Seconding at a Cajun Jam

Jan 20, 2017

Hi, I’m Mitch Reed, welcome to my vlog. Today I’m going to talk about going to a jam and being able to bring your fiddle and play chords behind the accordion, the singer, and all that stuff. So basically, how to second at a Cajun jam, the things to think about, and what to look for. I’m going to try to keep it as simple as I can because if you’re wondering about this stuff, you’re probably still in what I would call a beginner fiddle to maybe the beginning of an intermediate fiddle player, Cajun fiddler. But still, those are beginner things to think about. I definitely recommend going to jams. I think that once you study with a teacher and you learn tunes and you learn your chords, the next step is to go to a Jam session where there’s Cajun music. I live in Scott, Louisiana, right outside of Lafayette, so there’s a bunch around here. So if you live in Southwest Louisiana it’s easy. If you live in Baltimore, Maryland it might be harder. But hey, come down to Louisiana, there’s jams I know for sure every Saturday.

So these are the things just for us to talk about. The first thing, the most important thing is, this fiddle is tuned down to Cajun tuning, what we call Cajun tuning, and everything’s down a whole step. So the E string is down to a D [1:27] and the A string is down to a G, the D string is down to a C and the G is down to an F [1:38]. Alright, so that is Cajun tuning. Everything is down a whole step or you can say a letter, everything’s down a letter. The reason why is it makes it a lot easier to play along with the C accordion which is the dominant key accordion that we have down here. So now you have an open C string and it just makes it easier to play in the keys of C and then the occasional F; we do play in F now and then.

So let’s just talk about this. When you go to a jam, the first thing you want to do make sure your fiddle’s tuned down to Cajun tuning. That’s the most likely scenario it’s going to be in, somebody’s going to show up with a C accordion. Most of the fiddlers there will be tuned down. You may have a few fiddlers tuned to standard that can play in all the keys; those would be more intermediate-advanced fiddle players. But to get started, it’s a lot easier if you tune your fiddle down when you go to a Cajun jam.

So the first thing to talk about is just the chord shapes and how they’re played. There’s a lot of different ways to play these chords. I like playing the lowest form of these chords so I’ll show you how I play those. The first chord you probably play the most in Cajun music is the G chord which the way I play it I take the first finger and I bar the G and the D; I’ve got some tape on my fiddle so maybe you can see, maybe I’ll bring this down a little bit even. So you can see I’m taking my first finger there and barring the first finger on the very first piece of tape there and then I’m going to play the G and the D together [03:22] and that’s my G chord, alright?

So the next chord I’m going to make is a C chord and that I’m just taking my first finger and I’m putting it just on the G; maybe I can get on this side to show you, I don’t know if that’ll be right, I’m trying to find this out, but I’m putting my first finger on the G and I’m playing the open D [03:46]. That’s my C chord. You can also play a C chord if you play the two middle strings [03:54]. That’s a higher C chord. This is a lower C chord [04:01].

Then the F chord, I’m just playing the low G and D. So I’m just playing these two low ones here [04:09], no fingers at all [04:11], alright.

Then the last one is the D chord which…same kind of thing, I’m barring, I’m taking my first finger and I’m barring across on the D and the A strings [04:27], and that’s my D chord.

So we got four chords, we got G, we got C and we got F and we got D, and those are the chords that you’re going to need to know when you go to a Cajun jam. So my advice is, first of all, get comfortable playing those chords. You want to be able to switch from those chords really quickly. You really in a sense become almost like a guitar player on the fiddle when you get to this point. Playing the melodies, learning all the Cajun melodies, that is a whole different thing, that’s a whole different technique. When you get into seconding and playing chords, it’s another completely different technique because most of the time you’re on the low strings, In this part, you can see my elbow is a little higher, you’re going to be playing a lot of mostly the low strings.

So what you want to do first is get comfortable with the shuffle bowing for two-steps and reels and fast tunes and then for the waltzes, be able to play the waltz-shuffle. The waltz-shuffle is pretty easy. The way I recommend it is just to bow the beat. So if I play a G chord and I’m playing a waltz, I’m going to be thinking about one-two-three [05:50]. So that’s my bow rhythm, and I would practice just switching through those four chords. They don’t even have to be in any order, you can do whatever you want. But be able to switch from any of those four chords and be able to do it quickly. So this is really the most important thing at first. So I’ll start with the G [06:13], now go to an F [06:18], I’ll go to a C [06:22], how about a D [06:26]. Alright, so that’s the waltz.

For the two-step, I use a shuffle bowing and the way I think about the rhythm is I think about it like this I’m Happy, You’re Happy [06:39]. You’ve heard this from me before I’m sure [06:45]. Alright, so that’s just practicing switching from the four chords with the shuffle bowing, the fast tune bowing, and then you have the waltz rhythm.

You have the occasional blues, like the Bosco blues, a tune like [07:29]. So for that, the rhythm I do is this kind of thing [07:43]. And I think of it like and-two-and-and-two-and one-and-two and-two-and-and-two-and [07:57]. So that’s the blues shuffle that I use.

Again, all fiddlers do different things. So this is me, Mitch Reed, this is what I do. You may go and study with another fiddle player and he may have you play different stuff and that’s cool, that’s fine because that’s part of Cajun music; it’s not always played the same way.

