This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2004 issue
In one of my first columns, in a fit of honesty, I admitted that Celtic-style picked triplets are so hard to play clearly that I usually avoid them. I occasionally find this fact embarrasing two decades into my performing and teaching career. I cover my technical shortcoming with sneaky little pull-off and pick combinations that seem to do the job. But the crisp triple-pick ornaments? I remain in awe of the players who make them look and sound easy.
So I thought this time I’d try to deconstruct these triplets in a way that you determined and nimble-knuckled students of the genre might find helpful. As an exercise, I chose a nifty dark and rolling reel called “Spirit of the House,” which was written by Missouri fiddler Becky Pringle. It’s chock full of triplet opportunities as we’ll see shortly. But first a little about the mando whiz who first taught me the tune.
Gerald Trimble, an astonishingly gifted double-course player from Kansas City, was one of the Celtic players I first tried to cop triplets from. Now retired from the Celtic scene, he used to play a gigantic custom-made 10-string John Monteleone cittern with string guages roughly the same as a set of medium-guage guitar strings. And yet, Gerald could play distinct triplets on any course pretty much anywhere in a tune. He used a thick, rounded pick and would sort of pinch it between thumb and index finger when digging into a triplet.
I first got to spend some quality time with Gerald during a summer some years ago in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe attracted musicians from all over and we’d play in the pubs and restaurants and friends’ apartments and on park benches around the clock. I don’t remember getting much sleep that summer. I’d sit with my face not a foot from Gerald’s right hand and watch his muscles articulate and I never could figure out what he was doing that I wasn’t doing. He was very patient with me.
Theoretically, I came away with the idea that economy of motion was crucial. One doesn’t want to flail the wrist around when ornamenting fast Celtic jigs and reels. In fact, Gerald seemed to use almost no wrist articulation when digging into a triplet. He’d pinch the pick in toward his palm ever so slightly just as he went for the first down stroke. It was beautiful.
So gearing down to dead slow, I’ve tried to master the triplet strokes. Clearly it’s more common to start a triplet on a down stroke. Of course, this means that the note following the triplet will, often as not, want to be an up stroke, which can present emphasis problems. But, like most musical problems, there is more than one solution.
“Spirit of the House” starts off in A-modal, then moves to D-modal for the B part, staying there to the bitter end, till you start up again and launch back into A-modal on the next time through. Very satisfying indeed. And though the synchopated style notated here encourages a generally swingy back-beat for this tune, be sure when you get to the B part to nail the one beats in the first, third, and fifth bars good and hard.
I’ve written the A part out here without the usual repeat so I can indicate two different ways to pick the triplets. The first eight bars I’ll indicate the separate strokes used by Gerald Trimble and the second eight bars I’ll indicate the way I play them using hammer-ons and pull-offs. Follow your bliss. Likely as not, you’ll come up with a third path that will get the job done.
You’ll notice that in order to articulate three notes in the G-course triplets in the Repeat A section (first and fifth bars), I had to hammer-on a different note from the one played in the first A part. It goes by so quickly, though, that it serves more of a rhythmic than a melodic purpose. I’m able, however, to play identical-shaped ascending and descending triplets in the fourth and eighth bars with the help of hammer-ons and pull-offs.
In each case here, my trick is to pick the first note of the triplet with a down-stroke, then either hammer-on or pull-off the second note, then pick the third note with an up-stroke while simultaneously either pulling off or hammering on, depending on whether it’s ascending or descending. This double-whammy, emphasizing with both right and left hands on the third note of the triplet, gives it a little extra something that keeps it sparkling.
“Spirit of the House” is an underappreciated gem of a tune. It’s a killer session tune that medleys just as nicely into another dark A-modal reel or something in a bright D-major. And when you play it, send warm thoughts to Becky Pringle and Gerald Trimble and the rest of the fine musicians who helped make Kansas City a rich if unlikely hotbed of Celtic revival throughout this last generation.