Adding Ornaments to Irish MusicApr 29, 2021
Back in the '90s while living in Boston I got hooked on learning Irish traditional dance music on the tin whistle. In the performance at the top of this video, I play one of my favorite old whistle tunes on the mandolin.
What drew me in to these otherwise simple, repetitive melodies (on a very simple instrument) was the driving groove that you could achieve by adding a system of rhythmic ornamentation to the tunes.
I had a great whistle teacher who took the time to show me exactly what fingers she lifted at exactly what time to make those cool whistle trills and triplets that would light my beginner jigs on fire whenever she performed them.
For you and your mandolin, these same flute-whistle-piping rhythmic effects are accessible as well - you'll just need a different technique to emulate them.
Most Irish tenor banjo and mandolin players create ornamentation only with their pick-holding hand. They add a pick stroke to turn a duple into a triplet, which is a very difficult move while playing at high speeds.
I get the same effects on Irish tunes without ever departing from the normal jig or reel picking groove during the course of a tune. I initially tried it the more common way, but I did not enjoy breaking up the groove every time I added an ornament.
So, let's take a look at how you can add ornamentation to your Irish jigs, reels and hornpipes without putting your picking hand through all of that extra work!
The following three examples demonstrate how to turn a duple into a triplet, the most common function of ornamentation in Irish music.
To create this effect, you pick the first and last note like a usual duple and "hammer-on" the third note in between the down and up stroke.
Careful: you have to start on the note BELOW the actual note to do this.
And, finally, what Irish pipers and whistlers call a "roll." This is an ornament that gives us a triplet effect, yet it inexplicably uses more than three notes - five notes total on the whistle, and four notes using my system on the mando.
I don't think of these "roll" notes as anything except a hammer-on and pull-off in between my two usual pickstrokes, creating a lazy swung triplet feel.
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