Now I’m about to let you fiddle and mandolin players in on a secret. But don’t tell any REAL musicians about this. Because they would shudder! It works though. Trust me.

Eventually you will want to have a more thorough understanding of music theory. The information presented here is intended not to replace proper theory instruction, but to give folk musicians a quick, easy and useful approach to the genre.

If you are looking at printed music and you see that the key signature indicates one sharp, or if you’re sitting in on a jam and someone hollers out “G”, hold your fiddle in front of you and look at the strings. What’s the first string? G. So the name of the key you are in is G. (One sharp, number one string. Get it?) But now that you know what key you’re in, what do you DO with that information?

First of all, look at this diagram:


This is where I place tapes on beginning students’ instruments. I call this “baby beginner” position.

If you are a “foreigner” to me and my teaching methods, a word of explanation is in order. I start my beginning students with tapes to mark finger positions. (I use striping tape from the auto parts store.) The tapes are removed one at a time as the fingers begin to “memorize” their position and the student’s ear takes over the job of exact finger placement. The tapes go where the notes B, C#, D and E are located on the A string.

Key of G

Now – if you are in the key of G, you will use “baby beginner” finger position (“on the tapes”) on the G string (the string that names the key) and on the D string (the next highest string). The next two strings (A and E) will have the low second finger (close to the first rather than the third finger). It’s that simple. In the key of G, you may play only open strings and notes in these finger positions.

Key of D

If your printed music indicates two sharps (or someone hollers “D”), you are in the key of D. (D is the second string on your instrument, right? Two #’s = number 2 string.) So the D string and the next highest string (A) will now have “baby beginner” finger position. And the next two highest strings would have a “low” second finger. But there’s only one higher string (E). So it is the only string in the key of D that uses the low second finger.

The string below the string which names the key (the G string in this case) will have first and second fingers on the tapes, but the third finger will be “high” (half way up to where the fourth finger goes).

Key of A

The key of A has three sharps. By now you can probably figure it out for yourself (three #’s, third string is A = key of A). The A string and the next highest string (E) will use “baby beginner” position. The two strings below the A will have a high three. It’s a pattern. Do you see it?

Key of C

If you have a 5-string fiddle, the string below the G is C. If you have a standard 4-string instrument, you can imagine the C string to help you figure out your finger positions for that key. Music which has NO sharps (or flats) is in the key of C. (There is NO C string on most fiddles) So the C string (name of the key) and the next highest string (G) will have “baby beginner” position. The next two higher strings have the low second finger. And the next highest string (E) has low first and second fingers.

Note: If you play a 5-string fiddle, the C string will have a high third finger when playing in the key of G.

Arpeggios for fiddle back up:

When you first begin to try a bit of harmony or back up while some other instrument or a vocalist is taking the lead, the most useful thing to know is the arpeggios for the key you’re playing in.

It’s also extremely helpful to know what the guitarist’s hand looks like in different chord positions. Look in a guitar book or ask your favorite guitarist to show you. The reason you need to be able to identify chords by sight is so you’ll know what arpeggio to use. Caution: Not all guitar players use the same positions.

Beginning arpeggios are easy. The basic rule is:

    1. Play the open string that names the key.
    2. Second finger on that string.
    3. Next highest string – open.
    4. Third finger on this string.

Played in order, these notes are the first three notes in the song, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” plus one more note.

Here are some useful arpeggios:

G arpeggio:
Open G, second finger on G, open D, third finger on D. Then if you want to add higher notes, go to first finger on A, third finger on A, and low second finger on E.
D arpeggio:
Open D, D2, open A, A3. Lower – you can add G1. Higher – you can add E1 and E3
C arpeggio:
G3, D1, D3, A-low2. To keep going higher, add open E, E-low2. To go lower, play open G.
Note: On a 5-string fiddle you can play C, C2, G, G3.
A arpeggio:
Open A, A2, open E, E3. Lower notes which can be used are G1, G-high3, and D1.

Practice these arpeggios till you can play them blindfolded – with one hand tied behind your back, standing on your head. Well . . . practice them till you know them very well. It’ll be worth it!

So how do you use these arpeggios?

Any way you like! Watch the guitar player. As long as the guitar is playing a G chord, you can play any of those G arpeggio notes you want to – in any combination – with any rhythm, and it will sound good. When the guitar changes to a D, just switch to your D arpeggio notes. As you become accustomed to this type of playing, you will begin to discover many more things about how it all goes together. One very exciting thing is when you begin to hear the chord changes just before they occur and can “lead” into the next chord.

The information on this page is only a beginning. But it’s a good place to start.