Tag Archives: fiddle

Red Henry

Well, how often should you change them? I hear this question pretty frequently. The answer is, that it's up to you. How helpful is that?

Well, the reason is that everybody's strings need changing at different times. Some reasons are because (1) there are so many kinds of strings and they age differently; (2) people all play differently and their strings wear out (or corrode) faster or slower as a result; and (3) in different parts of the country (or the world) strings are just going to need changing more often.

So, what do you look for in deciding whether to change them? One thing can be obvious: buildup of corrosion or gunk on the string. This really happens a lot in warm, humid climates. If the buildup can't be removed with a little steel wool, then it'd definitely time to change strings! (When I was starting out, this happened on my mandolin strings every few days.)

Another sign is when the strings get hard to tune. Often it's because they're not sliding smoothly through the string-nut (that's the little white thing with slots at the bottom of the peghead). If you put on new strings, and when you're at it, put a little graphite -- pencil-lead dust will do-- in the bottoms of the little nut-slots, then the tuning should get a lot better.

Another sign of elderly strings might be that they don't play in tune. If you're pretty sure that your bridge is in the right place, but your banjo is still "noting out" more than usual up the neck, then new strings might be what you need.

One more sign of old strings may not be as obvious. If the instrument (banjo or otherwise) just doesn't sound right, the strings may have gotten too old to sound good at all. When does this happen? Well, this is the most extreme case of old strings, since it may take several months or a year for the strings to get this old.

Some players take extreme steps to keep new strings on their instruments, especially if they break a lot of strings. Back when we were playing a lot of festivals, I used to change the strings on both mandolins and both guitars every morning before we played our first set. That was a lot of work, but it helped keep the string-breakage to a minimum. Others take a different approach. I've heard that Bill Monroe changed his mandolin strings once a year, at New Year's, and from then on just changed them as they broke (which they did, pretty often).

Now, this all applies to the fretted instruments. Fiddle strings seem to fall into a different category. I've known fiddle players who changed their strings every few months, but as for myself, if the fiddle gets new strings every five years, that's a lot. I suspect that the strings on my fiddle now have been on it for longer than that!

So the answer to the question is, that it's up to you yourself to decide when to change strings. There are a lot of reasons for changing them (better tone, volume, and tuning), and there are plenty of reasons for just leaving them on there (less hassle with awkward work, and less risk of getting your banjo or mandolin bridge out of place in the string-changing process, among other things). But if you go in for a lesson and your teacher takes one look at your strings and turns as green as they are, then it's time.

Red Henry

Red Henry

A friend of ours has left a mandolin with us, just for a visit. It's a very nice mandolin but he hasn't been playing it much, so he wanted me to "play it in" and bring it back to sounding its best. I play it most of the time for my daily practice, and its sound is indeed improving. This is something that happens with most instruments. If you play them regularly, they sound better than if you don't.

Some folks don't believe this happens, and say there's no such thing as an instrument's sound improving from being played. But I believe that they ought to say, "I haven't heard this happen myself." Maybe they've never heard an instrument improve, but it sure happens, and folks all over the stringed instrument world are aware of it.

It's well known in the violin world that instruments sound better if they're played. A friend of ours was in a group which played a concert in Cremona, Italy, where many of the old master violins were made, long ago. He and his friends visited a violin museum there. Among all the beautiful old violins there was a little old man whose job it was to play them, each of them, every day, in order to keep them sounding their best. What a job, to play millions of dollars worth of violins every day of the week. Life is hard! But it did keep the instruments sounding great.

So why am I telling you all this? Because it applies to the instrument you play, whether it's a mandolin, fiddle, guitar, or banjo. Play it every day, and keep it sounding good. You'll have your own million-dollar sound.

