24 Tunes for 2013: Fisher’s Hornpipe

by Kirk

Welcome to 2013! This month here at Beijing Pickers we are inaugurating our new series, 24 Tunes for 2013. Twice each month we’ll choose a tune to learn and drill obsessively at our weekly jam here in Beijing. 

We kick off our series with the culturally and historically meaty tune, Fisher’s Hornpipe, in the key of D. This tune is nearly ubiquitous, showing up even in Tortuga, in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Let’s have a listen:


How about them chords?

Part A:

D|G  D|G  D|G  D|A

D|G  D|G  D|A(7)  D|D


Part B:

A  |  D  |     A    |  D

G  |  D  |   G|A  |  D


So, wait, which is it then? Fisher the man, or fisher, the fisher…man?

Known also by quite a few names, I always thought this tune’s title referenced briny seafarers, being a hornpipe after all (more about Hornpipes here). It turns out, however, rather obviously, to be named for the fiddler, Fishar, who wrote it. That is, if, in fact, it was James A. Fishar who wrote it. Or maybe it was German composer Johann Christian Fischer (1733‑1800), or 18th century English fiddle player J.W. Fisher. And that’s just assuming the story about it being written for General Wiliam Howe, Supreme Commander of British forces during the American War for Independence isn’t totally true. My favorite anecdote from ibilio.org is that one member of the Moses Cleaveland surveying party, of Cleveland, OH, fame, recorded in his diary a fiddler who knew the tune busting out Fisher’s Hornpipe at an impromptu dance along the Cuyahoga River.

For callers, here’s a nice look at Elias Howe’s American Dancing Master (1862) notes to accompany the tune, via Contra Dancers of Hawai’i. “Ultimately simple triple-minor contra dance.”

Notes: Key, Tuning, Rhythm

Fisher’s Hornpipe and it’s name variants can be found in just about any folky key you desire. Award-winning fiddler, Vi Wickam, who has just finished tenaciously and prodigiously cranking out fiddles tunes each and every day on Youtube for the entirety of 2012, notes that in Texas style fiddling circles, Fisher’s is usually played in the key of F, while Celtic and Old Time fiddlers often favor D. One commentor on theSession.org claims that F is “The Key” for dances, and D is but a “frowned upon” second. Older versions tend to be in F, according to ibiblio.org.

Variations in fiddle tuning are as plentiful as variations in key, but most seem to be in standard “G” tuning: GDAE. Other variations include ADad and GDgd.

Something else to keep in mind, as mentioned in Wendy Anthony’s nice Mandolin intro to this tune listed below, is that in hornpipe tunes, the first beat gets a little extra emphasis, almost like a dotted eighth note, so the overall feeling is a bouncy ONE twothreefour FIVE sixsev’neight.

For your Ears

Key of F, Winston Scotty Fitzgerald, via RP Christeson @ Slippery Hill

Key of D, Jean Carignan via Milliner-Koken @ Slippery Hill

Key of G, Hill Billies, via Milliner-Koken @ Slippery Hill

For your Eyeballs

Vi Wickam’s F and D versions, for studious comparison:



Slow fiddle version:


For Unfiddlers

Mandolin sheet music, plus a nice technique breakdown, key of D.

Slow mandolin video:








Happy and healthy 2013, everyone, and happy hornpiping!