String Drumming


(See How to Play Contemporary Strings, Hal Leonard, for Video Tutorials, Backing Tracks, and detailed musical examples.)

Welcome to the second edition of THE LYONN’S ROAR, “String Drumming,filled with iNSights into how to inject fire into your bow.

While many bowed string players focus on traditional techniques, Julie will show you how to be iNSpired to take flight, how to move and groove. There’s a world of exiting possibilities you can add to your technical grab bag. Check it out!

BOWING WITH a driving, rhythmic groove is fundamental to roots traditions throughout the world but thinking of the bow arm as a “rhythm instrument” is a comparatively new approach for classically trained string players. First, there was the “chunk,” used by bluegrass players. The middle of the bow was used to create a percussive drop on muted strings on the two and four of each measure. Then came “chop,” invented by bluegrass and rock fiddler Richard Greene while working with bluegrass founder Bill Monroe.

But sadly, in the classical trained community, I’ve found during residencies and teacher trainings across the United States and beyond, that string players tend to be rather weak when it comes to diverse and accurate rhythmic use of the bow. That’s the reason I spent years researching and producing my DVD, Rhythmizing the Bow (2004 Hal Leonard)

An understandable preoccupation with intonation that’s been combined with an emphasis on playing and learning music through the eyes have intersected to create a right-hand-serves-the-left relationship. In addition, classical training tends to foster a habitually symmetrical, downbeat-oriented muscular response coupled with a high percentage of legato activity. Add the exclusion of focused, rhythmic practice and we’ve inadvertently developed weak rhythmic skills.

Drums OnlyThe Brain and Rhythm

It is brain survival to maintain a system of economy of motion. Therefore, in your brain’s world, it isn’t beneficial to rewire every time you do something new. It will utilize old pathways. To develop the rhythmic center of the brain while exercising the left motor cortex (which is in charge of muscle moves on the right side of the body) requires new and constantly stepped-up rhythmic challenges. We need to isolate the bow arm for at least three reasons:

1) The rhythmic control center is located in a separate location from the pitch control center in the brain; and

2) The left motor cortex controls the right arm, and should be thought of as a separate control center from the right motor cortex.

3) Any use of the left hand will dilute attention and reduce or slow down progress for the bow hand and the ears.

While practicing rhythms with the bow hand, it’s best to do this by ear. If you need to refer to a written rhythmic phrase, play it once or twice while reading and then turn away from the music stand and repeat the phrase a few times on an open string. This is because the visual cortex is immense (far larger than the auditory cortex), and science has proven that when the eyes are activated, the other senses can shut down as much as 75%. Therefore, to heighten rhythmic skills, it’s extremely useful to use call and response when teaching against a backup track: Tap, sing, bounce, and even airbrush while singing basic rhythms or rhythmic phrases. Use this approach when teaching before displaying the written version.

The Ears and Rhythm

Music is an aural art that has been organized visually by primarily one culture: Western European classical. This visual pedagogical system has been emulated here in the United States and elsewhere while the rest of the world has primarily engaged in aural learning. When it comes to learning basic rhythms and rhythmic phrases, it’s best to start with an ears-first practice plan.

STRING ARCHIVES: Historic Interviews and Audio

The Bow and Rhythm

The exact same rhythmic phrase when notated, will sound completely unique each time you modify how you enter and exit notes, where you place inflection (accentuation) within the phrase, whether or not you cut certain notes short (and how you accomplish that), and the underlying “rhythmic subtext” you feel and hear while playing the phrase.

To practice each of these skills, choose a rhythmic phrase (here’s an example from a Latin riff) and play the phrase using:

  1. A legato, vibrato sound;
  2. Repeat the phrase without vibrato and move an accent each time from the first note, to the second note when you repeat the phrase, then the third, and so on;
  3. Practice abbreviating notes, following this same scheme: play the first note slightly shorter, then the second, etc. The challenge, here, is to not rush the pulse, but to wait the appropriate amount of time for the next note.
  4. Use a backing track or, even better, try to hear the appropriate groove that would be appropriate to the style (most easily identified by listening to recordings and focusing your ears on the rhythm section in the band rather than the melody instrument).

Amor Verdandero riff

Rhythmic Subtext

If you only practice or teach rhythmic phrases against a metronome, the cultural spice required to enliven and shape its identity may watered down. Therefore, it’s important to listen to the original style to ascertain how the band or ensemble moves and grooves behind the melody. I call this the “rhythmic subtext” of the style. For instance, when playing the fiddle music of Appalachia, if you don’t hear and feel a constant shuffle stroke (long, short, short bow pattern with the inflection on the first of the two short bows), the melody won’t sound authentic. 


1) Allot at least 15 minutes a day to practice rhythmic ideas;

2) Practice quarter-note triplets and syncopated rhythms;

3) Practice asymmetrical bow patterns (see “Paradiddles” my new book, How to Play Contemporary Strings);

Paradiddle Example

4) Master groove-related bow strokes (shuffle stroke, clave, swing bowings, chop technique, etc.)

5) Using a metronome or backup track, be certain that you can play the basic rhythms back-to-back, one measure each, by audiating first: half note, quarter, quarter-note triplet, eighths, triplets, sixteenths, and so on (See the DVD Rhythmizing the Bow).

6) Practice odd meter and alternating meter (See the book Planet Musician with CD)

7) Practice sight-reading rhythmic phrases on an open string (see 64 rhythmic studies in the book, Improvising Violin). Go to  is an example from the first stanza

Venuti Rhythms 1m