Murphy HenryToday’s blog is written by my Fiddle Sister, Sandy, who is also one of my current crop of Misfits. Sandy is a success story nonpareil. (I always wanted to use that word! I don’t know how to pronounce it but I know it means “without equal.”) Sandy has a fantastic ear, an ear, as you will read below, that lay dormant for years. So sad about that, but better late than never! I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to have helped open the door for her new musical adventure. And that’s all it took: just pointing the way. She did the rest!


Did you once-upon-a-time play the violin?  Maybe like me, you started in elementary school with group lessons.  Maybe like me, you played for years and then put it into a closet.

I took it up again—after 40 years!  Read on.  When I was a fourth grader, I started group lessons which lasted a month.  Then I was onto private weekly lessons.  I played—from the age of nine until I got through high school.  When I started college I dropped all music.  Of course, I’m sorry now, but who can tell a teenager anything?

Thinking back on it, I’m not sure why I quit playing.  I think it was because I wasn’t a “star” and I didn’t like the kind of music I had to practice.  Do you know anybody who can choose a teenager’s music?

When I played the violin, playing by ear was a “no-no” and discouraged by both my teacher and my dad.  I was to play classical music with the notes in front of me.  That’s all well and good if that’s what a kid wants to do. However, I had a good ear and could play any tune I knew. (Well, forget those with too many sharps and flats).

When nobody was listening, I often played favorite tunes from the hit parade by ear.  (Are you old enough to remember “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” or “Come On To My House”?)

Classical music and opera wafted through our home all the while I was growing up, but I always loved other kinds of music.  Even after stopping lessons, I hauled my violin with me wherever I lived, but I never played it.  Built about the time of World War I, it once belonged to Wayne King’s father.  It has a great sound.

OK, hold on as we go fast-forwarding.  I grow up.  Get married.  Have kids.  And retire to Winchester, Virginia, with my husband (now also old).  And what do I do but dust off that old fiddle, get some new strings, order a bow and start playing again!  Forty years later.  With Murphy!  By ear!  How good can life get anyhow?

I saw Murphy in action a number of years ago on our historical walking street mall one day playing her fiddle with one of her banjo students.  I was hooked.  Immediately!  I returned to lessons—this time by ear and for fun—with Murphy.

Of course, this music is new to me, and it’s not as easy as picking up the fiddle and working out “Tennessee Waltz” which I remember from my childhood.  I have to listen closely and try to remember from one jam to the next which key and which note to start on. Then I’m ready to roll.

Murphy put four of us kindred spirits together (Fiddle Sisters) to play both Christmas songs and other tunes.  We played by ear.  We harmonized.  We played for holiday festivals.  And, we grinned all the while!  It was unadulterated fun!

In addition to holiday songs, we developed a repertoire of tunes like “Golden Slippers,” “Down Yonder,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Faded Love.”  I knew these songs from years ago, so I just played them.  We actually skipped that middle step of reading the notes from a page, processing them in our brains, and producing the sounds through our hands.  Wow!  I went from reading music to just playing it!  It was such a liberating experience.  Since we already knew many of these tunes, now all we had to do was to play them.

Remember Arthur Murray, the ballroom dancing teacher, said, “Get back into life, try dancing!”  I’d say the same goes for playing an instrument—get going.  If you’ve always wanted to play, now is the time.  You’ll be so glad you did, and you’ll wonder how you were ever happy before without the music!  I’m partial to the fiddle, of course, but I imagine the same goes for other instruments.

I have never ever been happier making music than I am right now.  Murphy is a terrific teacher who makes it all fun.  In addition to playing bluegrass with the Misfits, I play renaissance music with another group, and traditional dance music with a couple of Celtic groups. My recipe for getting back into life is to start making music!  And, I promise you’ll live happily ever after…

Sandy Lore
Winchester, Virginia, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley

RedSometimes picking sessions will end up with a shortage of one instrument or another, but sometimes you might have LOTS of some instruments present. This might mean complete musical confusion, but on the other hand, if the pickers know what they're doing, they'll all sound great. It was that way a few years ago at a picking party in Nashville, when we had four fiddlers all playing along:
Mark Wingate, Bob Forrester, John Hedgecoth, Murphy Henry

--from left to right, the four fiddlers are: Mark Wingate, Bob Forrester, John Hedgecoth, and none other than Murphy.

