This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2007/2008 issue
I’ve mentioned grace notes in passing a number of times in this column, but it’s time to give them a whole column to themselves. Grace notes are among the mando’s greatest stylistic tools when it comes either to capturing the Celtic-ness of a jig or a reel or simply to spicing up an otherwise drab and uninteresting tune. And, happily, grace notes are among the easiest ornaments to master. The trick, it seems, is in breaking the ornaments down to the atomic level and examining the tiniest details before putting them all together and applying them.
Grace notes come in two distinct flavors: ascending and descending. Most commonly, an ascending grace note will be a precisely-timed hammer-on, with the finger either hammering on an open course or above the adjacent lower finger, which is already stopping the course one or two frets below. A descending grace note can be either a simple pull-off or a combination of a silent placement of a finger above, followed by pulling off with that finger. If this seems daunting, don’t worry. We’ll deconstruct both descenders in a minute. First, let’s talk about ascending grace notes.
The actual ergonomics of an ascending grace note, slowed down to sub-snail’s pace, involve the finger coming down to stop the course a gnat’s eyelash after the right hand picks the note. There are two considerations to keep in mind. First, the grace note does not have to ring as a clear note. Its job is to imply upward motion and set up the following note that does ring clearly. Second, your right hand doesn’t change the driving rhythmic engine of the tune in any way. The grace note happens so fast that both the grace note and the following note happen on the beat. Still with me? It’s not really that scary.
In fact, fear is the one thing we want to avoid here. Fear causes lunging and lunging will serve only to make the ornament clunky and to tire you out. Instead, you want to plan ahead and know the ascending grace note is coming in time to land it.
Ascending grace notes can jump one, two, even three frets, depending on what direction the tune is coming from and where it’s going. This issue’s notation example, “The Banks of Lough Gowna”, includes both one-fret and three-fret ascenders.
When you come up to speed with ascending grace notes, try not to pick any harder. Let the snap of the ornament and the crisp attack of the following finger do the job. You’ll see that very little added right hand oomph is required to make the ornament do its snappy little job.
Now, descending grace notes can be a little more involved. Descenders only work snappily if you pull off by rotating your hand downwards (clockwise) in a side-snap. Again, let’s slow down to sub-snail’s pace. An instant after picking with your right hand, you snap down sideways either to the open course or to the adjacent finger below. Subtlely grip the pair of strings with some downward pressure, then rotate sideways, releasing the strings as you go. When done properly, the ornamented note will sound clearly even without picking it. Practice this a few times to get the feel of it. As with the ascending grace note, the descending grace note does not need to sound as a clear and distinct note. In fact, it almost never will. It’s job is to imply movement downward into the ornamented note that does ring clearly.
Now, I find that rotating the whole hand at the wrist delivers up the cleanest pull-off ornaments with the least fatigue. As you master the movement, you’ll find that very little motion is actually required, but it will feel different from trying to pull sideways with only one finger while leaving the others in place. I first worked this move out by watching Kevin Burke’s fiddle ornamentation. He made it look so effortless I had to try, first on fiddle, and then on mando. I’ve never regretted it.
Okay, I mentioned two variants of the descending grace note. The one I just described is the simpler of the two. The second requires that you set up the finger above to pull off, even though the note that finger is stopping is not part of the tune. Knowing when it’s appropriate to do this comes with listening and with practice. “The Banks of Lough Gowna” provides good examples of both types of descenders, leading both to open strings and adjacent fingers.
Like the ascending grace notes, it’s important not to lunge on the descenders, but to plan ahead. You’ll be pulling off and picking simultaneously, which gives the note real punch without having to overtly play louder. In fact, you’ll probably have better luck keeping your rhythm steady if you don’t try to play the ornamented notes louder than the unornamented ones. Crisp, yes. Louder, no.
The musical example I picked for this issue is a traditional Irish jig I perform with Wake the Dead (it’s on our first CD), and which lead mandolinist Paul Kotapish plays with particular panache. I’ve indicated grace notes in as many places here as I could shoehorn them in—way more than you’d ever want to play at one time. Start out by trying to play all of them, just for the sake of the exercise. Then, as you tailor your personal version to play in the sessions, back off and stick with your favorites. You’ll find that just a few well-placed and crisp grace notes can add real fire to a tune.