4(b). Right-Hand Ornamentation
Scottish guitarist Tony McManus uses very
innovative right hand picking techniques to render
the triplets often heard from Celtic instruments.
There are also a number of right-hand percussive
techniques being played by Celtic guitarists. These
techniques add much-needed drive and ornamentation
to Celtic pieces when playing as a soloist.
This is a very difficult technique to master. Even then, it takes a lot of
work to use the ornament in pieces effectively and make it sound worthwhile. It
is very much an all-or-nothing technique. Unless it works perfectly, it has a
tendency to destroy a piece by adding an awkward jolt. Used to mimic the triplet
ornaments of fiddles and bagpipes, this technique can add great drive to a
guitar rendition of a Celtic piece.
The triplet is created by picking a
note rapidly three times where ordinarily there would be one note. The right
hand picks the triplet in ring, middle, index order (a-m-i). The challenge is to
make each note sound clear and crisp with equal volume.
When this is all
working, it feels like a very simple and economical motion with very little
tension in the right hand. This technique is developed over time and is best
practiced in a slow and methodical way. Practising it for long hours at a time
will just be frustrating and not terribly productive.
Here are some tips that help in learning the a-m-i triplet technique.
The position common to fingerstyle guitarists shown in
section 2 will
work reasonably well for the triplet technique. Classical guitarists have a
similar technique called “tremolo” which is a continuous running of notes in the
p-a-m-i picking pattern. The triplet ornament is a little easier, consisting of
only three notes in a row. As a general guide it seems best not to stray too far
from the way classical guitarists perform this technique, given that they have
been doing it for centuries.
Speed / Breakdown
Unfortunately, it is not much easier to play this triplet slowly. It
is a good idea to start with just two notes at a time. Try all
combinations of fingers:
• Middle, index (m,i)
• Ring, middle (a,m)
• Ring, index (a,i)
Try playing the triplet while the right hand thumb rests on the bottom D
string. This will stabilize the muscle tension in the
right hand. It will also force the right hand into a fairly open position which
may not be the easiest place to start practicing. It might be better to rest the
thumb on the 4th string, D. This closes the right hand a little, which is an
easier position to start from.
Eventually the thumb must come away and the triplet is played with the hand
floating freely. In the middle of a tune, a triplet may be required from all
sorts of positions which is a huge challenge.
The finger triplet technique seems particularly sensitive to the length of
the right-hand fingernails. Too long and they get tangled up in the strings, too
short and the contact of skin on the string causes an unequal triplet. It is
best to practice with a range of nail lengths to gain some tolerance to
The finger triplet is a little easier to play when the string is under more
tension. To start with, try placing a capo at the 4th or 5th fret.