(The other pickers visible are Joe Forrester, his hands visible at far left; excellent banjo picker Sally Wingate, with her back to the camera; and our son Christopher, taking excellent leads on his Martin D-18. I was there, but out of the picture to the left.)

Now, in some jams I've seen, if you had four fiddlers playing at once, you might have to say that they were four too many. But not this time! Not only were all four of these fiddlers really good musicians, but also, they all knew just how to play in a jam, and when they all played together, it was a beautiful redneck string section in action. They sounded great.

Next time you have four of the same instruments in a picking session, just remember: they CAN all sound good together! But the players have to know what they’re doing!

Murphy HenrySuzi, one of my fiddle students, has graciously allowed me to post the list of tunes she is working on. She has taken up fiddle at the age of 71 and is doing very well. And what makes this especially interesting to me is that she’s not following the “normal” path for a beginning fiddle student. Of course we started there with my conventional first songs for fiddle: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Mary Had A Little Lamb, Are You Sleeping Brother John, and so on. But Suzi quickly became bored with practicing these over and over. So she started picking out tunes on her own. By ear.

And here is the list she’s come up with. So far! Since she was raised in the Grace Brethren church, most of these are hymns. Since I was raised Baptist, I know them. And love them! I think this is an interesting pairing of student and teacher.

How Suzi picks these out I don’t know. And by that I mean, I have no idea of how she arrives at each starting note. But somehow she ends up playing in easy keys, mostly D, although she herself is not aware of what key she is playing in. (I told her this week that you call tell what key you are playing in by the last note in the song. If the last note is “D” then you are playing in the key of D. Cool, eh?) I have indicated which key she is playing in, in case that helps you in your own playing. I have also included the notes she starts on, in her own words which I have put into italics. (‘Twould be better if you figured out your own starting notes, but I’m just being picky!)

You’ll notice that at the end of the list are some suggestions I made for easy songs that were not religious.


Amazing Grace: Key of G: D open to ring finger

When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder: Key of D: D open to index finger

Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee: Key of D: D middle finger

Jesus Loves Me: Key of D: A open to D middle finger

It Is No Secret What God Can Do: Key of D: D middle finger

Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus: Key of G: Open D to ring finger on D

Oh, For A Thousand Tongues To Sing: Key of G: D open to D ring finger

Joy To The World: Key of D: ring finger on A

...continue reading

Murphy HenrySandy, who is about my age (the best age!) has been taking fiddle lessons from me now for two or three months. Maybe even four. She's never played an instrument before. Knowing that if she invested a lot of money in an instrument, she'd feel obliged to stick with it, she bought a good new German fiddle.

We started out slowly, as I always do, just learning to pull the bow across the open strings. Then it was on to "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." We just took it in pieces and Sandy had it down in about a month. She's very dedicated to her practice. This tune is on our Beginning Fiddle DVD so she had a reference. During this time we were also working on the A major scale.

Because Sandy is an adult and is not clamoring to play in a bluegrass band or even a bluegrass jam session, I veered away from the DVD at this point. I don't think "Cripple Creek" makes a whole lot of musical sense to someone who had never heard it. Instead, I started her on "Are You Sleeping Brother John." Since this tune is not on the DVD, Sandy had to memorize each section during the lesson. (I'm not sure why we didn't use a cassette player. Maybe she doesn't have one anymore.) Again, we took it in sections, doing only four notes at a time. In addition to playing the song on her fiddle (and since I told her not to write anything down), Sandy would sing the song to herself when she took her daily walk. Again, we had it down in about a month. And "Twinkle" kept getting better.

