The Language of Fiddling

By Wayne Erbsen

Listening to a great fiddler play his or her instrument is certainly one of life’s great delights. But listening to a fiddler talk can be a bewildering experience if you are not acquainted with the language of fiddling. Over the years, fiddlers have developed their own slang, so here is a dictionary of some of the common words used by fiddlers, along with their meaning. The next time you talk with a fiddler, sprinkle in some of these words and watch their response.

Air – A slow tune meant for listening, not dancing.
Barn dance – An old-time dance held in a barn.
Bass – The lowest pitched string on a fiddle.
Beating straws – Playing rhythm with straws or sticks on the fiddle while the fiddler is playing.
Black Mountain Rag tuning – C# A E A (from high to low).
Bluegrass fiddle – Longbow fiddling that’s highly improvised with elements of blues, jazz, swing, and old-time.
Bob Wills – Legendary Texas fiddler, the father of Western Swing.
Brag fiddlers – Popular fiddlers.
Breakdown – A fast fiddle tune designed more for show than for dancing.
Bull fiddle – Bass.
Catguts – Strings.
Clawhammer – Rhythmic old-time banjo style produced by hitting down on the strings.
Clifftop – Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia.
Counter – The D or third string on a fiddle.
Coarse string – Bass string on the fiddle.
Coarse part – Lower part of a tune.
Crooked tune – A tune with an odd number of measures.
Cross tuning – A non-standard fiddle tuning.
Cross key – See cross tuning.
Cross-eyed tuning – Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s term for cross tuning.
Devil’s box – Fiddle.
Devil’s riding horse – Fiddle.
Dischord tuning – To retune into a non-standard tuning.
Double shuffle – Fancy bowing used on songs like Orange Blossom Special.
Double stop – Playing two notes on different strings at the same time.
Drone – Playing an open note on the fiddle at the same time you play a melody note.
Drunk as a fiddler’s clerk – Very drunk.
Fiddlededee – Nonsense.
Fiddle-faddle – To fuss with trifles. Nonsense.
Fiddle-footed – A wanderer.
Fiddler’s Grove – Ole Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Festival in Union Grove, N.C.
Fiddlers news – Old news carried by wandering fiddlers.
Fiddlesticks – Sticks or straws used to play rhythm on the fingerboard of the fiddle.
Fine strings – Upper two strings of the fiddle.
Fine part – High part of a fiddle tune.
Flat footing – Clogging.
Four potatoes – The four shuffles at the beginning of a fiddle tune that sets the rhythm.
Frog – The part of the bow that holds the hair near the handgrip.
Frolic – An old-time party.
Galax – The fiddlers, convention in Galax, Virginia.
Georgia shuffle – Fancy bow work such as heard on Orange Blossom Special.
Gig – A paying music job.
High bass – When the G string is tuned up to A.
High bass and counter – Cross A tuning E A E A (From highest to lowest).
Hillbilly music – Named for an old-time band called “The Hillbillies” led by Al Hopkins that first recorded January 15, 1925.
Hoedown – An old-time instrumental tune played at square dance tempo.
Hornpipe – An old English dance tune that was played more slowly than a reel.
Italian tuning – Standard tuning.
Jam – An impromptu music session.
Jam sessioning – Coined by fiddler Ralph Blizzard.
Jig – An Irish tune in 6/8 or 9/8 time or an 19th century minstrel tune in 2/4 time.
Kick off – How a bluegrass fiddler starts a tune or song.
Lazy enough to be a good fiddler – A bum.
Lick – A short musical passage or a bowing pattern.
Long bow fiddling – A style of bowing using many notes per bowstroke.
Mean fiddle – Hot fiddling, as in “He plays a mean fiddle.”
Mean as a fiddler’s bitch – Rather mean.
Mount Airy – Bluegrass and Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention in Mount Airy, N.C.
Not enough to dust a fiddle – A paltry amount.
Oh fiddlesticks! – Oh shucks!
Pick up – A truck. Someone you meet in a bar. The notes a fiddler plays that lead into the first beat of the tune.
Reel – A lively dance tune in 2/4 or 4/4 time. A dance done in longways formation.
Rocking the bow – Going back and forth between two adjacent strings.
Rosin – Sticky substance made from pine tree sap which is rubbed on the horse hair of the bow to help grab the strings.
Sawing – Bowing.
Sawmill key – Where the fiddle is tuned AEAE.
Scotch time – A jig as used by fiddler Woodrow Boone from Madison County, N.C.
Schottische – Mid 19th-century dance tunes played somewhat slower than reels.
Second fiddle – Harmony fiddler. Taking a back seat to a more dominant person.
Shuffle – Rhythmic bowing consisting of three strokes: long-short-short.
Stick – Bow.
Straaaaaaaaangs – Southern pronunciation for strings.
Thick as fiddlers in hell – Plentiful or crowded.
To hang up your fiddle – To die or quit.
Tommy Jarrell – Legendary old-time fiddler from Toast, N.C.
Triplum – The A string on the fiddle.
Turn around – A short musical phrase used as an intro or between a chorus and a verse of a song.
Twin fiddling – Two fiddles played in harmony.
Vibrato – The quavery sound produced by wiggling a finger that’s pressing down a string.
Waltz – A tune and a dance in 3/4 time.
Weiser – National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest and Festival held in Weiser, Idaho.
Wires – Strings.

Excerpted from Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus!


Wayne Erbsen is a native Californian who has made his home in western North Carolina since 1972. A musician and teacher, Wayne has written and published over thirty bluegrass music instruction books and songbooks for banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar. 

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