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Thread: Reel picking

  1. #1
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    Default Reel picking

    I played fiddle for many years and have picked up the mandolin here and there. Now I've decided to do the necessary woodshedding to get my right hand up to speed. My question is, when it comes to playing reels, is there an agreed on method for right hand picking? In a tune where you have something like "1 and (triplet), 3 and (triplet)" should I maintain constant dudududud variation? The result would be that the first triplet would be played dud and the second one udu. Or, do you "slur" from one downstroke to the next like one often does with a bow when playing the fiddle?

    I can see where always picking dudududududud would ultimately given you more speed and fluidity if it can be done and still get the feel right. However, it currently lacks the kind of strong emphasis on the 1 and 3 that gives Irish music some of its feel.

    Or did none of this make any sense? :-0

    Thanks!

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    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Reel picking

    Makes perfect sense and it's a good question.

    For reels, I try to begin each significant phrase in a tune, and the start of an A or B section with a downstroke. After that, I use straight alternating picking, including treble ornaments or actual triplets within the tune. This can mean beginning a treble or triplet with either a downstroke or upstroke, depending on where it falls within the phrase. With enough practice that becomes routine.

    Within that alternating picking pattern, I'll emphasize certain notes depending on what the reel needs for a rhythm pulse. Sometimes it's a pulse on 1 and 3, sometimes it's more of a subtle backbeat feel on 2 and 4. Others may do this differently, but alternate picking is the only way I've found to get up to full dance tempos with reels.

    On some reels, the notes fly by so fast that I don't even get to start a phrase with a downstroke, and it's just constant alternate picking, but I try to keep that in mind. And I always try to make sure I'm adding some kind of rhythm pulse within the flurry of notes.

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    Default Re: Reel picking

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post
    Makes perfect sense and it's a good question.

    For reels, I try to begin each significant phrase in a tune, and the start of an A or B section with a downstroke. After that, I use straight alternating picking, including treble ornaments or actual triplets within the tune. This can mean beginning a treble or triplet with either a downstroke or upstroke, depending on where it falls within the phrase. With enough practice that becomes routine.

    Within that alternating picking pattern, I'll emphasize certain notes depending on what the reel needs for a rhythm pulse. Sometimes it's a pulse on 1 and 3, sometimes it's more of a subtle backbeat feel on 2 and 4. Others may do this differently, but alternate picking is the only way I've found to get up to full dance tempos with reels.

    On some reels, the notes fly by so fast that I don't even get to start a phrase with a downstroke, and it's just constant alternate picking, but I try to keep that in mind. And I always try to make sure I'm adding some kind of rhythm pulse within the flurry of notes.
    Thanks for the reply. That makes sense to me. On some tunes with a very strong triplet feel for the main phrases (e.g., Maids of Mount Kisco, Toss the Feathers in Em) it feels like each of those phrases need a strong downstroke at the beginning. On others it seems like it would be more fluid to alternate. So maybe I need to have constant down/up on hand as needed and then not think about it!

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    Registered User Randi Gormley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Reel picking

    The few times I've discussed something like this with a teacher, the only constant appears to be that a large segment of the ITM mandolin world plays jigs as DUD DUD. Anything else appears to be DUDUDUD, be it slide, reel, hornpipe or polka. Most of that is subject to the tune itself, of course, since some tunes simply work better with the occasional double stroke. I happen to have a powerful upstroke, so i mostly bag the DUD DUD for jigs and play everything with alternate strokes. YMMV.
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    Default Re: Reel picking

    There are differing opinions on this. What players generally strive for is for the downstrokes to fall mostly on the strong beats (i.e. 1,3,5 & 7 in a bar of 8 quavers*). As long as you are playing a sequence of quavers, if you start on a downstroke, this happens naturally with alternate picking. Opinions diverge, however, on i. what to do when playing a crotchet† and ii. what to do when playing a triplet.

