Right Hand Techniques for the Irish Bouzouki - Part II.

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

by Han Speek.
(Copyright © 1995/1996)

Techniques for playing melody on the bouzouki.

Hand position.

One of the main differences in how I use the right hand for melody playing is that the position of the fore-arm is (almost - it should be relaxed, not tense) fixed, and the movements come from the wrist. The edge of the palm of my hand (where it goes into the wrist) is resting gently on the bridge, or on the strings just behind the bridge. This functions as a point of reference, sort of, and doesn't mean that the hand is fixed in one position. Rather, the hand slides up and down, from high strings to low, and back depending on which string I play.

[I sometimes see people use their little finger as an anchor point, resting somewhere on the face (or pickguard if the instrument has one) of the instrument. This may work for some people who play the guitar, but for bouzouki/cittern-like instruments the bridge is usually set up much higher, which makes it hard to play on the lower strings, and may result in an awkward pick angle when hitting these strings. I advise against this technique.]

This hand position implies that the pick hits the string just about over the edge of the soundhole where it is nearest to the bridge. Hitting the string here results in a good solid tone. Closer to the bridge the string feels stiffer, which means you need more force to make the string snap away from under the pick. It also results in a sharper tone. Further away from the bridge the string feels looser, and it sort of follows the pick down a bit before snapping away from under it. This means your pick strokes get longer, effectively slowing you down. [This effect is similar to using a pick that is too thin. I prefer a pick about .70mm thick, or slightly thicker if using a nylon pick]

Picking direction.

I usually do it the way it is described in most good mandolin/tenor banjo/flatpicking guitar tutors: alternate the pick strokes as much as possible, but always use a down stroke for an accented note. This may seem contradictory to what I said at some point in the backup chapter. But these are 2 reasons why it works for me here, while it didn't work for backup playing: a) The hand movements are much shorter, and b) usually the melody moves from one string to the other, implicitly suggesting a (change in) picking direction.
There is also a very strong reason why you HAVE to do it this way: the angle at which the pick hits the string is very different for upstroke and downstroke, and so is the tone that is produced.
[If you hold the pick properly it's not parallel to the string, but at a slight angle - either inward or outward, whatever you prefer. This makes the pick "roll off" the string rather than having to force the pick past the string. I prefer a slight outward angle, which means the edge of the pick that is the furthest away from the wrist hits the string first. But careful, too much of an angle and you will have no attack left.]


Right hand triplet:
This is basically a fast down-up-down motion on the same note. It should be executed at such speed that it fits within one beat. Usually the desired effect can be achieved easier by slightly releasing the left hand finger that frets the note - this ensures it will sound "staccato".

Right hand tremolo:
This is a technique borrowed from the Italian style of classical mandolin playing. What you do here is replace a long note in the melody with a rapid sequence of down-up motions, trying to make up for the fact that neither mandolin nor bouzouki (nor guitar, for that matter) are suited to produce long, sustained notes.

Sound a note, and while it still rings, quickly fret another note on the same string. The effect should be an abrupt change of pitch, with a slight percussive effect.

The reverse of the above - while sounding a fretted note on a string, quickly "snap" the fretting finger off the string. It's supposed to now sound the lower note, either one fretted with another finger or the open string. The "snapping" provides the attack for this lower note to sound, not any action of the right hand !

"cutting" a note - combining hammer-on and pull-off:
By combining the two actions just described, and putting them into effect immediately after each other, you can effectively sound the same note twice, without any interaction of the right hand.

short roll
Short roll.

"short roll":
Similar to above, but the in-between note is given time to sound. The resulting three-note pattern should have the duration of a quarter note.

A pattern that is rather un-natural to the bouzouki (or guitar or mandolin) is the "roll", an ornament that is very useful (and used a lot) to fiddle players and whistle/flute/pipes players. It is effectively their alternative way to execute a staccato triplet, which we can execute simply with the pick.