This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2000 issue
If you sat down with the last issue and “woodshedded” The Coleraine Jig, I’m sure you agree that it’s a most pleasureable Irish tune to play. Perhaps, though, you’re still not satisfied with how “Irish” the tune sounds under your fingers. Okay, it’s time to talk some more about Celtic ornamentation and really give you something to practice.
When I showed you the jig The Rambler (Fall 1999 issue), I marked some spots where you could ornament the basic tune with fast triplets. The triplets for that tune were all played on the same note, being the mandolin’s way of imitating a scratchy, diggy fiddle-bow triplet, which, in turn, is an imitation of a bagpipe squawk called a “cran.”
Of course, ornamental triplets come in various flavors. Sometimes you can propel yourself in the direction of the melodic line of a tune with ascending or descending triplets, as well as the static three-note variety.
But triplets are not the only ornaments used to make Celtic tunes sound more authentically Celtic. The most popular Irish fiddle ornament is called a “turn.” See the Example for the basic shape of this ornament.
The trick to pulling off an Irish turn correctly is to NOT let either the note above nor the note below the ornamented note sound as a clear note. You merely want to interrupt the vibrating length of the string for a split second, while digging a little with the bow and achieving a unique, scratchy pulse.
Mandolins will find fiddle turns devilishly hard to imitate, though sometimes you can get lucky with quick combinations of hammer-ons and pull-offs. Even the masters of Celtic fretwork like Gerry O’Connor and Gerald Trimble spend far less time on turns than they do on artful use of triplets and snappy grace notes.
It’s those snappy grace notes that I want to focus on this time. I developed a fondness for anticipatory grace notes some years ago while playing with some of my heroes in sessions around Edinburgh. Brian McNeill, an incendiary player of whatever instrument he can get his hands on, said that my use of the grace notes made my playing sound like a cross between Irish and Scottish styles, or perhaps more Northern Irish than anything. That was fine with me, since my family originally came from the north.
But, since I started listening particularly for grace notes, I don’t think there’s any necessary regional identification. Yes, they are very well-suited for driving highly syncopated Scots strathspeys and reels, but I just like the way they keep any dance tune popping when used tastefully.
So let’s go back to The Coleraine Jig. I use a couple of slightly different grace notes to spice this tune up. All of them share a quick, sharp attack and borrow an idea from the fiddle turns: the grace note itself doesn’t want to be heard as a definite note, but just as a dig, played with the tiniest increase of emphasis by the pick hand.
Most, but not all, of the grace notes will be coming down to the ornamented note from above. And one of the tricks to making these ornaments lightning-quick and snappy is a trick I figured out be watching Kevin Burke play the fiddle. When Kevin drops in a grace note or a turn, the fingers of his left hand don’t come down onto the string from above and then back up off again, but swoop in from the side (low to high) to barely kiss the vibrating string and then almost instantly are out of the way again and available for the next melody note.
On my mando, it doesn’t seem to matter as much how I come down onto the grace note, as long as I come off of it to the side. I’ve indicated on the ornamented version of The Coleraine where I like to add the snappy grace notes.
Always remember that indications of ornamental pick and placement are merely suggestions. Move your ornaments around. Let them come and go, lest they become hardened into an unchanging (and ultimately uninteresting) setting of a tune.
You’ll notice that I don’t indicate any grace notes in the chromatic passages in the second part of the tune. This is no accident. The tune itself in these passages is so perfect (in my humble opinion) that I wouldn’t want to do anything to get in its way. Painting the lily and gilding the golden — just because there’s room for an ornament in a tune doesn’t mean you need to stick one in there.
If you’d like to try to add just one more kind of ornament, there are a couple of places where a pull-off triplet seems approriate and fun. The first comes at the end of bar four. Pick the E on the fourth beat; pick the F; pull off the F with the second finger; pull off the E with the first finger, and, if you like, pick the final D at the same instant that you pull off to the open string.
The last pick I find to come without thinking, since my right hand is indulging in the DOWN-up-down DOWN-up-down internal jig engine that helps me keep the emphases on the first and fourth beats of each bar.
The second place for a triplet ornament is the last half of bar six. The notes are an octave up from the last triplet, but you probably won’t want to pick the last D (fifth fret, A string). Snapping down clean with the little finger will give you all the emphasis you need.
And, if your little finger resists its necessary role in this ornament, I’d say that it’s that much more valuable an exercise for you, since the deeper you get into Irish and Scottish repertoire and the subtleties of style, the more you’ll need your little finger as a full partner and team player.
So, many happy ornaments and next time we’ll leave jig time for an exotic trans-Mediterranean approach to thinking about Irish reels.