Watch the Triplet on Strings 1 & 2 online guitar lesson by Tony McManus from The Celtic Journeyman
All the ideas I mentioned involving the left hand are common to every genre of guitar playing whether it’s blues , classical, celtic or whatever- they all involve hammer ons, pull offs, trills etc. When we move to the right hand the techniques are a little more focussed- they’re a little more idiomatic, by which I mean you wouldn’t find a blues player using the triplet technique I use to play Celtic dance music. And it gets even more focussed when we talk about triplets on the wound strings. It’s very personal. I’m delighted to share this idea with as many people as possible but I don’t know that many people who actually do it. I hope you grasp it.
Before we get there let’s look at the top two strings- the top two because they’re plain, the others being wound. One of the most common ornaments in Celtic music is the triplet where you’re playing three notes for the value of one. Each instrument has a different way of doing it- a fiddler would do a very rapid down up down with the bow. Tenor banjo is a common instrument in Irish music and there you’d go down up down with the pick. Accordion players have a three finger triplet.......every instrument has a different way of doing it. So, how you we do it on guitar? Well, fingerstyle it’s difficult. The first person I heard doing this well was a Scottish guitar player called Tony Cuffe- sadly, no longer with us. Tony was a major influence on me and became a friend. He had a great technique for triplets and the first time I heard it I thought all of a sudden here was a musician playing traditional music, the music I loved, but he happened to be a guitar player. It wasn’t a guitar player adopting a repertoire, it was a musician who happened to play the guitar playing this repertoire- subtle difference. But what made his playing idiomatic to me was the triplet thing. Before I met Tony in person I was listening to his recordings and hearing this thing. I was playing around this part of the string...and trying to play this three finger triplet and I guessed correctly that it was ring middle index. I could do that- it’s not too difficult. What is difficult is trying to get it into an arrangement and doing it at speed. I found my fingers would catch on the string and my hand would clatter into the front of the guitar. It was a train wreck....but gradually my hand gravitated closer to the bridge and my position changed. This is a personal thing- it’s just how I play. It’s not how everyone must play. But purely by coincidence- this hand position is not classically correct but it is the correct position for playing baroque lute! And that is music I’ve been playing lately in my own sweet way and it turns out that the triplet becomes much easier in that position- the fingers attack the string at different angle and I find it easier. So, it’s ring, middle, index.
Now that was just a silly exercise but there’s a point. The triplet sometimes is split. It’s not always three notes at the same pitch- sometimes the last of the three is a different note. So that’s something to practise. First of all get the movement happening and then learn to split them. It sounds like some of the ornamentation you’d find on highland bagpipes and we are essentially trying to mimic other instruments. The point is to make our guitar music more within the body of Celtic music. The point behind it is to bring to the guitar some of the flavour of how other instruments articulate this music.
Now that’s all top string, which is the easier of the two because when you move to the second you have a string either side waiting to trap you. You do not want to hit the third string or the top string. If you want a triplet on the second string that’s all you want to hit. Here’s a good exercise. It’s very difficult to get three fingers in and out rapidly without clattering into the other strings- see, I hit the top string. You could sit mindlessly doing that for hours on end and it may improve your hit rate but here’s a better way. Let’s take a tiny little phrase that would occur commonly in traditional tunes- there you go! There’s a microscopic fragment of a tune but it’s enough to generate a good exercise. You want the three fingers hitting that second string. So when I practise that what I do is play something mindless on the top string- a scale or whatever. It doesn’t matter what you play on the top string it’s all about the triplet on the second string.
It’s difficult but I find that exercise more useful in improving accuracy than just repeating the triplet.