Just to get things rolling with this lesson, here’s a half-crazy rockin’ cajun version of this tune I did for kicks with my good friend Michael Ward Bergman. Enjoy, then check out the lesson materials below! Not to get you too distracted from the topic on hand, if you are one of FJi’s All Access Pass members, check out the Vio-Tek section for info about the effects I am using to get these sounds on my violin.
Description: Cotton Eyed Joe. A common bluegrass/old time fiddle jam tune. In general, this is a one chord song (see “side note” below), so jamming over it is also an easy “one-scale-fits-all” (though you can add a couple twists to that too (see “jam-along” below). No difficult notes for the student, but a few tricky tied rhythms you’ll want to watch out for. I suggest listening to the recording often for this one. That will kind of drill the “tune” into your head so playing it will be a no-brainer in no time!
Note: “PLPP” = “Pot Luck Pickin’ Party” a full band version including jamming in the middle, included for you to get a feel of what form this tune could take in the real world! Play along whatever part you are ready for (just like you might at a party like this). Enjoy!
Jam-along: A major scale over the whole tune will get you going on this one. Using the A major pentatonic will add further hipness to your improvising (skip the D’s & G#‘s, or the 4th and 7th notes of the scale). But… if you want to sound really cool, to go along with the old-time down-home mood of this tune, try jamming with the A BLUES scale. Pay no attention to the C naturals in the blues scale that will be (joyously) clashing against the C#’s in the A chords. It is all cool! Of course, since this is improvising, and anything YOU want to do is fine, feel free to mix all the above scales together at will too!
Intermediate “Gigger” level hint: I could suggest trying the A major pentatonic scale for the bulk of a phrase (4 measures), then switching to the A Blues scale at the end of the phrase to add “punctuation” to your musical language.
Trouble shooting: On the melody: watch out for those tied rhythms. maybe try skipping the ties at first, playing both notes?
Advanced: see jam-along above for more advanced mixing of two scales. Also, notice how I put accents at various places in the 120bpm version. often the accents fell on beat one, sometimes on 2 and 4. Experiment with your own ideas to make it more danceable. Double “drone” strings on the 2nd time thru the 120bpm version are achieved simply by adding open A or E strings where ever you can along with the melody notes. So, when playing on the D string, add open A. When playing on A, add open E. When playing on E string, add open A… get it? This is the simple secret to sounding “fiddle-y.”
Side Note: The chord changes in this version are my own arrangement. You probably will not find the G & D chords I have here in a traditional Bluegrass version of Cotton Eyed Joe. Most times it is a one chord (A) song! I dig simplicity, but I also like a little movement sometimes. I added the G chords in the A section and the D chords in the B section just because I liked them. I think they enhance the quirky modal quality this tune inherently has. Along these same lines, I altered the melody a little bit to my liking too. I really like the tied notes hitting on the 4th beat and holding into the first beat of the next measure and, thinking more like a composer, using “motif’s,” I also found a few other spots to fit these little gems in. I think these elements enhance the modal trance-like mood this tune has. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.