A Bluegrass Pioneer

By Glaser, Matt | Strings, November 2005 | Go to article overview

A Bluegrass Pioneer


Glaser, Matt, Strings


Remembering fiddler Vassar Clements, the king of dark, brooding tone

I WAS FLABBERGASTED THE FIRST TIME I HEARD Vassar Clements play the fiddle. I was a sophomore in high school and rushed out to get a copy of the album VWH the Circle Be Unbroken after reading a review of it. As soon as I heard the first few notes, I was hooked. Never before had I hqard fiddle playing of such incredible, expressive power: dark, brooding, buesy, and wonderfully inventive.

Clements, who died August 16 after a battle with cancer, evolved an astonishing technique on the fiddle-a technique, however, that was never displayed for its own sake, but was always at the service of his musical goals. A former member of the pioneering Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys and the influential Earl Scruggs Revue, Clements lent his fiddle to more than 1,000 recordings. Among them are the landmark 1972 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Capitol Records), which turned a whole generation on to the joys of country music, and 1973's progressive bluegrass masterwork Old and In the Way (with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, mandolinist David Grisman, and others). During a career that spanned half a century, Clements performed with Stéphane Grappelli, Paul McCartney, Mark O'Connor, and many others. At his peak, he was one of those rare musicians who truly transcended all idiomatic boundaries.

To my mind, the single most important factor in Clements' technique was his tone: it was always deep, rich, and dark. His method of tone production was closely related to his whole concept of bowing, the main principle of which is the economy of motion. He used a slow bow speed, a good deal of bow weight, and a point of contact quite close to the bridge.

Clements' rich tone was also related to his unique way of holding the bow: he draped his fingers over the frog, covering it completely. This was similar to the way classical cellists hold the bow, and it afforded Clements the greatest possible surface area between hand and bow. He kept his elbow low and close to his side throughout the bow stroke, putting the entire weight of his arm into every inch of bow (as opposed to applying pressure). Finally, Clements kept his bow hair very tight, and with the hair flat on the string, he rotated the stick toward him, unlike almost every other fiddler or violinist.

Conservation of energy seemed to be the key to Clements' miraculous left-hand facility. His control of left-hand positions reached a level of sophistication that rivaled that of any fiddler: he was completely at ease anywhere on the neck. …

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