This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Fall 2006 issue
In my last column I admitted that there are appropriate ways to bend and break some of the rules I’ve hammered on over the years regarding Celtic mando. I explored an example of right hand rhythmic rule-breaking when playing jigs, tying it all up with the final sage advice that you learn to play by the rules before breaking them.
Generally, I’m a little less insistent about left hand “rules” in Celtic music, though one point I’m constantly harping on is proper hand position. For those of you who play shorter-necked octave mandolins (my scale length is 21.25 inches, standard tenor banjo length), I’ve always found it crucial to establish a comfortable hand position with the left index finger hovering over the second fret and the other three fingers each taking one fret above that. The index finger is then responsible for any note played on either the first or second fret, the second finger plays the third fret only, the ring finger plays the fourth fret only, and the pinky takes on the fifth and sixth frets.
Often I’ll teach experienced mandolin students who are expanding into a longer scale instrument and find that this left hand position lesson requires a little attention, as a common instinct is to use small mando fingerings for the larger instruments. Well, in Celtic tunes, that just ain’t gonna work. The pinky has to be a fully-fledged partner and it’s best to settle that right at the get-go.
If you can find a comfortable way to curve the fingers of your left hand lightly over the fretboard as described above without clamping down on the neck in some death grip, you’ll find that jigs and reels require a lot less effort. You’ll be able to arpeggiate and hit those occasional high Bs without lunging up and back and losing the lilt of the tune (or missing the note entirely).
Of course, as the scale lengths grow on some of the longer-necked citterns and Irish bouzoukis, even good first-position hand position won’t prevent the lunging and eventual panting fatigue. Still, you’re more likely to nail those high Bs if you aim with your pinky than if you insist on aiming with your ring finger. And you’ll be able to play longer before your poor left hand cries for mercy.
So we come to a good exception to my rule. “The Musical Priest” is a very popular 3-part Irish reel in B minor (collected in O’Neill’s “1001 Dance Gems” and elsewhere). The second and third parts of the tune repeatedly require you to play a high B on the 7th fret followed by an A on the 5th fret. Clearly I wouldn’t suggest you play both notes using your pinky. Instead, you’ll have to stretch your whole hand position upwards and hit all the As with your ring finger. This will require a conscious alteration in left hand position from the 1st part of the tune to the high passages in the 2nd and 3rd parts. I’ve tried playing the whole “Musical Priest” with the expanded position, but that stretch between the first finger on the 2nd fret and the ring finger on the 5th just tuckers me out, so I use the 1st part and first half of the second part to relax my hand a little before launching to the Bs that the fiddles and accordions can play without batting an eyelash.
In the notation here I’ve marked fingerings throughout to show where I stretch to play the 5th fret with my ring finger. When you try playing through the tune, remember that the idea is to minimize or eliminate lunging in either direction. If you still find yourself lunging (with a shorter-necked instrument, anyway), slow down and analyze your movement. Chances are you’re underestimating how much time you have to morph from the normal to the stretch position and back again.
And just to give you another amusing exercise in horizontal fretboard movement without lunging, here’s notation for “Up the Crooked Spire”. This is a delicious modern D-minor jig written by English guitarist Keith Hinchliffe (formerly with the Albion Band, whose recording of the tune is available through www.keithhinchliffe.com).
You get two different moments in the tune to practice slipping away from the first position. The first comes in the fourth bar of the 1st part, where you’ll have to slide everything up one fret to catch the high B-flat with your pinky, then use your ring finger for the A in the pull-off ornament and the following dotted quarter note. Then you return to first position for the first A in the next bar and stay there a while. A little practice will make this subtle shift seamless and unnoticeable.
Then the 2nd part starts with the tune’s signature moment: the sharply-hit double-stop on the 8th fret. I like to finger the double-stop with my pinky, then slide down into the A, also played with the pinky. What takes practice is getting up to the 8th fret and back down to first position without ever sounding rushed. It’ll take a little practice but believe me, it’s possible, and makes “Crooked Spire” one cool session tune to pull out when it’s time to do something impressive.
I’ve heard bouzoukis with longer scales than mine play “Up the Crooked Spire” with ease and gusto. The shifts are pretty easy to master. “The Musical Priest”, on the other hand, is one of those accordion tunes that just drives big mandos nuts. If you can devise a painless way to finger it, please let me know. Until then, I feel your pain. And you probably want another pint right about now, anyway.