.

"Bill Monroe (second from left) performs with an early incarnation of the Bluegrass Boys shortly after joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1939. His band featured Art Wooten, fiddle, Cleo Davis, guitar, and Amos Garen, bass. Garen was preceded by John Miller on the jug. Monroe’s mandolin and vocals dominated the group and set the standard for all bluegrass music that followed."

Bill Monroe

The classic bluegrass group was formed by Bill Monroe in the winter of 1945, when a young banjo player, Earl Scruggs, and guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt, joined the band. Scruggs' three-finger banjo style became the standard for future bluegrass groups.

Earl Scruggs

Hicks explains, “The fiddle needs to sing as the man who is singing the song – the melody is very important.” However, Hicks emphasizes the fiddler should take it easy when backing up a singer, “Play your fill lines in his pauses, not as he is singing … if you’re playing behind a singer, sometimes less is more. Your job is to make the singer sound good. You don’t ever want to play the same note.”

Hicks goes over the embellishments and licks of “Cheyenne” and “Faded Love” at three different speeds. The camera splits to show at the left of the screen close-ups of the left hand while the right screen shows the bowing hand. With patience and practice, the attentive student will progress. Bluegrass fiddle is not easy to master, but Hicks provides the inside track that opens the next set of doors for the diligent student.

Hicks says, “You have to figure out what harmony you want with your lead line … and use whatever two fingers you have to do that.”

Bobby Hicks

The split screen close-up photography of working left and right hand clarifies the relation between bowing and fingering. Hicks devotes considerable time to taking the student through double-stop exercises played at different speeds, culminating in the “Country Boy” exercise, a jazzy double-stop tune, inspiring other experimentations in double-stopping.

Many students will benefit from freeze-framing the DVD from time-to-time – a foot pedal control for this function would be a good idea!

Hicks emphasizes, “Great bluegrass comes from a group sound … remember you are part of a team.”

Contact: Paal Juliussen

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