This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Fall 2008 issue

How has it taken thirty-five columns to get around to hornpipes?  I do apologize to all you hornpipe fans.  But I suppose the problem is that I am not the only Celtic aficionado who sadly neglects the hornpipe end of the repertoire.  I’ll try to remedy the situation a bit today.

For years, I’ve noticed that one can spend nearly an entire evening at a session powering through endless reels and spirited jigs with only a rare nod to hornpipes.  Yet, hornpipes provide a lovely emotional break from the high-gear sets and give all of us pickers who aren’t Tony McManus or Gerry O’Connor a chance to toss off some crisp, clean, and satisfying picked triplets.

Those of us who wandered into Celtic music from any of several regional American styles might wonder what the big deal is about hornpipes.  After all, they’re pretty much like reels, right?  Four-four rhythm, 16-bar patterns, nothing weird, just like reels… um, hold it right there.  Yes, it’s true that Americans have tended to straighten hornpipes out to sound more and more like reels.  And for some who have heard “Fisher’s Hornpipe” played at a Texas-style fiddle contest, there’s nothing left of the hornpipe but the name.  But I think that’s a shame and have decided to advocate the reinvigoration of the synchopated hornpipe in its proper place in the American Celtic zeitgeist.

Historically, hornpipes evolved as accompaniment for a very particular and synchopated kind of clog dance.  This dance can be incredibly complicated and requires a very solid and controlled tempo to pull off without losing any toes.  So, back in the day when tunes were played for dancing more often than around beer-soaked tables in pubs, players knew to keep the tempos very stately, both to allow the dancers to dance and to allow the ornaments tucked into the shapes of the tunes to sparkle.  Rediscovering the slower hornpipes can be a very gratifying experience.

Wandering through O’Neill’s “1001 Gems: The Dance Music of Ireland” from a century ago, I noticed that Captain Francis O’Neill was pretty careless about noting down the inherent dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth hornpipe synchopation from tune to tune.  This might account for some of the straightening-out of the tunes by the current generation, dutifully learning the tunes from the printed source.  But take a minute to revisit all your hornpipes and try playing them with the strong synchopation that always leads up to the phrase-ending series of three sharp quarter notes.  There’s a real satisfaction to finishing up a note-y hornpipe phrase with those three confident notes.

O’Neill included “Harvest Home” in “1001 Gems”, an eternally popular hornpipe and one that revels in being played both at a leisurely clip and with strong synchopation.  I like “Harvest Home” as a teaching tool for triplet picking, too, providing as it does a little challenge of shifting back and forth between two picking patterns.

The first pattern is the straight DOWN-up pattern of the dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth note pairs, which encourage you to stress the first note of each pair, but come back up in time for the next pair.  The second pattern is for the triplets that get tossed into the mix.  For the triplets, I recommend the same DOWN-up-down pattern I use for playing jigs.

Here’s a nice, standard setting for “Harvest Home”, with varieties of triplets thrown in: ascending, descending, and same-note.  When I first tackled “Harvest Home” I found that no matter how careful I was, I’d mess up the triplets in the fourth bar of each part if I tried to maintain a straight down-up-down-up picking pattern through the bar.  But, if I borrowed my jig technique and played every triplet DOWN-up-down, followed by a DOWN stroke on whatever note came next, the phrase crisped up nicely and every note rang clean.

Of course, it’s also important to keep your tempo slower than whatever you’re using for reels.  But if you’ve been trying to master the Irish triplet ornament in jigs and reels, this might be a great way to ease into it in a slightly different context and at a slightly easier clip.  Enjoy.