From the Spring 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY BRIAN FOX
Resolved: The ukulele is the fiddle of the 21st century.
While that claim might raise the hackles of the bow-and-rosin set, there’s a mighty argument to be made. But let’s table that for another day and just have some fun filching a fiddle tune, shall we?
In the spirit of the season, we turn to “Drowsy Maggie,” a reel in the Irish tradition. Distinct from the pint-swinging sing-alongs of the Irish pub song, Irish traditional music (ITM) is a mostly instrumental affair played on some combination of fiddle, flute, tin whistle, tenor banjo, uilleann pipes, etc. Played in a number of different meters at typically brisk tempos, the contemporary repertoire is mostly comprised of 6/8-time jigs and 4/4-time reels.
The Tune, the Tuning
While it’s possible to take on traditional tunes with any size ukulele, I’ve found it works best on a baritone in standard tuning (D G B E), as the intervallic leaps can feel clumsy in re-entrant tuning. Alternatively, you might try tuning in fifths, G D A E, the setup for the most common stringed instruments in ITM. Either way, the key, form, and melodic contour of “Drowsy Maggie” is typical, so once you get your fingers around it, you’ll be in good shape to tackle tunes like it.
Begin by getting a hold on the basic melody, playing Example 1 at a slow tempo. On a baritone, try anchoring the first finger on your fretting hand on the D string’s second fret for maximum fingering efficiency in the A melody. For the higher reach of the B melody, anchor your middle finger on your B string’s third fret.
The essence of Irish traditional music lies in the subtleties of ornamentation and melodic variation; once you’ve internalized the basic melody and can stretch out a little, the fun begins. Examples 2, 3, and 4 represent a few of the common ways players embellish melodies. Example 2, a variation of the A melody’s first bar, employs a triplet pluck popular with mandolin and tenor-banjo pickers. Example 3 utilizes what Irish players call a “roll,” but what other traditions might call an “inverted mordent.” It takes the tonal center at the beginning of the A melody’s bar 8, B, and fancifies it with a five-note flurry that reaches its upper and lower scalar neighbors. Example 4 takes the first bar of the B melody and reimagines it with rolls on beats one and three.
As merely an exercise, “Drowsy Maggie” is a great workout for anyone looking to strengthen their melodic muscles. Taken as an invitation to a rich tradition curated by some of the world’s finest pickers, pluckers, pipers, and most importantly, fiddlers, it’s much more: It’s a kick in the arse to dig in and have some serious fun. Now go on with ya!