By Wayne Erbsen
While working on a recent fiddle book, Bluegrass Jamming on Fiddle, I was reminded that “life just ain’t fair.” Not to fiddlers, anyway. Bluegrass guitarists proudly display their “boom-chick.” Banjo players strut their “vamp” or “chunk.” Mandolins show off their “chop.” Basses seem content to stay in the background with their “thump, thump, thump.” But what do fiddlers have? Only the dreadful sound of squeaks and squawks. If you ask me, fiddle players need a word to describe what they do when they’re making the percussive sound of the off-beat with their bow.
When I listen closely to a fiddle player using this technique, it sounds almost exactly like the quacking of a duck in heat. So I propose calling this back-up technique “the quack.” It can be used as a noun, as in “That fiddle player can sure lay the quack to it.” It also makes a terrific verb, as in “Oh my gosh! He’s quacking on the down-beat.”
If you’re a beginner or clueless fiddle player who actually wants to learn to quack, stick with me close here.
The quack is nothing more than a short rhythmic bow stroke on the strings that produces a percussive, yet harsh sound. Why would a fiddle player want to produce such a harsh sound? Because it is a sound that will cut through the din and clatter of a loud bluegrass band. Let’s try it.
Tap your foot in a steady “tick-TOCK” or one-TWO fashion. As you’re tapping, say out loud “one” when your foot hits the floor and “TWO” when your foot comes up. When you’re able to do that, tap your foot again, but this time remain silent on the one but say “TWO” when your foot comes up. So you’ll be going “tap TWO, tap TWO.” Practice that until it becomes easy as pie.
Using only a very short bow stroke, strike the D and A, or the G and D strings with the end of the bow closest to the frog. Play only on beat TW0 as you continue to tap your foot. After you hit the strings with a quick downward bow stroke, lift the bow off the strings. Your goal is to kind of smack the strings with your bow to produce a quick percussive sound. (We’ll call this the “quick quack”). While you are doing this, the fingers of your left hand should be resting on all the strings to mute them.
Note: the mandolin’s chop is also called a “bark,” so make sure your quack and their bark are in sync.
TIP: A good way to practice your quack is to play a recording of a good slow or medium-paced bluegrass song that’s in 2/4 or 4/4 time. With your left hand, wrap your fingers around the fingerboard of your fiddle so all the strings are mutted. Fire up the recording and tap your foot to the music, saying or thinking “one-TWO, one-TWO”. After you’ve got that down pat, just quack on the TWOS, while you mute the strings. Once you can quack along with a recording, try singing a familiar bluegrass song while you quack your fiddle. It’s not hard.
Quacking in Waltz-Time: When you want to quack on a tune in waltz-time, such as “Kentucky Waltz,” or “Tennessee Waltz,” you’ll need to count ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. Remember that the ONE is silent and you would quack only on two and three, so it would sound like “ONE-quack-quack, ONE-quack-quack.”
Quacking on Chords: Besides muting the strings with the fingers of your left hand, you can also quack on two-finger chords or double stops. Be sure to use chords positions that use at least two fingers, rather than playing open strings. To tell you the truth, muted strings produce a good quack and get the job done without bothering to play chords at all.
So have fun quaking away on your fiddle.
Wayne Erbsen has been writing, teaching, performing, recording, and broadcasting bluegrass music since 1962. Write or call for a free catalog of bluegrass instruction books for bluegrass and clawhammer banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar as well as bluegrass and gospel songbooks, and recordings from his company, Native Ground Books & Music, 109 Bell Road, Asheville, NC 28805, (828) 299-7031, email:firstname.lastname@example.org www.nativeground.com
You can listen to Wayne’s radio show, “Country Roots,” Sunday afternoons, Eastern Standard Time time from 7:00-9:00 PM by logging on to www.wcqs.org. Now in its 28th year, “Country Roots” features traditional bluegrass and old-time music.