You know it when you hear it. “Hey, that’s an Irish tune!”
But what makes it an Irish fiddle song? The songs have a special quality to them that give them that recognizable Irish sound. What is it that makes this style unique?
Many of the same songs are played among different genres. For example, Irish, Bluegrass, and Old time fiddle players all play their version of “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” aka “God speed the Plow”, but how do we automatically know which one is the Irish version? The basic melody is the same through all styles.
Of course, you can get hints from the other instruments playing along, for instance, concertina and whistle are common in Irish music and practically unheard of in Bluegrass or Old Time. Guitars are played very differently in Irish music as opposed to American fiddle styles. But let’s focus on the FIDDLE.
Well, here’s the secret: it’s the ornamentation and bowing patterns (or LACK of bow patterns) that make a tune sound distinctly Irish.
Common bow patterns in Irish fiddle
One of the main ways that Irish fiddle sounds different is in the bowing patterns. The songs are typically upbeat and danceable. The bow often keeps a very quick and rhythmic tempo.
Although Celtic players do not refer to it by this name, the Georgia Shuffle is a bow pattern often used in Irish playing. The Nashville Shuffle also makes some guest appearances. But by and large, Irish music is dominated by an unpredictable combination of 2 and 3 note slurs interspersed by separate notes, and peppered with a bow ornament called trebles.
A slur is formed by playing 2 or more notes in one bow. Trebles, also known as “triplets” are an ornament, not a bow pattern, which uses 3 small quick bows in the place of a single note. It is usually done with a crunchy pressure creating a very percussive sound.
Learning these rhythmic bowing techniques is the key to capturing the essence of Irish music. This video illustrates some common bow patterns in Irish fiddle songs:
Irish fiddle ornamentation
The second trait that makes Irish fiddle easy to spot is left-hand ornamentation. These are the techniques you can use to make simple notes sound different and unique. The common Irish ornaments include grace notes, triplets, cuts, and rolls. Here is an explanation of some of these terms.
- Grace Notes- When a note is added to the one you are about to play by quickly playing the neighboring note. In Irish music, this is often the note that is up either a half or whole step, and is usually just before the beat.
- Triplet- Play the melody note. Play the upper neighbor, then back to the melody note.
- Roll- Play the melody note. Play the upper neighbor, melody note, lower neighbor, and melody note again. This is typically 5 notes in the space of one beat. It is played with a quick light touch and a “rolling” type motion.
- Cut- A grace note is inserted between two notes of the same pitch.
- Slide- Play the neighbor note either before or after the melody note by “sliding” your finger from one note to the next and not lifting your finger off the string.
Take our online fiddle lessons to begin learning how to use all these techniques and more. You will be sounding Irish in no time. This list shows just a hint of the bow pattern and ornamentation instruction you’ll get from the fiddle course:
- Intro to Nashville Shuffle
- Intro to Slides and Grace Notes
- Nashville Shuffle Variations
- Grace Notes and Triplets
- Nashville Shuffle with Slurs
- Nashville Shuffle, Subdividing 8th Notes
- Triplets, Cuts, Double Cuts, Grace Notes, Slides
- Bowing a Jig, Bowing a Jig with Slurs
- Triplets, Double Cuts, Slides, Bends
- Intro to Irish Ornaments
- Treble Bow Patterns
- Left Hand Technique including Cuts and Slurs