It was when Sandy was learning her next song "Mary Had A Little Lamb" that the ear training started to pay off. Sandy had mentioned that "Twinkle" was easier to learn than "Brother John" because you stayed on the same note for more bow strokes, so I'd picked "Mary" for exactly that reason. So I showed her the first phrase "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and when she had no trouble with those seven notes, I'd added the rest of the line. Then I told her the first part of the next line was the same as the first phrase. She played that easily. Then she did the most astounding thing: on her own, and never having played this song before, she played the last part of the song ALL BY HERSELF, "its fleece was white as snow." I was SO HAPPPY! And so proud of her. And she was happy and pretty pleased with herself. As she should have been.

And like I told her, this is how it's supposed to happen. When you learn by ear, especially if you've never played anything before, the first tunes almost have to be learned by rote---with the teacher showing you the notes. And if you stick with the "by ear" part of the program and don't write anything down, then your ear starts to develop and, sure enough, you start to hear where the notes are yourownself. And then you are on the road to being able to pick out other tunes---whole tunes---by yourself without the aid of a teacher. This is not to say that Sandy will be picking out "The Star-Spangled Banner" next week or even "Old MacDonald" but I'm sure the tunes she'll be learning will be much easier (we're fixing to start on Christmas carols from our "Christmas Fiddle Tunes" DVD) and she will be able to pick out parts of them by herself.

So to all of you out there, struggling with the fiddle (or any instrument), I hope Sandy's story encourages you to hang in there!!!!!!

Murphy HenryAlthough many of my recent blogs have been centered around banjo playing, it occurred to me today (while I was playing my fiddle) that this is the one place where I can write freely about fiddle playing! When I was writing my Banjo Newsletter column, which Casey has now taken over, (except that I’ll be writing for the 35th anniversary issue in November), my columns about fiddling were generally greeted with either a great big yawn, a loud groan (“Not the fiddle again!”) or a rapid turning of the page. I understand. BNL is a banjo magazine.

But this blog is for all the members of the Murphy Method Community and that includes fiddlers! So let me give you a quick rundown of my ongoing struggle with the fiddle, just to let you know where I’m coming from. (This is the “It’s All About Me” part. Feel free to skip ahead to the advice at the end!)

I have been messing with the fiddle for decades. Sometimes I love it passionately and play almost everyday. Sometimes I sorely neglect it and don’t take it out of the case for weeks. (Or years!) But nevertheless, like the poor, it seems to be with me always.

My fiddle journey started in high school when I took violin lessons for a couple of years. Of course this involved reading music, which I could already do, although not very well, from my piano lessons. But that was more or less a dead end. Then as my BNL columns chronicle, I toyed with bluegrass fiddle off and on for years. I was not a smashing success.

But five or six years ago, I once again got sort of serious about the fiddle. But this time, I did it differently. Instead of trying to learn somebody else’s version of a bunch of fiddle tunes, I decided to just play what was already in my head. I thought, “I’ve been playing bluegrass now for thirty years. I know how a lot of these tunes sound. I’ll just play them the way I hear them, and that will have to be good enough. It’s okay if they are not authentic, it’s okay if they are not perfect. They will be my versions and that will suffice.”

That thought was extremely freeing to me and has stood me in good stead until this day. And it sure made playing the fiddle a lot more fun!

So here’s my advice to all you fiddlers: Don’t be afraid to try to play the songs you hear in your own head. Simple songs are probably best to start with. “Happy Birthday,” “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” “Are You Sleeping Brother John,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “This Land Is Your Land.” One of my beginning fiddle students recently started working on “Danny Boy” on her own and is doing very well. And don’t forget “Amazing Grace.”

I found out that many of the standard Christmas carols are easy to play on the fiddle. (Much easier than on the banjo!) Since my own students were doing so well with them, we recorded an entire DVD called Christmas Tunes for Fiddle But, hey, you can probably pick some of these out by ear yourownself. (You might start with “Joy To The World.”) The main thing is don’t be afraid to try. Go for it. If you can hear it, you can probably play it!