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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.…


A warm welcome to all players of Irish Music on the Tenor Banjo.

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