This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2012 issue

I’ve mused in this column a few times about how Celtic ornaments shift and mutate as they are adopted by new instruments entering the folk tradition.  Attempts by the ancient flutes and various varieties of bagpipes to imitate the human voice were, of course, only partly sucessful.  Over centuries, the new instruments added their own colorations and articulations from one note to the next.  Fiddles tried to sound like bagpipes, concertinas tried to sound like fiddles, and eventually mandolins tried to sound like concertinas.  Somehow each new instrument retained an essential “Celtic-ness” while producing ornaments and articulations unique and appropriate to their structural limitations.

A case can be made for fiddle ornamentation being the most complex of all the instruments in the Celtic tradition. After all, fiddles can change the length of notes, can slide up and down into and out of notes, can scratch hard or twiddle at notes with the bow, and can choose to elide notes together on one bow stroke or play them individually.  With all this stylistic elbow room, it’s not surprising that there are more recognized regional fiddle styles in Ireland and Scotland than there are regionally-distinct ways of playing fretted instruments.

But what got me thinking about this again was a realization about Celtic instrumental ornaments and textures I had while listening to a fiddle and concertina playing in unison.  Now, for years I’ve been awestruck at the way fiddler Kevin Burke and box player Jacky Daly play in unison.  It’s almost as if all four hands are being run by a single brain and nervous system.  They are so in synch and their ornaments are so terrifyingly similar, in spite of how differently they must articulate on their instruments.  But, while I enjoy and am inspired by their playing, I’ve always heard them as a duo.

Not so the pairing of fiddler Dale Russ and concertina-player Jack Gilder.  Much to my surprise, while listening to their playing recently, the two instruments blended together to sound, in moments, for all the world like an uilleann pipe chanter.  So I wondered if mandos might apply stylistic elements while playing in ensembles that could make the whole blend sound like there were more instruments playing than actually were.

Dale and Jack have graced the west coast scene for decades with various bands and about 15 years ago recorded a CD with Japanese-Celtic guitarist Junji Shirota called “Jody’s Heaven”.  The sweet double jig “Flowers of Spring” was the tune on this CD that first made my ears perk up and imagine they were hearing a pipe that wasn’t there.  So I listened through the tune a bunch trying to analyze the details.

As near as I can figure, the cool effect is created because these musicians do not play as exactly together as do Kevin and Jacky.  The fiddle might bloom from soft to loud on a single note while the concertina hits it straight and full-voiced.  Or the fiddle might ever so slightly slide up into a note that the concertina must hit straight on.  Or, while matching the timing of a triplet ornament, the fiddle might hammer on and elide two notes on one bow, while the concertina plays the run in lock-step, but necessarily staccato.  Or, grace notes preceding down beats are slightly staggered, while still landing the down beat together and right on the money.

The differences are so subtle, but the effect is unmistakable.  And fun.  So, how about mandos in the mix?  I’m not sure what instrument I’d imagine I was hearing if a mandolin and a concertina were locked together in almost ornamental unison in an ensemble.  But it might be fun to try to arrange a jig with a mandolin and another instrument of your choice so that both of you are playing the same shaped ornaments and grace notes in the same places.  Then you can listen and see if a third phantom instrument has deigned to join the party.  At the very least, it would be an exercise guaranteed to improve your conscious control and understanding of Celtic ornaments.

As a first tune to experiment with, I nominate “Flowers of Spring”, the two-part double jig that Jack Gilder first learned from County Clare-born concertina player Noel Hill, then taught to Dale Russ, and finally transcribed here.  This arrangement of the tune sports several different ornaments that feel good under the fingers on mandolin and octave mandolin as they imitate ornaments played on fiddle and concertina.

I’ve noted grace notes in four places in the tune. These grace notes are magic spark plugs that help pop a tune forward without much fuss.  The grace notes in the eighth bar of the A part and the second bar of the B part are played simply by plucking the note already being fingered and pulling off top match the ornamented note with the beat.  The other two (first and fourth bars of the A part) require a pull-off on the beat.

There are three different triplets on offer here, too: four ascending, one descending, and one horizontal.  For all but one of them the three-beat pattern is 8th-note, pair of 16th-notes, 8th-note.  The first is a picked down stroke.  The pair of 16ths is an up stroke followed by either a hammer-on or pull-off.  The last 8th is a down stroke.  The triplet in the seventh bar of the B part starts with the pair of 16ths.  Always remember to maintain the down-up-down right hand pattern in jigs to keep the jig engine running.

The only fingering note is to remind you to shift up in the B part to play the high A with the middle finger so you can finger the high B with your ring finger (mandolin) or pinky (octave mandos) before shifting back to root position during the two open E’s that follow. There’s plenty of time to move without a lunge.

Enjoy the tune and the ornaments and if you do succeed in conjuring up a phantom bandmate, let me know what instrument they’re playing.

Next Article: