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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Instruction: Triplets for plucked strings

(Chris Smith)
2005-10-10
The key issue here is consistent picking patterns. In Irtrad in duple meters (2-notes/beat: reels, especially) this is easy: a simple down-up alternating pattern:

D-U-D-U D-U-D-U

We want to try to maintain downstrokes on accented beats: this preserves the dance feel of the melodies.

Triple subdivisions are more difficult, because strict alternate icking yields:

D-U-D U-D-U D-U-D U-D-U

This is very effective, for example, in bluegrass guitar ("cross-picking"), but it tends to smooth out the accents too much to preserve a good jig or slip-jig feel. So instead we need to use

D-U-D D-U-D D-U-D D-U-D

Yes, this necessitates "wasted effort" (as there are 2 downstrokes in a row), but the improved feel is worth it.

As far as triplets go, essentially the same principles hold: we want to maintain consistent picking patterns which also maintain effective accents. So in a reel, for example, the triplet would work like this:

(DUD)-U-D-U
D-(DUD)-D-U
D-U-(DUD)-U
D-U-D-(DUD)

etc.

It's analogous to what happens with polkas, as well: the majority of rhythmic values in a polka will be 8th-notes, which can easily be picked

D-U-D-U etc

But every so often there will be a flurry of 16ths, which we need to accommodate:

DU-U-D-U
D-DU-D-U
D-U-DU-U
D-U-D-DU

We do this because we want to maintain that beat accent (STRONG-weak) even within a single pair of 16ths.

Second consideration:

Pick angle: many bebop players hold the pick at a slight angle. That is, instead of the flat of the pick coming down flat against the string (that is, the surface of the pick in the same plane as the string), these players will twist the hand position slightly downward, so that the front edge of the pick "slices down" through the string on a downbeat, and the rear edge of the pick "slices back up" through the string on an upbeat.

This lets the tip of the pick "ride over" the string, rather than requiring that the entire width of the pick move the entire string out of the way. It's a smoother, more facile sound which results in greater flexibility and dynamic control and less pick noise.

Such a hand position necessitates that the triplet motion come from the wrist: not from either the fingers or from the forearm. This in turn requires a relaxed, well-trained wrist, with a lot of precision so that you don't tighten up trying to achieve precision you don't quite have.

Pick density:

There's an equation in plucked strings: rigidity in the pick balances/ counter-balances tension in the string. In other words, a very heavy-gauge string doesn't have much give: you tend to need a lighter-gauge pick so as to achieve a little bit of physical flexibility. Tenor banjo tends to use comparatively light-gauge strings: ergo pick gauge can be a little heavier.

If you're having trouble getting triplets, try the pick direction, picking angle, and/or pick density described above.