Darol Anger Divulges His Modern Chop Technique
Propel the rhythm in your ensemble with this percussive trick
So you think you're a versatile string player, with good technique and a feeling for rhythms and melodies in different musical styles. But are you versatile enough to play your instrument like a snare drum?
You can do it, once you've mastered a bow stroke called the chop. It's a percussive technique essential to playing solos and backup in bluegrass bands, and useful in a variety of other styles, including jazz and some contemporary art music. Fiddler Richard Greene spread the chop through the bluegrass world in the 1960s and continues to make good use of it in solo work. Violinist Darol Anger is the acknowledged modern master of chopping, but prefers to restrict chopping to accompaniment. Anger's playing is well known through his work with the American Fiddle Ensemble, David Grisman Quintet, the Turtle Island String Quartet, the Montreux Band, and the Anger/Marshall Band. Every year at the Mark O'Connor Fiddle Conference he holds a "chop shop" class.
"The chop plays the same role as the drums and rhythm guitar together," Anger says. "But it can't duplicate an entire drum set, so usually with chopping you're hearing the equivalent sound of the high hat and the snare part mixed in, which supplies a propulsion that you don't get in any other way, especially in a quartet situation. A lot of quartets now are doing arrangements of pop music and jazz, and without some kind of percussive part it sounds like many of the tracks of the original piece have been removed."
The chop's snare-drum effect is obtained by throwing the bow down onto the strings in a controlled way, and quickly pulling it back up. Anger credits Greene with figuring out a way to get an effective but essentially toneless sound on both the downstroke and upstroke; Anger and his Turtle Island colleagues later developed a way to get an honest-to-goodness musical note along with the percussive sound on the upstroke.
"It's almost a marcato kind of sound," Anger says. He has since taught himself to get a note on the downstroke, too, which opens up all manner of rhythmic and harmonic possibilities in an ensemble.
But Anger stresses that the basic chop remains a percussive effect used to propel the rhythm in any number of patterns. It's not something you want to overdo, though; he points out that playing too many syncopated beats, chops or otherwise, can confuse the melody players.
"The technique itself can really damage both the music and your reputation if you use it without sensitivity," he says. "The technique is not a toy. This sound, which is very close to noise, needs to be used with restraint to help the groove of the tune. The less you do, generally, the better it sounds.
"In my conception, it's a backup technique, which means you're not playing louder than the foreground melody; you're weaving into the rest of what's going on, playing just enough to convey the tone quality of the piece and the feeling of the groove, maybe down to just one chop per bar."
Step by Step
Basic chopping isn't hard, but it can be a bit tricky to learn. It's easiest if you can start off getting an experienced chopper to demonstrate the move and teach it to you. At least one such expert has put it all in writing: Renata Bratt, author of The Fiddling Cellist, published by Mel Bay. She describes a step-by-step process in her new book; the procedure is aimed at cellists, but it's applicable to other string players, too.
Remember that chopping is a bow stroke. It uses a down-up, down-up pattern (down bow is when you pull the bow, up bow is when you push the bow). The third beat of each four-beat pattern is a down bow gone astray, just a little bit "crunchy" sounding. Try playing straight quarter notes, with the third quarter note crunching down for the chop effect.
Bratt offers the following six steps to playing chops:
1. Straighten your bow-hand thumb. This is the only time it should ever be straight.
2. Keep your bow very close to the string.
3. Holding the bow, use a slight waving hand motion as if you were slapping a table top (but keeping your hand close to the table) or clapping your hands as if your left hand were already resting (palm up) on your knee.
4. The chop should occur near the frog.
5. Once your chop makes contact with the string, the chop should also include a slight downward slide away from your body. For violinists and violists the bow will slide slightly toward the fingerboard. For cellists, the bow will slide slightly toward the bridge.
6. The down-bow chop should "stick" to the string (because the weight of your hand is now digging into the string) and make an additional little sound when you let it up on the up bow.
Listen & Learn
Anger suggests that a good way to learn how to use chops is by listening to the snare drum in first-rate rock and pop bands, and practicing while playing along with recordings. "It's best to play with recordings that already have a good groove, so that you can understand what a good rhythmic feeling is," he says. Bonnie Raitt's recordings have a "wonderful groove," he says, as does Miles Davis' classic jazz album Kind of Blue.
Anger recommends Greeneís Sales Tax Toddle on the Rebel label as an example of the chop as a bravura solo device. In an ensemble setting, Anger suggests looking into various Turtle Island String Quartet CDs. Among his own releases, he points to his eclectic fiddle-duet album The Diary of a Fiddler ("I do a full menu of rhythm techniques, and with only two instruments playing, itís very easy to hear what's going on"), and his American Fiddle Ensemble disc Republic of Strings ("It has my latest and greatest chop techniques, and some brilliant cello playing by Rushad Eggleston"). Both are on Compass Records.
Anger doesn't want to give the impression that he is the be-all and end-all of chopping. "There are endless possibilities here," he says. "Younger players are doing variations of the chop that I could never have dreamed of."
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