Ornaments and variations

Experienced fiddlers rarely play a tune through exactly the same on every occasion or even for each repeat on the same occasion. They will miss out or alter notes and add ornaments to express and interpret the tune according to the mood, the context, and their personal feelings about the tune. Playing in a concert, at a pub "session" or for a dance, can call for a different treatment. Variety within a performance can increase the impact of a tune and make it more enjoyable. If you learn to play a tune by heart rather than off the page you will be free to attempt some variatons. You can even make a virtue out of simplifying passages that are currently too difficult for you!

Beginners will usually need to play without ornamentation until they have acquired the appropriate technical skill and musical appreciation of which ornaments are appropriate. The following video clips introduce some of the tricks of the trade so that you can listen for, and have a go at, some common ornaments. Be aware that in fiddle playing ornaments are commonly used to help the rhythm rather than simply to decorate or embellish a tune.


This clip starts with a slow demonstration of a mordent on a 1st finger note. The main note is ornamented by adding a 2nd finger note very briefly and then returning to the starting note
(fingering 1 - 2 -1).
This is followed with a short extract form the Scottish tune I Prefer the Kilt which includes mordents on 1st finger and 2nd finger notes (2-3-2).
Note too that the extract ends on the note A but with a brief repetition of the previous G as a grace note which slurs onto the final A.

Sometimes mordents are played inverted i.e. the main note is ornamented briefly with a lower note instead of a higher one.

Bowed grace notes

In bowing pattern 3 there are two staccato notes separated by a short light grace note which you eventually omit. In this clip however the grace notes between the pairs of A notes are accented and the notes either side are sustained not played staccato.

This accented grace note is played with a flick of the wrist and is imitative of bagpipe ornaments which are used to interrupt a sustained note and to provide an accented beat. It has the character of a Scottish snap. Bagpipers cannot stop the flow of air so they need to use fingered grace notes where the fiddler changes bow direction.

Note too in this extract that there is a mordent just before the last note.

Strathspey and Reel

The ornaments demonstrated above can be heard in context in this audio recording of I prefer the Kilt and High Road to Linton. There is music notation and tutorial help for these tunes in the YDW publication How to play Folk Fiddle


In this next clip the fiddler uses the bagpipe technique of fingered ornamentation to provide rhythm and embellishment. The clip starts with a 1st finger E (on the D string) which is interrupted first with a quick 3rd finger G and then by an open D (lifting the 1st finger very briefly then quickly dropping it again).
The fingering sequence is 1-3-1-0-1
The third finger does not need to press firmly to the fingerboard as the pitch of the note is less important than the interruption of the vibration.

The clip then goes on to (a) speed up the sequence and delay it to the end of the main note - a short roll - and (b) play a long roll in the middle of a phrase of music.

Similar rolls can be played for other notes using the fingering sequences 2-3-2-1-2 and 3-4-3-2-3.

Irish Jig

In this audio clip you can hear short rolls in context and also some emphasising of notes by a quick slide of the finger up to pitch. The tune is Morrisons Jig and again there is music notation and tutorial help in the YDW publication How to play Folk Fiddle

Trebles or Birls

Instead of playing rolls some Irish fiddlers will choose to play a bowed treble which Scottish fiddlers refer to as a birl. This is a rapid jiggle of the bow as demonstrated in this final clip.

Shetlanders call it a shiver which is a good description of how it is achieved. If you tighten the lower arm muscles briefly the wrist and hand will shiver to produce a rapid trebling of the bow. Be careful not to overdo this when practising. There is a risk of developing tennis (or should that be fiddlers) elbow! Remember the importance of relaxed tension free playing - always.

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