How to Play Fast Fiddle Tunes on the Harmonica

By Winslow Yerxa

The harmonica works well with fiddle tunes. The instrumental dance tunes in folk music are often called fiddle tunes because the fiddle is the most popular instrument for playing these tunes. Fiddle tunes include the traditional dance music of Scotland, Ireland, England, Cape Breton, Québec, and the United States. If you want to play traditional music in these styles, you need to become acquainted with playing fiddle tunes.

When you play fiddle tunes in a group with others, everyone plays the melody together (except those people who are playing accompaniment). Melodies in these tunes are often played very fast. How do you keep up? Try the following:

  • Learn to sing each tune by ear first, and then try to find the melody on the harmonica. A familiar tune is always easier to learn than an unfamiliar one.

  • Practice the tunes slowly at home with a metronome. Gradually build up your speed.

  • Play only the notes you can manage and avoid everything else. Look for notes on the strong beats. You can do this when playing along with recordings. However, be careful about doing it at jam sessions. If the session welcomes beginners and enough people are playing to carry the melody strongly, and you don’t play too loudly, then perhaps no one will mind.

  • Find a slow session. Slow sessions are where people gather to play through fast tunes at a slow speed. This way everyone can manage all the notes at a reasonable speed. Often someone at the session teaches the tunes by ear, one phrase at a time, which gives everyone a chance to become thoroughly familiar with them.

To find a slow session, look for local folk music or fiddling societies. Or check out bars or restaurants that feature Irish, Scottish, or old-time music; they may have slow sessions on Sunday afternoons or other times when business is also slow.

Most traditional tunes have at least two distinct parts, each with its own melody that’s usually repeated. Often one part is in a high range and the other is in a low range. The first part is usually called the A part and the second part is called the B part. Some tunes have a C part and even a D part, but those are more advanced.