How to Master Short and Long Bowings to Play Old-Time Fiddle Tunes

By Michael John Sanchez

Many people who take up the fiddle are seeking to achieve that old-time music sound. To do this, you will need to master bowings. Old-time music features two different types of bowings:

  • Short bowing, which means you play a song with no slurs.

  • Long bowing, which means you play a song with various slurs.

Short bowing

The song “Angelina the Baker” is a famous song with short bowings and accents

Sometimes, as in the song “Angelina the Baker,” there are dotted quarter notes that carry over the second or fourth beat of each measure. You want to put pressure down with your index finger to still get the accent sound toward the end of the dotted quarter note. You don’t need to have a note start on the second or fourth beat to create the accents.

Listen to hear how to apply accents in the first measure of “Angelina the Baker.”

[Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez]
Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez

Now try the song “Martha Campbell,” which is also written in a short bowings format.

[Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez]
Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez

Long bowing

After you have a handle on short bowings, you’re ready to try long bowings. Get started by trying the song “Bitter Creek.”

[Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez]
Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez

As you can see, “Bitter Creek” has a lot of three-note slur patterns. These are pretty common in old-time music and really can be put in at many different spots. Listen to “Bitter Creek” first played the way the sheet music is written and then played with some variations.

Now try the song “Liberty,” which has a common three-slur pattern.

[Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez]
Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez

This is how “Liberty” should sound at a moderate speed. Remember, it takes practice to play it slow first to be able to play it up to speed later!

“Liberty” has a lot of string crossings that can make it hard to play the song fast. It’s important to have a relaxed shoulder to do bow crossings fast. Make sure you aren’t gripping the bow too hard.