This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2006 issue
It’s nice to think that one Mandolin Magazine columnist occasionally borrows an idea from another. I’ve been eyeing John McGann’s octave mando column since he joined the magazine, since so much of what he lays out is so useful in the Celtic genre. But I haven’t gotten around to riffing on one of his ideas and turning it into a column of my own (give it time). Dix Bruce’s most recent Mando Basics column, on the other hand, just gave me the idea for this issue’s topic.
Dix, that most devil-may-care and playful of mandolinists, started out his latest screed with an exhortation to do whatever you darn well please on the mandolin and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise! Wow. Now, I personally love that sort of iconoclasm, although there’s plenty of grouchy purists lurking in Irish pub sessions around the country waiting to pounce on you and explain at great length about the “right” way to do something in Celtic music and how whatever you are doing isn’t “right”.
Now, as anyone familiar with the weird arc of my performing career or the tone of my previous columns will know, I don’t listen much to people who are stuck on “right” and “wrong” in Celtic music. But Dix’s little outburst got me to thinking about some of the rules I do tend to set down for my students and to examine if these rules really are sacred.
Some Celtic mando rules serve to help the mando (always the newcomer to the party) fit in with the stylistic nuances of other Celtic session lead instruments like fiddles, flutes, whistles, and pipes. Some help the mando mimic ornaments played by the other instruments. And some serve to emphasize the Celtic drive of the Irish and Scottish dance tunes and keep them from drifting into sounding like polkas or cowboy music or just undanceable mush.
The one rhythmic rule I’m always pounding on in my classes and workshops is the rule about how to handle the right-hand picking pattern on jigs. I’m rather emphatic about this, reflecting my belief that mastering this one little technique can really improve one’s playing both solo and in the social context of a session. I’ve mentioned this rule several times in earlier columns, but here it goes again. Irish jigs (and Scottish 6/8 pipe marches that share the same internal drive and logic) always need to be played with a DOWN-up-down, DOWN-up-down picking pattern.
Oh my, did I really say always? I humbly apologize. What I meant to say was that almost always, this is how one can be sure of driving the 6/8 jig forward, maintaining the dance pulse, and making sure that every emphasized note of the melody is played with a down stroke, taking advantage of physics and gravity and all that good stuff. If everybody in a session does this, the jig is locked and the groove is maintained. If all but one person in a session does this, the one person can occasionally provide some contrapuntal intrigue with up strokes matching everyone else’s down strokes or with unexpected stressed downstrokes. If nobody obeys this dictum, the wheels come off.
And yet, there are times when I find myself joyously abandoning my own rule and using alternative downs and ups. It’s got to be in a particular sort of tune with a particular sort of density of notes, and there’s got to be some positive reason for breaking the rule.
My favorite reason: brazen showmanship. When you can make a big, fat Pete Townshend swoop of your forearm while playing a tune, how can that not be accompanied by a big grin and possibly elicit whoops from the fuzzy-brained Guinness-drinkers slouching around the band? These are moments to be cherished.
“Austin Barrett’s Jig” is a great tune that just begs to be played with utter disregard for my 6/8 rhythmic rule. It’s a 3-part Irish tune I perform with mandolinist Robin Flower and accordionist Libby McLaren to round out a three-tune set. Here I’ve transcribed the first two parts pretty straight and given two variants of the third part. The first two parts (called A and B in the notation) can rock on pretty nicely with the standard DOWN-up-down, DOWN-up-down. They can also survive a rather non-Irish DOWN-up-down, UP-down-up alternating pattern—the very pattern I squawk at my students trying to get them to avoid.
In either case, when I specify a pattern, I’m speaking of all six eighth-notes in a given bar. If there’s a rest or a longer note, the right hand continues with the pattern and simply refrains from striking any string for the space of that rest or sustain.
For the third part, I’ve written out two times through, first the tried and true session version that sits just fine under DOWN-up-down, DOWN-up down and second the Pete Townshend rave version with off-beats and very sharply-hit up strokes, that can be taken to whatever theatrical lengths you choose. Try to follow the stroke directions marked in the notation of each C part. And try not to knock the next guy’s pint into his lap when you fling your arm out in reckless abandon.
I guess there are no rules that can’t be broken in Celtic mando. Still, it might be a good idea to learn to play by the rules at least for a while before running off to break them. Happy flailing.