    Approach A:
    i. Strong beats are always played on a downstroke
    ii. Quavers are played with strict alternate picking
    iii. A crotchet is always played with a downstroke
    iv. A triplet is always started (and finished) on a downstroke.

    This means that, crotchet or triplet is always followed by a downstroke, which means you play two successive downstrokes.

    Approach B:
    i. The first strong beat (i.e. not a pickup note) is always played on a downstroke
    ii. The note following a crotchet is started with the opposite pick direction to that with which the crotchet was played
    iii. The note following a triplet is started with the opposite pick direction to that with which the triplet finished

    This means that, following a triplet, the picking will be turned 'upside down', so upstrokes fall on strong beats. It is common practice to then insert another triplet where possible (which will start on an upstroke), to bring the picking back in phase.

    Approach A is, I think, the most common approach. Some players (notably, Kieran Hanrahan) advocate Approach B, since it is more 'economical' - the pick never has to move unless it is playing a note. Approach A may involve 'wasting' pick strokes, but it is, I feel, a safer way to achieve a steady pulse. I lean towards approach A, but might occasionally throw in the odd 'upside-down' phrase followed by an up-triplet when playing at speed.


    *quaver = 1/8-note
    crotchet = 1/4-note

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    Default Re: Reel picking

    Quote Originally Posted by sykofiddle View Post
    Thanks for the reply. That makes sense to me. On some tunes with a very strong triplet feel for the main phrases (e.g., Maids of Mount Kisco, Toss the Feathers in Em) it feels like each of those phrases need a strong downstroke at the beginning. On others it seems like it would be more fluid to alternate. So maybe I need to have constant down/up on hand as needed and then not think about it!
    Right! Getting to where you don't think about it, is the key to where you can start thinking about a rhythm pulse on top of whatever else you're doing.

    A few more thoughts on this topic (it's a great topic!). With reels at full tempo, it's a good idea to look at how players of other instruments approach the tunes, and not just the way it's written in sheet music. And then see how we can use those ideas within the limitations of a plucked string instrument like mandolin.

    For example, let's take that Em (actually E dorian) version of Toss the Feathers.

    Most fiddlers I know will use a roll or a "bow shake" over that triplet in the first bar. A flute or whistle player might use a fingered roll or tongue articulation to the same effect. A tenor banjo player might play it as a tight picked triplet. Here's Kevin Burke using a roll on that first bar:





    On mandolin, we don't have all those options (except for the tight triplet), but we might fake that initial roll in the first bar with a hammer and pull-off. Or just play two eighth-notes followed by a quarter note, instead of trying to hit the triplet at speed. Whatever it takes, to get 'ya through a reel at 100-115 bpm (counted 2/2). Kevin is playing it at about 105 bpm in that clip. Notice the backbeat feel in that clip also (emphasis on 2 and 4, counted 4/4). Not all reels are accented 1 and 3.

    On this particular tune, when in a session with fiddlers really pushing the tempo, I tend to use the two eighths followed by a quarter note in that first bar, and save the tight treble ornaments for other places in the tune where I can manage to squeeze them in.

    Bottom line: the mandolin is limited in some respects when trying to pull off what other instruments can do, just due to the picking mechanics. I can play Toss the Feathers more smoothly and faster on flute. But there are things I can do on mandolin -- mainly in the realm of throwing in partial chords within the melody line -- that I can't do on other instruments, which keeps me playing it with this music.

