Sunday, June 1, 2014

Left hand Ornaments

The Other Way to Make a Difference

I ran across a book called "ASAP Irish Mandolin - Learn How to Play the Irish Way" by Doc Rossi who is much better known as a cittern player.  The book purports to be for any player who wants "to improve their technique, develop ideas and learn new repertoire ASAP."  That's a lot to say for 31 pages and a short CD,  but it did inspire me to think more about left hand ornamentation.

When I first started out with the banjo, like a lot of others, I spent a lot of time trying to play triplets and did not learn much about the music itself.  Because I had a hard time learning to play triplets and went through several iterations of the ornament, I developed a few left hand ornaments to compensate for my lack of good triplets.   The majority of these were from my bluegrass mandolin playing and while some of them worked, I was still not listening to the music very closely and they sounded odd at times.

Later on I was able to incorporate some of these ideas into Irish music and I was able to learn how to play triplets, more or less.

When I took Kieran Hanrahan's class at the O'Flaherty Retreat in 2013 I noticed that he used a lot of left hand ornaments too.  Part of this was due to his constant use of DUDUDU, even with jigs, and part was his style.  Irish fiddlers often use a lot of left hand ornamentation to present the music and this has a specific stylistic effect that is very pleasing (and very Irish.)

Doc Rossi's book is not the final word on left hand ornamentation, in fact it hardly exists as a text since most of the  book is tunes ("arranged in order of difficulty" - Maid Behind The Bar is the last tune) and the CD shows very short examples of the techniques.  But it does address something not talked about very much and gives concrete (if short) examples. If you are interested in getting the book, I think it would help a beginner.

Let's go through some of the left hand ornamentations:


Banjos can't really pull off a drone - a constant note that underlies the tune - unless they player is advanced enough to play a duo style,  but if you look at the introduction of other notes the way a piper does with registers, then the concept comes alive.  Doc Rossi divides this concept into two different classes, drones and octaves, but I don't really see much difference.  There are plenty of tunes, especially the ones in G, that benefit from either an octave doubling or hitting the open G note while playing the tune.  Most of the time the "drone" is hitting an open string although in the key of D you can hit the low A note or in AM or the key of A you can finger both the low A and the low E (on the D string) for emphasis.

Drones can be used in a variety of ways depending on the tune and you might find them in your style in interesting places. 

The Cut

Doc Rossi makes a distinction between a leading note that is a pull-off right into the note of the tune and a hammer-on/pull-off that does the same thing.  Granted, they are different, but in the banjo such subtly may make little difference because the banjo relies on its brassy personality for a lot of its effects.  There are several different ways to introduce a note that are not in the book: hammer-on, usually a slightly delayed one and  the slide (which I will cover later on in this thread) are two good examples.  As you continue on as a player and develop a style you will discover them in your playing or the playing of others.

For me the quick hammer-on/pull-off seems to be a little more appealing but there is a difference that others may appreciate.

Double Stops

Double Stops are first cousins to drones but the big difference is the emphasis.  They are often used to emphasize the rhythmic aspects of a tune or to draw attention to that particular part of the tune.  Octave drones are a type of double stop, I suppose, but most of the time they are used as a two note chordal ornament and they work especially well on the banjo.  You are all familiar with this ornament and I am sure you will find it in your stylistic bag of tricks soon.


Doc Rossi doesn't mention slides as a left hand ornament.  In fact he fails to mention a lot of left hand additions to the tune but since this particular one is a favorite of mine, I thought I throw it in anyway.  I like to use slides with hornpipes and polkas but they work with all sorts of tunes.

Bending the String

This is a very American ornament drawn from blues guitar.  In Irish music it is usually very subtle and sometimes you can't even hear the slight tonal change that goes on.  Pipers get this effect with fingering and you hear it in fiddle playing all the time. Microtonal changes are typical of many folk musics and sean nos singing is noted for it.    So while the bend may be a little rock and roll, it is a very effective left hand ornament.  Not in Doc Rossi's book either.


Triplets/trebles are by definition a right hand ornament, but as such they are a one trick pony and can be very dull after a while.  Almost every teacher I have had states categorically that in order to make a triplet organic to the tune you have to do something with your left hand be it smother the triplet, add a note or two in the process of playing a triplet or using a cut of some sort during the triplet.  Of course you can just play a straight triplet but that should be just one of the many variations you can do with your left hand (in that case doing nothing - which is not always bad) and should be done as part your interpretation of the tune. 

Putting It Together

Left hand ornaments are just tricks if you don't have a good idea of how the music sounds.  They are just as essential to a style as the triplet is, but  are much more subtle and, to my mind, interesting.  You still have to play the tune and you don't have to go ninety miles an hour (remember the three basics of learning the banjo) but you should learn to make the tune interesting and, well, tuneful, which the left hand ornaments can do.  Of course you have to use them tastefully but I'll leave that up to you.

Mike Keyes
1 June 2014