This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Spring 2000 issue
I’ve always loved how the different scales and modes that Irish tunes are written in impart such dramatically different emotional potential to the melodies. It’s not as cut and dried as the classical distinction between “major” and “minor.”
While you’ll sometimes find yourself playing in major and pure minor scales, more often you find Celtic traditional tunes in a slightly dark Mixolydian mode (really a major scale with a flatted seventh scale step) or a good and broody Dorian mode (a pure minor also with a flatted seventh scale step).
The chordal accompanists among us can thank our lucky stars for this, since the flatted sevens open up juicy chordal possibilities and make these lovely, sometimes ancient, melodies that much more accessible to the modern ear.
I find the Scottish pipe tunes with the most visceral rock ‘m’ roll drive are the melodies incorporating what some stodgy musicologist once called the “Scottish Thumbprint.” This is simply a two-bar figure establishing the tonic chord, then the same exact figure played a whole step lower, implying the flatted seven chord, then snapping back up again to the tonic to finish the phrase.
Long before there were fretted instruments accompanying pipe tunes, this simple melodic device pulled away from the pipe drone to create tremendous tension and forward momentum. We of the multiple string persuasion can build on this tension to good advantage.
While I plan to walk you through the “Scottish Thumbprint” later, I have another kind of tension in mind for this issue. While most Irish jigs and reels stick to a single mode, occasionally we find one that stretches the limits with accidentals and surprises, or even one that pops from one mode to another. One of my favorite examples of this latter kind of tune is The Coleraine Jig, a Northern Irish tune sportine a lilt and hopeful melancholy rarely achieved in Irish music.
The Coleraine Jig is a pretty standard, two-part double jig that starts out in A minor, the chords toggling dramatically between the very minor tonic and very major E. But, the second part of the tune soars unexpectedly up to C, the relative major to A mnor, and suddenly we find that we’ve migrated from minor to Dorian mode, with a flatted seventh, allowing us an achingly beautiful chord progression from C to G to A minor to E. While these chords are being implied, the tune also indulges in that rare Irish flight of fancy: the four-note chromatic ascent. Very rare, indeed. But dark and gorgeous.
The rest of the second part of the tune sneaks back to the original minor mode, with the momentary coloration of a passing F natural, giving the accompaniment a moment to drop in an exotic and mysterious D minor chord. Okay, so I don’t wax this poetic about too many Irish tunes. This is just one that I’ve considered at length and that never fails to move me.
So how should we approach playing it? Because of the beauty of the melodic line, I try not to play Coleraine too fast. It’s definitely not a “bat-outta-hell” session tune. And, the standard default DOWN-up-down DOWN-up-down rhythmic picking pattern just won’t do it justice. I’d prefer to give the melody space and let it drive forward on its own, rather than being driven forward by insistent cascades of eighth notes. So try the accompaniment pattern shown here.
The mando is ideal for delivering sharp and accurate note attacks, for ringing through the spaces, and for letting the chord voicings bloom under the melody line. Leaving space at the end of each bar is a good way not to get in the way of the melody and end up sounding too busy. And, brush the multi-course chords lightly and slowly, rather than chopping for a single unified attack.
I think you’ll find that this is one of those tunes you can happily play eight or ten times through without getting tired of it. There’s so much going on in such a compact package.
I’m often asked what’s the difference between an Irish bouzouki and an octave mandolin or a cittern. Some of the difference is in style, but some is in preferred tuning.
When I found my baby—my short-necked, English-built octave mandolin—in Dublin in 1978, Irish bouzoukis were all the rage and mandolins were as rare as hen’s teeth. When I first noodled on the instrument I bought in the store, it was cross-tuned G-D-G-D. I quickly noticed that everybody else in the pub sessions around Ireland, whether they were playing real Greek bouzoukis or British flat-backed imitations, used this or similar drony cross-tuning.
I found the cross-tuning way too limiting. Besides, I was playing fiddle, too, and found that my brain couldn’t cope with switchng between instruments with different fingerings. So I tuned my octave mando to fifths, an octave lower than a mandolin, and there it’s stayed for 22 years. I can still imitate the unison and very open drone effect popularize by masters like Alec Finn of De Denann. And then I can play unison melodies just to mix things up and keep the textures interesting.
Still, you might want to experiment a little with alternate tunings, just for fun. The most common cross-tunings are G-D-G-D and A-E-A-E, though I regularly run into players who like to drop the E course down to D for some very nice effects.
The term “cittern” is sometimes used to describe double-course instruments used in Irish music. I reserve the name “cittern” for instruments with more than four courses. English luthier Stefan Sobell popularized the 5-course cittern, usually with the fifth course tuned to a high A. This gave melody players easier fingerings for some of the hotter rave tunes that ventured into the statosphere. I tried the five-course instruments over the years, but always came back to my plain old octave mandolin. I found the fifth course just got in the way too often.
So have fun with The Coleraine. And if you know of another dark and broody jigs that’s begging to be medleyed with it, I’d love to learn it.