By Wayne Erbsen
One of my students recently asked me to give him a sheet with all the fiddles chords he would need to play most any bluegrass song. I certainly wanted to help him out, but I decided that I wouldn’t be doing him any big favors by handing him the chords on a sheet of paper. Instead, I needed to help him understand how to make up his own chords. That way, if a big gust of wind blew his sheet away, he wouldn’t be up the creek without a paddle, so to speak.
As you already know, fiddles and mandolins are tuned the same, so what I’m going to say applies to both, with one exception. On a mandolin, you can strum all strings, but on a fiddle you can only play two notes at a time. As you might guess, those two notes have to be on adjacent strings.
Here’s what I do plan to give him. I’ve drawn the fret marks in there, but that will also be useful to the fiddlers trying to orient themselves.
You may be asking, “what kind of chord is that? How do I make that with four fingers?
Of course, this is not an illustration of a chord, but instead it contains the raw materials out of which you can construct many chords. Just like constructing anything, there’s a few simple principles that you need to know.
How to construct a chord: A major chord is made up of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a scale. Let’s call this the “1, 3, 5 rule.”
Here are some common scales:
C: C, D, E, F, G, A, G, C, D.
D: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D.
G: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G.
A: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G# A.
In addition to letters, scales can be given numbers. A “C” scale, for example, would be C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7.
If we apply the “1, 3, 5 rule” to the C scale, we can easily see that 1 is C, 3 is E and 5 is G. That means that a C chord consists of a C, an E and a G. That’s it!
To make a chord on a fiddle, you just have to find any two of those three notes that are on adjacient strings. Here are some of your options for playing a C chord.
C on G string and E on D string.
E on D string and G on G string.
E on D string and C on A string.
C on A string and E string open.
C on A string and G on D string.
C on A string and G on E string.
Of course, you can use two finger chords on a mandolin too. I frequently use two finger chords when I play rhythm, but you can also use two finger chords to play harmony with melody notes you’re planing.
For example, let’s say you’re playing the song “I’ll Fly Away” in the lady’s key of C. The first note on the mandolin or fiddle would be an E. (“Some glad morning…”). If you play that E note on the D string at the 2nd fret (or the equivelant if you’re a fiddler), you’ve got several choices of other notes of the C chord you can play with that E note. You could play the G string open, you could play a C note on the G string, or you could play a C note on the A string. Whether you’re playing harmony or chords, your goal is to play at least two notes of the C chord: C, G, and E.
You can now take the “1, 3, 5 rule” and apply it to D, G, or A scale the same way. Actually, it would apply to any scale, but I’m trying to keep things down to earth here.