Double stops: some people love them, some people dread them. If you fall into that second category, it doesn’t have to stay that way! Here are seven of our best tips for how to play double stops and chords on the fiddle and make them sound beautiful.
(Quick definition: a double stop or chord on the fiddle is when you play two notes simultaneously.)
Tune your fiddle.
Yes, we’re starting with a no-brainer here, but you’d be surprised how many times a poorly-tuned instrument is the culprit behind bad double stop intonation. I recommend getting a clip-on electric tuner so you can be sure you’re in tune every time you play.
Know what notes you’re playing.
It’s important to know the notes in the double stop or chord so that you can know where to place your fingers. For example, if I know that I’m playing a G# on my D string and a B on my A string, it tells me I need to use a high 3 and a 1. This helps to prevent hunting and pecking for the note and instead allows you to find each note precisely.
Rest your hand in one place.
Be consistent with where you place your thumb and the inside of your index knuckle (your two points of contact on the neck of your fiddle). Set those two points of contact and then stretch or bend your fingers from there to reach the notes you need for your chord. Don’t fall into the trap of wiggling your hand around to find the notes.
When you rest your two points of contact on the neck of your fiddle and keep them there, you give yourself a baseline: you know exactly where you are on the neck at all times and you can place your fingers accordingly so that your double stops are in tune. But if you’ve moved your hand, you won’t have a natural gauge of where your fingers need to fall because it will be different every time. Get used to placing your hand consistently on the neck and keeping it there (gently).
Use a reference note to tune your double stops during practice.
For example, drone your open G as you tune your 3rd finger on your D string (this is an octave, so those two notes are the same). Then use your in-tune 3rd finger to help you tune your first finger on the A string (this is B, which creates a very warm, consonant sound when played in tune with G.)
Check yourself routinely against open strings or a recorded drone during practice so you don’t unwittingly adjust your double stop to go with an out-of-tune note. That’s another reason it’s important to know what notes you’re playing (see point #2)—it helps you determine which reference note to use to check your double stop intonation.
Maintain a good frame of hand.
Your frame of hand can make or break your double stops. A good frame of hand features a straight left wrist, relaxed thumb, open and rounded palm, and rounded fingers whose tips point down at the strings. Pitfalls to avoid include collapsing your wrist, squeezing with your thumb, and landing on the flat pads of your fingers. Avoid these! Instead, imagine there’s a string running from the middle knuckle of your first finger all the way down to your elbow. Keep the string straight by rounding your fingers, opening your palm, and straightening your wrist. Check in regularly with your frame of hand as you practice double stops on your fiddle, especially on the E string.
Play one note at a time.
Double stops can feel daunting if you’re not sure how to break them down into manageable pieces. Instead of jumping head first into playing tricky chords, break the double stops apart and play them one note at a time. For longer passages of double stops, play the upper line of notes first, then the lower line. Get to know the sound and feel of the individual notes before you combine them. Check your intonation and frame of hand while you play the single lines. When you put the chords back together, it will feel much easier.
Many folks forget that bowing is half of what makes a double stop sound great. It’s common to want to use more bow weight when you play double stops, but don’t do it! Keep your bow weight the same as if you were just playing a single note. Similarly, keep your bow speed consistent during double stops; any surges or lags in your bow speed affect your tone and make it hard for your chord to resonate.
Lastly, check your bow angle on the strings. As you raise your elbow and wrist, you lift your bow to the lower-sounding strings; as you lower your elbow and wrist, your bow moves to the higher-sounding strings. That angle is what determines if the notes in your double stop sound even. If you hear one string louder than the other (or you’re bumping a string you don’t want to hear), adjust your elbow height instead of pushing down harder on the strings.
These are some detailed tips to help you master double stops and chords on your fiddle, but remember that you’ll likely have the most success just checking in with one or two of these points at a time as you practice. Want some more help with double stops? Check out Fiddle School’s Lesson 33, our advanced lesson on double stops. Other lessons that pair well with double stop practice include Lesson 23 (Intonation & Ear Training), Lesson 26 (Shifting), and Lesson 28 (Vibrato). Happy fiddling!