The ToneWay® Project: helping people play music

Toneway user experience: Picking vs. strumming

Some of you may be aware that we started a Toneway group in Alberta, Canada. Things are going very well, our first group has done the Getting Started series, and we're now starting to jam.

I thought I'd make a few comments on our experiences with the Toneway system, focussing today on “strumming” and “picking”, especially as this affects guitar and fiddle.

A fairly unique aspect of Toneway is the emphasis on picking out tunes, and eventually improvising, early on in the Getting Started series. I've been finding that this is a novel concept to get across to guitar players, especially those who just want to strum along to their own singing. This goes double for ukulele players. I think it's a bit of a conceptual leap for some to think of the guitar as a solo instrument, or to even think of lead playing as an achievable target for beginning guitarists. I think if you come from the mountain or bluegrass traditions, this might seem strange, but bluegrass is not indigenous to Canada - the guitar (or piano) is used to accompany fiddle.

The flip side is using the fiddle to play “chords” to accompany other musicians. I think this is an important skill, since even fiddle players will find themselves spending more time accompanying, rather than taking lead breaks, at least in mountain music and bluegrass. The only instruction book I'm aware of that covers this topic exclusively is Gordon Stobbe's green book of fiddle accompaniment, and Toneway is the only system I know that gets beginning fiddlers going with chopping so early on. I like this aspect a whole lot, since it gives first-time fiddlers a chance to participate - when you first try to scrape out a tune, you tend to sound very screechy, which can be an impediment to participating until you are “good enough”.

I'd be interested in hearing other's thoughts on these ideas. Do you think guitar strummers who don't take lead breaks are missing out? Is “chording” with the fiddle as important as I think it ?

Edited Jan 19, 2014 by Ralph Lange
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Thanks for the clarifications, gentlemen. We started this thread off on a discussion of chording vs. strumming as practiced by beginners or people learning to play together. For our little non-elitist group, I think we'll keep on chopping and strumming, while encouraging as much picking as possible. We'll encourage picking because it really opens up a whole new world, but won't limit strumming because it allows all to participate, AND it builds rhythm skills. AND, this is primarily about music as a social interaction - we're all about attaining musical fluency, not virtuosity.

Do you think it would be helpful in our situation to have some bluegrass performers come out, or even hold a little workshop? Or a go on a “field trip” to a bluegrass jam in the city? Not that we're married to bluegrass music, but perhaps it would be an opportunity to show people the “picking vs. strumming” dynamic in action.

I also really appreciate the information on bluegrass conventions (maybe “rule” is a bit harsh), so that when the situation warrants, I won't come across like some kind of ignoramus. I don't really mind sticking to the conventions of a genre, be it bluegrass or anything else. All genres have their conventions. I want to know what the conventions are, so that when I break them, I'm doing it purposefully and with respect.

Come to think of it, I don't think I've actually run into any elitists, at least among traditional, folk, roots, bluegrass or old-time musicos, including professionals. Traditionalists, yes, but no elitists, and everyone has been very welcoming, accommodating and tolerant, even when I've made dumb moves, like calling a tune in Eb or got carried away and drown out other players. The best aspect of People Music is the people.

Oh, and bravo to the idea on harmony singing - there's a real lack of easily accessible information in that area. Speaking from experience, when you luck out and get the harmonies right, it's AWESOME!


Ha ha, Ralph :-) I don't imagine you would run into many elitist way up there. And, frankly the obnoxious elitist is a rather rare thing anywhere. On the other hand, it doesn't take much of that vibe to intimidate beginners. As to your question: There are no wrong moves in my book. Experiment and see what happens is my motto.


Hello everyone,

To update the thread, I finally got time to restring my soprano ukulele with GDAE strings (Aquila 30U). I was really surprised at how much higher pitched it sounds when strumming. It sounds totally different than it did with the uke strings. Well the high string is a 5th higher, which didn't sound like much but it is.

What was really cool was being able to play the melody of the fiddle tunes I know, right away. The chords and strumming will take some time because I'm used to the uke chords. So far it's an interesting experiment and a pretty cheap one too. I can see me picking up the GDAE uke when I can't play fiddle (on a trip, late at night, etc.).

As for the “no chopping” I agree, that is more applicable for a small bluegrass band and doesn't really apply to a large group. I've yet to find some people to jam with here in the Paris France area but I hope to convert some people to mountain music. I already gave one Toneway book as a Christmas present. :)



I've yet to find some people to jam with here in the Paris France area but I hope to convert some people to mountain music.

Have you tried to connect with ukulele players there? We are experimenting introducing uke players here to 'mountain music'. As it is now, they do more pop songs without adjusting the key to match vocal ranges nor do they know how to pick (unless they are musicians).

It is worth a try to connect with uke community there, as I suspect there are many more people playing uke than 'bluegrass'… but who knows?

I'm not really surprised the GDAE strings worked out so well for you.

Another option, for a fuller sound could be getting an 8 string uke and putting Aquila mandolin stings on it. You'd be all set to play with ukulele folks and with bluegrass folks.–AMSM.htm
(AQUILA 1M MANDOLIN SET strings are medium tension ee, aa DD, GG - e, a, D New Nylgut; G wound)


Regarding jamming, have you checked out these folks: Perhaps they'd like to join the Toneway community.

In case the link doesn't work, here's the text from their Facebook “About” section:

Une jam mensuelle de musiques Old Time et Bluegrass, avec un peu de country, blues entre autres, ayant lieu aux Péniches Anako ou Demoiselle sur les quais de Seine dans le 19ème arrondissement de Paris.
Une jam mensuelle de musiques Old Time et Bluegrass, avec un peu de country, blues entre autres, ayant lieu aux Péniches Anako ou Demoiselle sur les quais de Seine dans le 19ème arrondissement de Paris, organisé par Sarah Novaro, Marius Pibarot et Cory Seznec.

For the non-Frenchies: we've finally started an Old Time and Bluegrass jam (with some country/blues/etc thrown in for good measure), all taking place on the canal barges in Paris' 19th arrondissement. Come by when you swing through Paris!

Edited Jan 27, 2014 by Ralph Lange
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