Right Hand Techniques for the Irish Bouzouki.

(May also be relevant for guitarists, mandolin and cittern players)

by Han Speek.
(Copyright © 1995/1996)


This article will address the topic of how to deal with the various rhythmic difficulties of Irish traditional music in all it's forms, and will specifically try to point out how to optimize the use of the right hand for this music. The text is roughly divided in 2 parts: the first deals with playing chords behind other musicians who play the melody, and will also address the subject of how to play counter-rhythms against another bouzouki or guitar player. This section also introduces the various rhythmic patterns that are common in Irish traditional music.

The second part deals with melody playing. The various ornamentations that are possible on the instrument will also be described in short.

Techniques for accompanying tunes.

The basic rhythmic patterns in Irish music.

JIGS - single, double, slip and hop jigs.

The common denominator of all these tune types is that their time is counted in multiples of 3. The most common type of jig is the double jig, which means a tune in 6/8 time. This means that in each bar there is room for 6 beats, and these are devided in 2 groups of 3 - NOT 3 groups of 2, which would result in something close to waltz time. So it's "ta-da-da ta-da-da", the "ta" being slightly louder than the "da" to get the feel right. Try it, say it, just for fun.

The strumming pattern that is usually suggested for this type of tune is:

down-up-down down-up-down
Strumming pattern as often suggested for jig playing.

This may seem sensible, but it does provide a practical problem. At the end of each group of three strokes there is a down-stroke, and it is followed by another down-stroke at the beginning of the next group. So, somewhere in between these two downs the hand has to go up again, which of course takes time, be it only a fraction. It does make this pattern sound slightly uneven. A more sensible approach for me would be:

Strumming pattern for a jig as I would play it.

However, since each group of three is supposed to start with an accented beat, this would mean that we now have to put an accent on an upstroke. It is natural for a bouzouki/guitar player to have a louder down stroke than up, since the weight of the fore-arm helps you go down, but counter-acts your move back up. Natural, but rather undesirable, especially for these rhythms in three's. So what you have to do is work on your upstroke, until you have full control over where the accents go. This may sound difficult, but it's really no big deal. It does, however, require some practicing.
And once you 've got this little trick mastered, you will feel that your arm starts to behave like a pendulum - swinging up and down, with a solid rhythm, going on and on without having to think or put in much energy.

Once this basic technique is mastered, we can start playing around with variations on the basic pattern. Let's assume we don't want to put a stroke on every beat. What would be a logical note to skip ? I'd say that the first and fourth note (the "ta"s) are so elemental that you can't do without them, but the first "da" in each group is a note that is very often skipped - but not in both groups at the same time.
[In fact, a rhythmic pattern that skips both "middle da"s is sometimes used by accompanying guitarists, who play it as <long>down-<short>up <long>down-<short>up. This becomes very boring very quickly, and isn't all that clearly different from a rhythm in groups of 2, such as a reel or a polka. So I suggest you avoid this pattern, as good as you can.]
Suppose we want to skip the first "da" in the first group, leading to: "ta-<rest>-da ta-da-da". With my suggested stroke directions this would turn out as:

down-up-down down-up-down
Alternate jig pattern, 2nd beat skipped.

I find it most convenient to continue making the motion as for the full pattern, just making the upstroke without hitting the strings. This way the "pendulum" can continue as usual. [A variation on this pattern as often used by Alec Finn is to use an up-stroke at the start of the measure.]
A pattern "ta-da-da ta-\-da" would work out similarly.
Another common variation is to skip both "da"s in the first group, which gives: "ta-<rest>-<rest> ta-da-da". This is one of the rare cases where I break (actually, slightly slow it down) the regular pattern of the arm movement. I play this one as down-<rest>-<rest> up-down-up, but the arm does not move on the 2 <rest>s, so the "up" at the beginning of the second group follows the "down" that starts the first group. [Usually, I also slow down this "down" stroke, almost breaking it up into hitting the individual string pairs separately ("arpeggio"). This gives a nice accented first beat to the measure.]
The other jig types are similar: the slip jig is in 9/8, which divides in 3 groups of three; The hop jig is also 9/8, but is danced faster, and with a "hop" feel, the same sort of bounce that distinguishes a hornpipe from a reel. The main problem with the 9/8 time is that the first beat of a measure (and also the chord changes) fall on a "down" stroke half of the time, but on an "up" stroke the other half of the time. So keep counting, and give clear accents, or you (and those playing with you) will loose track of what you're doing pretty soon.
The single jig, or slide, is 12/8, so 4 groups of three notes. The single jig is easy as long as you don't forget to keep counting and clearly accentuate the first note of each bar stronger than the first note of the other groups of three: TA-da-da ta-da-da ta-da-da ta-da-da TA-da-da....


The reel is commonly notated as 4/4 time. But instead of 4 beats to the bar, these are usually played 8 beats to the bar: ta-da ta-da ta-da ta-da. The hornpipe is similar. The difference between these 2 types of tunes is in the "feel". While for the reel the "ta"s and "da"s are equally long, for the hornpipe the "ta" is slightly stretched. Both reel and hornpipe can be played with a simple down-up alternated stroke:

Strumming pattern for a reel.

Simple, really.
The polka is commonly notated in 2/4 time (and a lot, wrongly, as 4/4), and is usually played 4 beats to the bar. It is often played so fast that for the rhythm player there's no option but to stick to the basic rhythm, either putting in 4 strokes (down-up down-up) to a measure, or, at higher speeds, just 2 (down up). Polkas are not really fun to strum along with.

Pattern-picking examples

Sometimes, when you play with only a few other instruments, or when you're on stage using a sound system, or in the studio, recording (oh wow, should you ever come that far !) you don't have to drive your instrument at full blast, and you will want go for something more subtle than strumming. Pattern-picking is an alternative that many players use in such settings. Basically, this is just breaking up the chords, walking up and down across the strings, seemingly at random, but really based on a structured pattern. [Mostly you'll find that these patterns only use the the highest 3 pairs, and only occasionally the lowest pair is used. I have no real explanation for this, except my guess that to most players the "D" string is the actual root note of the instrument. ] Most players intermix these patterns with little fragments of melody, or bass runs, and this can result in a very attractive backing style. Here are a few examples of useful patterns. Play around with them, and see if you can come up with a few that work for you. [The arrows indicate picking direction.]

Picking pattern examples for jig rhythm.

For the reel I've given one pattern that's rather straight-forward, and a second one that is typical for the playing of Alec Finn, probably the only Irish bouzouki player using a 6-string instrument rather than the more common 8-string. He typically uses this pattern, where the 2nd note is not picked but "hammered on" with a finger of the left hand, at the beginning of a phrase (one line of the tune, usually made up of 4 bars) and this has become a very recognizable feature of his playing.

Picking pattern examples for reels.

Some examples of counter rhythms.

Rather than always going for the strict rhythm, you can often liven up a tune by throwing in the occasional bar of counter-rhythm. One of the commonest counter-rhythms - simple but effective - is one for the jig. It can create a very exciting effect to throw in a bar where you count in 2's instead of 3's, and even more if you do this with an accented stroke in the first count of each 2:

Simple counter beat pattern for a jig.

This one is used regulary by Donal Lunny in his work with the Bothy Band, and by lots of others as well.

Go to the second part to hear some of my ideas about melody playing.


Go back to the Irish Bouzouki Page.