This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2010/2011 issue
I love my left pinkie finger. Let’s just start with that. Ever since jumping onto the Celtic bandwagon with a newly-acquired Irish bouzouki that I retuned to fifths and called an octave mandolin I have been gleefully learning and playing Celtic fiddle tunes that from Day One required the use of the pinkie finger as a full partner in the music.
In those early days in the Irish pub session subculture, I noticed that many (perhaps most) fledgling Irish bouzouki players, unlike myself, had started out as mandolin pickers. Like me, they heard the great double-course geniuses of the Celtic Resurgence like Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine and Alec Finn and said, “Dang! I’m gonna get me one of those!” But while I moved sideways from guitar into Celtic octave mando, bringing my guitar-shaped chordal ideas with me, I saw all sorts of obvious mandolin technique being brought to bear on these longer scale instruments in sessions and camps and livingroom come-all-ye’s. And the thing I noticed most often was how hard the mandolinists would work to impose mandolin fingerings on octave mandolin frets.
Sometimes I felt exhausted just watching them, since so many of the tunes require such articulation up on the 5th frets of the A and E courses, as well as the common bounding up to the high B on the 7th fret of the E string. Trying to hit the 5th fret with the ring finger, while leaving the poor pinkie waving helplessly in the breeze seemed like such unnecessarily hard work. Also, so many ornamental and melodic possibilities were lost with only three serviceable fingers at the ready.
All right, so I’ve grown less judgmental as I’ve aged, but still I stress to my students the virtues of establishing a left hand position that keeps the pinkie finger available as much as the others. In other words, I like to make the index finger responsible for frets 1 and 2, the second finger responsible for fret 3, the ring finger responsible for fret 4, and the pinkie left to handle whatever happens on frets 5 and 6. Shifting and stretching to reach higher notes or odd melodic elements certainly happens, but the idea is to find a non-lungeing way to pull away from the Home Position and then snap back into it when the need for stretching is past.
So, having said that, I’ve picked a real finger-twister of a tune this time that should prove useful and amusing pinkie exercise for both small mandolins and larger octave mandos for different reasons. I learned “Con McGinley’s Reel” from the playing of Donegal fiddler James Byrne. You can find it (along with “Mick Carr’s Highland #1”, which I gave you in my Winter ’06-’07 column) on Byrne’s CD “The Road to Glenlough”. Byrne, by the way, was a huge influence on a generation of hot Donegal players and died a couple of years ago, far too young.
This is one of those reels with A and B parts that are only eight bars long and don’t repeat, though I’ve written the A part here as four bars that do repeat. For big mandos, the A part features some wonderful interplay between the fourth and fifth frets, making the pinkie and the ring fingers work together like crazy. Small mandolins will find the A part fun by virtue of the way the tune toggles between the D and A courses. A tongue-twister for the fingers.
The B part is a toughie, with that jump up to the 7th fret. Small mandolins can play the 7th fret with the pinkie without moving out of Home Position, but the ring finger will have to establish independence from the pinkie in order to nail the G and G# happily, and that’s not always a comfortable thing.
Octave mandos have to choose between a couple of equally-difficult fingering options. Just for fun, I’ve provided tab for the B part for two ways I shift up and back, as the spirit moves me. The fingering designations for the passage that jumps up are marked above the tab line. While either fingering option requires at least one Barishnikov leap up the fretboard, the second option takes advantage of an open E melody note for two of the three leaps upward. For these passages, I slide smoothly up the E course with my second finger to the 7th fret and snap back down to Home Position during the open E eighth-note. The third leap doesn’t afford even an eighth-note’s worth of slack, so do your best and mutter darkly about fiddle players. Perhaps this is one tune you won’t want to take too blisteringly fast.
You can, of course, leave the odd eighth-note out to give yourself time to navigate up or down the neck. That’s entirely fair in the good old oral tradition. But this is a fun tune that one can play through a bunch of times just to limber up and get that pinkie working as it should. Think pink!