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Leftwich at the First Quarter

A day after my six-year banjoversary, this is the three-month mark for my attempt to learn the downbow style of old-time fiddling as taught by Brad Leftwich. As you may remember, Christmas brought the gift of his two-disc Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle DVD set on Homespun Tapes and his Old-Time Fiddle: Round Peak Style book and CD set. It seemed fitting to mark my banjo anniversary along with a quarterly update on my fiddle pursuits.

The first DVD (Lesson 1) has consumed me. Leftwich focuses the basics of downbow fiddling with long and short sawstrokes, the Nashville shuffle, and a series of beginning and ending licks to keep the rhythmic emphasis on the down stroke. These methods are taught via six tunes: "Shortnin' Bread," "Sugar Hill," "Jimmy Sutton," "Black-Eyed Susie," "Great Big Taters in Sandy Land," and "Jeff Sturgeon" (in that order).

Leftwich teaches the basic melody and then how to add drones and basic variations to the tunes. One thing that I've appreciated is that he uses variant tunings. In fact, the only tune in "standard" GDAE is "Great Big Taters." The others are in ADAE (key of D) and AEAE (key of A). Before using these videos, I always stayed in GDAE, almost too afraid to retune. Now, it's like the banjo for me. Tuning to different keys is just a part of playing the instrument.

So far, I've made it through the first five tunes. At first, I skipped learning the variations, all of which are the lower octave versions of the basic melody. Now, I'm going back and learning those too. My pinky finger feels like it's doing gymnastics, as Leftwich prefers to stretch the littlest digit up the fingerboard to play unison notes.

My brain still gets a bit mixed up switching to the lower strings, even though the bowing patterns remain the same. I keep reminding myself to slow it down. I imagine myself busking at the local farmers market, and I just want to speed up until my playing falls off the apple cart.

Despite making it through most of the first DVD, it's still handling the bow that gives me the most trouble. After 15 months of trying to learn the fiddle, I'm amazed that I still haven't settled on a bow grip. I keep testing different finger configurations to find what's most comfortable and achieves the sound I'm seeking.


  1. I hope you've seen (and studied) this:


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