There’s no doubt that the person with the biggest influence on bluegrass fiddling was a person who didn’t even play the fiddle – Bill Monroe.
I’ve read so much on his views and I find them endlessly interesting, amusing, insightful and instructive. A brilliant book of all things Monroe is ‘The Bill Monroe Reader‘ compiled by his singer/guitarist for many years, Tom Ewing. It’s a highly recommended read and the following are some of my favourite Monroe lines about bluegrass fiddling:
On what makes a good bluegrass fiddle player….
“Well, I think a fiddler, he should play all the old-time fiddle numbers like they was wrote and there’s a lot of different notes that fiddlers today don’t never learn – he skips through them, you know. And I think he should know all the shuffles and licks with the bow. I think that’s one thing that makes a good fiddler. And a to be a good bluegrass fiddler, you’re in a higher class of fiddle music than you would think about. It’s not like the old time square dance numbers that was made 30 to 40 years ago. With having the blues and everything that’s been added to bluegrass, if he pays good bluegrass fiddle, he’s one up, you know- he’s a really good fiddler. Ain’t everybody that comes along can play a bluegrass fiddle”
On the influence of fiddle music in bluegrass…..
“I’ve used fiddle music in my music, you know, ‘cause I think the fiddle is the king instrument in string music. I’ve used that fiddle all the way, with banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass – it gives me what I want in the way of instruments in bluegrass. But I can still study the sound that comes from different fiddlers, especially way back in the early days, I know how they would have played it, or the way they should have played it – I think I can just keep going back and bringing out tones the average man would never have heard of, or thought about.”
On the difference between old-time music and bluegrass….
“Bluegrass has advanced way on from the way old time music was played years ago, you know….just G,C, and D is about all they played. In bluegrass, music is all up and down the neck. And it’s give people in a lot of other kinds of music help too.”
“Bluegrass is a music that’s really polished up. You take pains with it and if there’s a G you’re playing in and it needs to go to another chord, you go there today with it. Where maybe back years ago they didn’t hear that, and a lot of times there was minors and they never would go to it because they never did know how to make a minor chord. Well, bluegrass has been kind of a school for the people, in a way of learning … what should be put into and everything about it. And the fiddler, he’s come a long way too since the old time fiddler.”
On the difference between bluegrass and other (more modern) styles of music…
“Bluegrass is pure music. You follow the melody right and you don’t put in no hot, know-it-all fiddle that don’t belong in there. If you’re just trying to show off, that ain’t going to get it; it certainly wont get it with me,”
On hiring musicians…..
“Well if I think they’re good enough for me to let ‘em work with me, I can learn them a lot after they come along, and make them play the way I think it should be played. Keep out everything that don’t belong in bluegrass. That’s the way I done it all down through the years with different people. Like Chubby Wise, on the fiddle, he wanted to play swing and jazz and I wouldn’t let him, ‘cause he was in bluegrass then and he needed to play to my style. That was the way it was with a lot of different people, in their music. They had to play bluegrass. When they would play it like I wanted it played, why, then they could go out on their own and people would hear about them and know that had been on the Grand Ol’ Opry, and (it) give them a name.”
“I’ve had the best musicians in the world, and if they wasn’t the best, I made ‘em the best before I got through with them.”
A brilliant resource of Bill Monroe’s fiddle music can be found in Stacy Phillips’ book ‘Stoney Lonesome – The Fiddle Music of Bill Monroe’. I highly recommend this outstanding book which you can download here – along with many other great fiddle books.