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    Default Re: Reel picking

    Quote Originally Posted by sykofiddle View Post
    ... do you "slur" from one downstroke to the next like one often does with a bow when playing the fiddle?
    Slurring notes on a plectrum instrument is not very effective for rhythmic playing - it is best to employ a pick-every-note policy. Hammer-ons and pull-offs can be used for ornamentation (like the example mentioned above by foldedpath) but even they tend to get lost in a session and, if over-used, can detract from the overall rhythmic 'punch' of your playing. Picked-triplet-based ornaments are the most commonly used; the picked triplet can be employed in different ways, so it does not sound the same every time

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    Default Re: Reel picking

    I endorse Whistler's Approach A (well described by the way!) but do incorporate a fair bit of hammer-ons and some pull-offs for "cheap and easy" triplets also. They do get a bit lost in a session but sessions are not the end-all, plus I use them on tenor banjo also and there they don't get lost. To me, Approach A is the best insurance for getting the right pulse and pulse is the most important aspect.
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  13. #9
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    Default Re: Reel picking

    This is all very helpful. I appreciate people taking the time to write out their approach. The first thing I have to say is, "wow - Kevin sounds exactly the same playing TTF as he did when I first bought "If the Cap Fits" on vinyl!"

    So there are a few different approaches and it seems like economy of picking needs to be balanced with getting the right pulse for a tune. A follow-up question - is it crazy to keep using a 1.5mm pick? I really like the fat tone produced by thicker picks but I wonder if some of the triplet ornamentation would be easier with a thinner pick.

    I've got literally hundreds of tunes in my left hand that keep popping out, and then the right hand says, "You're serious?"

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    Default Re: Reel picking

    Quote Originally Posted by sykofiddle View Post
    So there are a few different approaches and it seems like economy of picking needs to be balanced with getting the right pulse for a tune. A follow-up question - is it crazy to keep using a 1.5mm pick? I really like the fat tone produced by thicker picks but I wonder if some of the triplet ornamentation would be easier with a thinner pick.
    For what it's worth, I use a 1.0mm pick on mandolin: a Blue Chip TAD40-1R. Backup would be a Dunlop Ultex 1.0mm. Somewhere around 1.0mm is my personal sweet spot, and as a side bonus it works for me on acoustic guitar too. I have trouble getting tight treble ornaments with thicker picks like Bluegrass players favor, but maybe that's just me.

    To get a meatier tone with a thin/stiff pick like this, I put a tiny amount of thumb-downward angle on it when hitting the strings. A tiny bit of "scrape" instead of a flat-on attack thickens up the tone. The TAD-1R shape also has one rounded corner as an option for a thicker tone. I go back and forth on that... used to play on the rounded corner, but for most things I'm on the pointy tip these days.

    Pick choice is highly personal, that's just what I use. Experiment with many picks and see what works for you. Just don't go too thin or flexible and sacrifice tone and volume.

    I've got literally hundreds of tunes in my left hand that keep popping out, and then the right hand says, "You're serious?"
    Not the worst problem to have. You're halfway there!

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    Default Re: Reel picking

    Even 1.0mm seems heavy to me. I used a Jim Dunlop nylon 0.88mm for about 5 years until, one day, I was mistakenly bought a bunch of 0.73s. I got used to them and have continued to use them for 20 years - I find they give me the feel and sound I want. But to each his/her own.

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    Default Re: Reel picking

    Might be of help, not sure …




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  19. #13
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    Default Re: Reel picking

    A big thanks to everyone who chimed in on this thread. I've come back to it several times in the past week as I practice. One thing has become clear - the main sticking point is that first upstroke after a DUD triplet. Although it's still awkward, at least I know where things are getting tripped up. I've been slowing down considerably and practicing the phrases that give me the most trouble.

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    Default Re: Reel picking

    From long-ago workshops with Mick Moloney and others I think that the standard pattern for picking reels on mando (or banjo, or any plectrum beastie) is D-U-DUD-D-U-DUD--meaning that you have to quickly change over to play two consecutive down-strokes in order to get back on pattern after a triplet. Thus pickers like Mick will hold their right hands very close to the strings and drive everything with tiny movements of the wrist. Here's an example where you can see how small the picking radius is:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PlU6LABN8Bg

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    Default Re: Reel picking

    Mick M.'s still one of the best! (...and Miss T. isn't all that bad either.)

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