Alright, that’s really the most important stuff if you want to be solid in that before you go to jam. I’ll recommend if you’re studying with a teacher and you’re taking private lessons, get your teacher to play the melody and you play the chords and see if you can accompany those tunes. If you can, and especially if you can switch, if you can go from the chords to the melody and the melody to the chords, that’s jamming, I mean that’s- you’re jamming. That’s what we call jamming. If you can do that without stopping or messing up, you’re ready.

Now, the next thing is to understand a little bit about the chords and how they’re related, depending on the keys. This gets into a little bit of music theory but not a lot because Cajun musicians, we don’t think about music theory, we just use our ears. We do something that if it sounds right we keep doing it, if it sounds wrong we don’t do that anymore. But one of the things that you want to be aware of and that can help you out a lot, and it’s kind of like a blueprint to a song, is if you know the key. And then to think about, most of the time, Cajun songs, we’re going to go (and I’m going to use the number system here) if the key is G. G is one and four, the fourth note from that is going to be a C and then the fifth note from that is going to be a D.

So in the key of G, the most likely chord progression is going to probably start on G because that’s the root, that’s the key, that’s the most important chord or note. And then it’s very likely you might go to a C and then a D, but not always. And so a lot of people have sent me messages in the last couple of weeks asking me about this. This is the big question, “how do I know what chord to go to?” And basically, this is how I think about it, and that’s the only way I can share this with you. I don’t think anybody has the tunes memorized so much and maybe they do, I don’t know, but I haven’t met many people who really just think of the song and they know the chords right away. A lot of times you just start playing the song and then it just kind of unravels or reveals itself as it goes along.

So in the key of G, you’re very likely to play a C and then a D and then, of course, a G but not always because if you take a tune like J’etais Au Bal it only goes from the G to the D, it doesn’t go to a C chord. So you do have those occasional tunes. So my advice is this, just play what you can, the best you can. If something doesn’t sound right, go back to the G because that’s the root chord. So if you go to a C and maybe it’s not a C, you know, there’s no C to be heard, but you went there because you were just expecting it, go back to the G. It’s not like people in the jam are going to turn and look at you and point you out. Most jams you can’t even hear…you can hear the music, it’s this blended sound, but you can’t hear what each individual is doing unless there may be soloing and people are really coming down so that they can be heard. But especially seconding on the fiddle where it’s low rhythm, you’re not going to be heard that much. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes because making mistakes is how you learn. So there you go. I mean that’s the most important thing. The best bit of advice I can give you. You’ve got to make mistakes to learn this. So that’s G, I talked about G.

The other key that’s played a lot is the key of C. So in the key of C, C is one, C is the most important. The four-chord in C which is like the next most important chord is going to be F and then the five-chord is going to be G. So what I would do if I were you is I would practice. Maybe doing that shuffle bowing, doing the waltz rhythm, and maybe go pick a key and start on the C chord let’s say, go to an F chord and then go to a G chord and you can practice that. So that’s a good way to do it.

The weirdest key of all of them is the F key and it is occasionally played. And so an F, F is the root, F is one. B-flat is four. So B-flat is kind of weird, we didn’t go over that chord but occasionally it is used. Not very often. But the way I play a B-flat is, I think a really easy way to play it is if you take your first finger on the D string and then your third finger on the G [13:59] and that’s your B-flat. Let’s see if I can do this. I’m kind of dyslexic so I’m getting confused here [14:10]. You can also play it like this, and this is easier, where I’m playing the first finger on the D and an open G [14:20]. I’m calling the strings by their real names too so I don’t have to confuse you [14:27]. That also works as a B-flat, okay? So in the key of F, F is one, B-flat is four and C is five.

So those three keys right there, the key of G, the key of C key, and the key of F. Get familiar with the four-chord in that key and the five-chord in the key. If you do that for all three keys and you understand how they’re related then that’s it. You don’t have to know a bunch of music theory. Just understand that that’s how they work together. I think that’s the most important thing to know and at least you have some idea where you might or where the tune might be going. But like I said, there’s a lot of tunes that will go from the one to the five so be on the lookout.

And the other thing is just when to change. So I always tell people, watch the guitar players, even if you don’t play guitar. Watch when the guitar players are playing and watch their left hand and whatever shape they’re making or whenever and they change and they go to a different shape, you may not know what that chord is but that means they’re going to a different chord and that will give you a chance to go to the chord. So if you’re on the one, chances are you’re probably going to go to the four and then back to the one and then to the five, that kind of thing. But you’ve got to make mistakes. There’s really no way to do this without messing up. I think one of the most important things is don’t be afraid to make mistakes. No one is going to laugh at you or point you out. I still make plenty of mistakes and it’s how I learn. Sometimes I’m just daydreaming and I’m not paying attention, and I’ll make a mistake and it kind of wakes me up…so it’s part of life and everything you do.

So that is my advice on going to a jam and being prepared to second, back up the accordion, the vocals, the other fiddles. If there’s a fiddle tune that they’re playing and you don’t know the melody, even though the fiddles are taking a ride you don’t know what those notes are, you can second and still be a part of the jam, a part of the music. So definitely, seconding is great to learn. It’s also great for your rhythm, your bowing, your bow rhythm, and I think it really helps with your double strings like double stops, playing two strings at the same time. A lot of people get frustrated with that. So to be able to take your melodies and play the E and A string together or the D and the A together. If you do a lot of seconding you start learning about doubling strings and the angle of bowing that you need, the amount of pressure that you need on the bow to get two strings to ring out evenly.

So, good luck. I hope this vlog helps and inspires and keep on fiddling and hope to see you out there soon. Thank you so much!

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