This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Spring 2002 issue
Last time we had some fun with adding harmony lines to an Irish jig. This time I’d like to build in the harmonic direction with some open string drones that can really spice up a Celtic tune.
There are probably thousands of Irish and Scottish tunes in the keys of G, D, and A. Not only do tunes in these keys fit comfortably under the fingers on the mandolin, but we have access to plenty of open strings to use in good Celtic traditional fashion and establish ringing, drony chord roots for the tunes to work with.
Those of you who woodshedded “Banish Misfortune” from last time can add to the straight linear harmony with some lovely drone open strings in the “B” part of the tune. While playing the harmony line, brush the open D string on the first beat of each of the first 6 bars of the “B” part. This serves two useful purposes. First, it adds a strong, resonant emphasis on the most propulsive beat of the tune. Second, it adds some very Celtic tension by droning on the tonic through an implied chord progression from 1 to flatted 7 to 1. You can probably find other places to add similar drones, too.
But here’s another great tune to add to your repertoire that can drone like crazy all the way through. “Where’s the Cat?” is a Kerry slide, a jig-like dance native to County Kerry at the southwestern-most tip of Ireland. Slides count in 6/8, the same as double and single jigs, and feel very much like single jigs melodically, but the dances are different and tend to be more popular down south than in other parts of Ireland.
I learned “Where’s the Cat?” from Gerald Trimble, a cittern whiz from Kansas City, Missouri whom I first met in Edinburgh, Scotland. He loved tunes that could be used as improvisational heads and tunes that could really rock out. He used “Where’s the Cat?” for a little of both. I fell in love with the tune instantly and still think it has one of the best internal rock-and-roll drives in Irish music. It’s also got the world’s simplest chord progression, toggling between D and G and so practically begging for open string drones.
So here is “Where’s the Cat?” played twice through. The first time is an exercise in applying open string drones at emphasis points. I try to let the open strings ring as long as possible while the melody percolates above them. Some of you will remember my advice for driving jigs with the right hand (the Winter 1999 issue). With this slide, just as with any jig, it’s crucial to keep your right hand going DOWN up down DOWN up down in each bar. This way you’re always hitting an emphatic 1 or 4 beat with a down stroke for maximum punch and control.
The second time through the tune is a little trickier, mostly because it’s considerably busier. Nearly every eighth note is covered through the whole tune, which could exhaust both your wrist and the ears of the listener if every note was hit with equal emphasis. But the trick here is to cook along with the DOWN up down DOWN up down pattern, always playing the melody a little bit louder than the percolating drone notes. The up stroke notes on the 2 and 5 beats are picked very lightly as a rule, but you do want to keep the scatter-gun note density going as a propulsive device.
The only tricky fingering is the slide up to the high B in the penultimate bar. On my octave mando, I slide up from the previous open G chord to the higher voicing with first finger on the A string and third finger on the E. I then snap back immediately to finger the high A with my pinky and get back to first position. Small mandos are free to finger in any comfortable fashion.
“Where’s the Cat?” is a tune that we can play a bunch of times and just let the energy build like crazy. Even though it’s not technically a jig, it works just fine in a jig set. And since it eats its tail so smoothly, encouraging rocking repetition, it’s a great tune to use to slingshot yourself into another D tune and on into the night[DC1] .
Once you get the hang of getting the drone notes to work subtlely under the melody, you can use this technique on plenty of other tunes. Play the tunes straight, then bit by bit add the extra notes for increased fire and drive. Like any tune enhancement technique, you don’t want to use this idea all the time, but it’s nice to be able to move in and out of drone passages and make the rest of the session happy to have a mandolin in the mix.