Musical Instruments

Slurred miscellany

Recent posts have examined the structural and musical attributes of a variety of zithers. They include a few that were derived from the concert zither but little has been said about the parent instrument. It originated through a fusion of Alpine designs and is still used in traditional contexts.

The melody is played with the thumb alone, which nearly always plucks the strings from the same direction. The speed this can attain is seen in a classical work arranged for the same basic ensemble. The use of the left hand to “hammer on” notes seen at the outset of the performance will be discussed further below.

In contrast to the single strings of the concert zither, the hammered dulcimer next to it in the first video has multi-string courses. It is sometimes played by plucking the strings directly with the fingertips (fueling debate about formal nomenclature and classification). This is the basic technique of another member of the zither family seen in previous posts; the qanun. It also has multi-string courses and the index fingers wear fingerpicks. The important thing to note in the following demonstration is the single targeting of the top string in a course.

The four-note ornament described 45 seconds into it (3’58”) is executed in this manner. The next clip shows the same pattern with an added fifth note. In contrast, here the middle three notes are played with a single downward stroke that plucks all strings in the three courses.

These demos show formidable ability in the rapid unidirectional use of a single digit. There is an obvious (and evolutionary) parallel between the use of a thumb pick on a concert zither and on an autoharp. The way the two index fingers are used on the qanun maps similarly into a two-finger picking style on an autoharp.

As it happens, the five-note ornament just seen is identical to the Irish roll discussed in a series of posts titled The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music. That instrument’s capacity for the idiomatic ornamentation of Irish dance tunes has been a recurring topic on this blog. Part 2 of the series considers ways of realizing the ever so important roll on it.

There is no established Irish style for its execution on the autoharp but useful guidance can be taken from other instruments in the traditional line-up. The qanun is not on that list either but nonetheless provides a clear instantiation of this type of roll on a plucked zither. It is therefore worth considering whether the technique(s) of its execution can usefully be adapted to the autoharp.

There is no set approach to playing melody on it. However, all styles are are not equally amenable to the performance of Irish dance tunes in a manner that an erudite listener would find convincing by native standards. Although there’s more to it, this entails the crystal-clear delineation of melody and well-articulated ornamentation at often breakneck speed.

The ability to pluck individual strings with immaculate accuracy on an autoharp — something it was painstakingly designed to obviate need for — is therefore indispensable. Here is a demonstration of what I regard as a well suited approach to that skill. (It is also heard in a polished recording here.)

Melody has a central position in traditional Irish performance and stands comfortably alone without any of what Jo Ann Smith in the video aptly terms the “other stuff…underneath.” However, ornamentation is a fundamental attribute of its idiomatic rendition. So from the performance perspective, other stuff still needs to be interwoven.

Some Irish ornaments can be played on an autoharp with a single finger and none require more than two (even if eased with a third). For example, a quick single grace note from above — a “cut” — can be played either with a downward slide of one finger across two strings or the successive action of two fingers. A balanced corresponding grace note from below — a “tap” or “tip” — only has the latter option. The nimble action that this can require of the picking hand has a counterpart for the barring hand.

A crisp cut or tap needs to be silenced immediately after it has been plucked. If played with a lowered chord bar, a rapid shift is necessary to another bar that damps the grace note while permitting the following note to sound. Half of that motion can be spared by playing the cut or tap with all chord bars raised and flawless aim.

This is just one instance of the situation where proximal notes are plucked successively or simultaneously, permitted to sound together for a brief moment, and all but one of them is then muted by lowering a chord bar. This action is generally referred to as “hammering on” and is a common autoharp technique. Nonetheless, I’m uncomfortable with the accepted label for it.

This was noted in a reader’s comment on an earlier post and this one is deliberately a miscellany to allow for the explanation. I first encountered the hammer-on fully 65 years ago in Pete Seeger’s book How to Play the 5-String Banjo and long since internalized the meaning he ascribed to it. That’s also where the term was used for the first time.

In playing the banjo you can get some notes with your left hand. One method is to fret a string so hard you can hear it. This I call ‘hammering on.’

This either causes a silent string to begin vibrating or raises the pitch of one that is already sounding, as demonstrated on the concert zither above. It has absolutely nothing to do with damping. Pete’s term took root in the fretted instrument glossary and is often paired with a left-hand method for plucking a lower note that he dubbed “pulling off.”

Both are emulated with the same technique on the autoharp and are commonly taught on the classical guitar under the shared heading “slurs.” Earlier 5-string banjo tutors use that term specifically to designate the hammer-on and call the pull-off a “snap.” It is in one such definition that “hammer” made its first appearance in this context — as a noun. The 1908 edition of Dallas’ Modern School for the Five-String Banjo says the following about it. (This post’s banner image follows the cited text, notating the slur with a straight glissando sign.)


The Slur is another pretty effect which is attained as follows:— Pick the fourth string open with the right hand and while the string is vibrating let the second finger of the left hand fall sharply, like a hammer on the next note D, two frets higher, which will be produced without the string being struck a second time.

The book’s editor, Herbert J. Ellis, had previously described this effect without analogy to hammering in his own Ellis’s Thorough School for the Five Stringed Banjo, published at an uncertain date in the 1890s.

The Slur indicates that the notes over which it is placed are to be played evenly and connectedly; but in Banjo playing it is produced by the left hand whilst the string is in vibration.

Pull the first note with the right hand; then, whilst it is vibrating put down the required finger of the left hand with sufficient force to produce the next note without the aid of the right hand.

The slur in descending is generally played by snapping.

This means that the Ernest Muller who advertised instruction on “guitar, mendiline, zither, auto-harp…etc” in 1884 (detailed in another earlier post) would likely have used the term slur in the preceding sense. If we posit that he taught the corresponding bar technique to his autoharp students — both to raise and lower the highlighted note — I would not be the first to regard slur as an appropriate label for it.

I’m fully aware of the futility of coinage in the face of entrenched usage, no matter how vulnerable to criticism it might be. The accepted way past that in academic publication is to define unconventional terminology and explain the reasoning behind it. I’ve just done that with the autoharp slur and will now use the term on this blog (followed by a parenthetical “aka hammer-on” wherever it seems helpful).

We can take this for a test drive with the demonstration of the four-note ornament on the qanun here. This becomes an Irish roll on an autoharp by playing the initial note with a chord bar down, lifting that bar for the following three notes, and lowering it again for a slur back to the initial note. Depending on the desired rhythmic accentuation the final note can then be plucked separately, as it is in the second of the qanun demos.

As those two video snippets show, the three notes in the middle of the roll can be played either by plucking one string in each course or with a single stroke across all three courses. In the second case, the audible effect is potentially dependent on the spacing of the strings within a course and between courses. In prevalent autoharp design, all strings are equidistant even when adjacent ones are tuned to the same pitch. Before considering the consequences of this for ornamentation technique, I’ll be taking a look at European autoharps with true multi-string courses in a separate post.

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