Bob Walters’ “Jump Fingers,” Gut Strings
In my last post I mentioned how I was hating the sound of my fiddle, and joked that maybe I needed yet another new kind of strings. Well, it turns out I did! My wife will laugh to read this, because it never lasts, but I’m now officially in love with Pirastro Wondertone gut strings. In this video I play Bob Walters’ “Jump Fingers” on my gut-strung fiddle, once at moderate speed and then once slow with some comments about style. At the beginning I show what the strings look like and say a little about how they’re different. Here’s a nice speedy version of Bob playing it with piano backup from R.P. Christesen, on Slippery Hill. And here’s his more stately version from The Champion, slowed-down and pitch corrected.
I bought the Wondertones after asking Bill Peterson to talk to Dwight Lamb about Bob Walters’ strings and getting this wonderful reply:
David, I went to visit Dwight yesterday and talked about gut strings. He said Bob used gut strings exclusively. Of course the E string was steel and he used a fine tuner on the E. The A was a plain (unwound) string and when you bought an A it was long enought to get 2 strings out of it. The D and G were wound gut strings, Dwight thought the D was wound with silver and the G aluminum, but I’m not sure about that. Dwight started out stringing his fiddle like Bob’s and used the Wondertone brand. Dwight switched to steel strings after he started playing a lot of fiddle contests that were outside and the weather was a problem with gut.
It blew my mind to read this, and it got me thinking, what if the almost universal use of metal strings among modern old-time fiddlers is keeping us from making discoveries about archaic old-time playing techniques? The research I’ve done suggests that gut strings would have been common up through the early 20th century, even though metal violin strings were probably available by the late 19th. David Kerr, of David Kerr Violins here in Portland, Oregon, tells me that Wondertones were simply what was available back then. (He also told me years ago that he didn’t see why old-time fiddlers didn’t try gut strings more often, if they really wanted to be “old-time.”) Steel strings existed, too, but there wasn’t much choice. Of course, not all fiddlers used store-bought strings—some adapted strings from other instruments or “non-musical sources” (love that phrase, which I got from this interesting thread on FiddleHangout about gut strings and old-time fiddle).
Sure, most of the old-time greats whose recordings we’ve learned from are probably playing on metal strings. But I wonder about, say, Alan Sisson, J.D. Harris, people like that. Or Bunt Stephens: the tone and the vibrato on his recordings really sound like gut strings to me. And what about the people they learned from? They almost certainly played on gut. So the techniques we hear in the first generation of recorded old-time fiddle could be said to have their roots in a gut-string style of playing.
One thing I found instantly is that the bow shake ornament has a whole different quality with gut strings. I’m surprised, but I actually find it easier and more subtle—and it sounds much more like Bob Walters’. The feel and sound of the strings are completely different from any synthetic strings I’ve ever tried.
When I first tried the Wondertones, a year or so ago, I didn’t feel like I could keep the attack from sounding scratchy. They’ve been languishing in my string graveyard ever since. A few weeks ago, though, at the end of my rope about my fiddle’s sound, I tried them again. They were exactly what my ears had been craving. And after a little experimenting with different bow pressures and rosin, the bowing clicked so that there was suddenly no scratching. I’m using Melos dark rosin, which they recommended at Kerr Violins. By the way, I got the strings from my local violin repair guy, but I can’t seem to find the exact set online. The closest one, Pirastro Wondertone Gold, seems to have a wound A.
I admit, I’ve got Helicores on my main fiddle currently. They’re definitely easier to play and louder, and they hold their tuning better. That’s the one I use for sessions or dances. But at home I find myself picking up the gut-strung fiddle as often as the other. There’s just something very warm and human about the sound and the feel, both under the fingers and under the bow. It’s easier for me to get lost in them. And making that little extra effort to get a good sound seems to help my playing overall. I should mention, I also play the bass viola da gamba, which has gut strings, so it feels familiar to me. But the bowing technique is completely different, so I don’t really think I had much of a head start.
Now to the tune. Here’s what Dwight says about “Jump Fingers” in the liner notes to The Champion. Reading between the lines, it seems to be a great example of Bob’s excellent policy of never saying anything bad about another fiddler:
34. Jump Fingers. “Bob got this from Jeffie Pounds who was a farmer over around Decatur. I met Jeffie just once at a fiddler contest and it was clear that at one time he’d been quite the fiddle player. Bob Christeson had a story that Jeffie had composed this piece and played it for Bob, who promptly reproduced it better than Jeffie had played it, which made old Jeffie rather mad. But I never heard that story from Bob himself, who just said that he had learned it from Jeffie.” Lonnie Robertson told Gordon McCann the same story about this tune (Lonnie plays it himself on his Rounder CD).