Playing back-up is my absolute FAVORITEST thing to do! I would rather chuck along with a good rhythmic beat and listen to the other players in my band than play lead any day!
You need to be able to do three things to be a good back-up fiddle player:
- You must have rock solid rhythm.
If you are not sure if your rhythm is solid, test yourself with a metronome. Turn the volume of your metronome to zero. Use the lights on your metronome to get in sync with it playing some type of back-up rhythm. Close your eyes for 4 beats or longer, then open them. See if you are still totally in sync. If you can do this for a duration of 12-16 beats without losing or gaining any time, then you have rock solid rhythm. There are apps available that test your rhythm in this way.
- Be sensitive to the musical style and preferences of the group you are playing with.
Bluegrass bands usually prefer just a plain, dry offbeat “chuck”, similar to what a mandolin player would do. Other styles such as a contra dance band, Texas swing style band, or rock bands will appreciate a much broader variety of back-up rhythms. Be sure to talk to the rhythm players in the band to make sure you are not encroaching on their territory. Rhythm players can be territorial, but they do appreciate a break now and then or the opportunity to play a lead. Rhythm instruments can be guitar, mandolin, piano, accordion, fiddle, and more.
- You must be able to read a chord chart, or have all the chords memorized.
This is not rocket science. Most people are able to get the hang of chord charts with a little explanation and a little practice. My online fiddle course, Fabulous Fiddle Fundamentals, explains this in great detail with lots of practice and drilling, and Fiddle Secrets gives you a condensed crash course in reading chord charts and playing any basic chord on your fiddle.
What backup fiddle rhythms should I learn?
The first back-up rhythm I would encourage you to master is the basic offbeat “chuck.” The offbeat chuck is most applicable to tunes in duple rhythm such as 2/4, 4/4, reels, and hoedowns.
The offbeat chuck is the most useful, most unobtrusive, and is versatile enough to apply to any style of music. You can develop your rhythmic stability and chord chart skills while mastering this bowing.
Offbeat chucks are still my “go-to” back-up bowing. Once you are comfortable with that bow pattern, you can diversify by learning a back-up bowing for jigs and waltzes, or you can seek out a more elaborate back-up bowing for reels.
If you are not sure what “offbeat chucks” are, or if you already know that bowing and want to diversify, my Fabulous Fiddle Fundamentals course teaches how to play that plus several other funky back-up rhythms such as the “Down Up Up Chop Groove.” No, that’s not the official name, but it describes the pattern perfectly! It teaches back-up patterns for reels, jigs, and waltzes so that you can lend support to your band regardless of what tune they are playing.
Just remember the 3 basic fundamentals of playing good backup: musical sensitivity, rock solid rhythm, and chord chart skills, and you will do very well! Have fun!