"Off-beat long rolls" in reels

The story so far: we've been looking at long rolls, played on all the notes on which they can properly be executed (from E up to B). So far, we have been concentrating on playing rolls as three evenly spaced notes separated by a cut and a tap.

This is exactly the rhythm we need for playing the next type of roll we are going to look at - what I call an "off-beat roll", or an "off-beat long roll", which occurs, pretty well exclusively, in reels.

Off-beat rolls are typically composed of a quarter note falling on an off-beat (that is, the second or fourth beat of the bar), preceded by a pair of eighth-notes, the second of which is the same pitch as the quarter note. Let's look at how they appear on the staff:

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Shown above are several ways that these off-beat long rolls can be written. The first line shows rolls on the first-octave F#, the second on first-octave E, and the third on second-octave G. The three ways of writing them shown all mean the same thing. Now let's hear what one sounds like.

Here is an example of a single "off-beat roll" on an F#. Sounds like "yah-dah-blah-blah"! (12K)

Here are the three variants illustrated above (57K)

Let's look at an example in a tune. Here is the first line of a well-known reel, The first house in Connaught, which I am playing here chock-full of these off-beat rolls. This is the kind of tune, in fact, that is very difficult to make sound convincing without using rolls.

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Line one of The first house in Connaught, featuring off-beat rolls on G and F# (50K)

You'll find that the feel is a little different from the long rolls we were looking at on the previous pages, because the beat or accent falls differently. But you should have little difficulty in adapting your technique to these off-beat rolls.

Wait a minute! Aren't these short rolls?

Ah, thought you might ask that question. The answer is, no.

And, yes.

Most people do refer to these beasties as "short rolls", but to my ear, the way most players play them they do not sound like short rolls, but like a modified long roll. (Most whistle players, and fiddle players anyway. Not sure about pipers.) Some people do play these figures so that they come out sounding like short rolls, but they are a small minority.

Here's the difference: to my ear, to make these types of rolls sound like true short rolls, you must articulate between the second eighth-note and the quarter note. On a whistle, that means you must tongue, and on a fiddle, it means you must change the direction of the bow stroke.

Doing this gives you exactly one quarter note to cram your roll into, and so what comes out is a short roll (we'll look at short rolls in detail later). However, this gives a very snappy, choppy, compressed sound to the figure, which I don't like, and which only a few top players favour. I much prefer the "sliding across the beat" effect which comes from NOT tonguing the quarter note - and it would seem that most other players do too.

This is why I am dealing with these off-beat rolls as a separate form. If you like the effect of an articulated short roll on an off-beat, by all means play them that way, and call them short rolls.

Generally, I - and many other players - tongue the second eighth note. This gives you the space of three eighth notes in which to execute your roll, and the result is that it sounds just like... dah-blah-blah. Three even eighth notes. (Note that you can also not tongue this second eighth note, but slur into it - if you like the effect, or where the flow of the tune seems to call for not doing so.)

As is the case surprisingly often, this corresponds exactly to the way that most fiddle players usually attack off-beat rolls - they start the second eighth note on a new bow, and then slur into the quarter note. It sounds so slinky and Irish!

Just for educational purposes, here is the same tune, with me attempting to play the rolls as true short rolls, tonguing before the quarter note. It's an effect I don't care for - too busy-sounding - but one that you will hear (doubtless more skilfully executed) used by other players.

Line one of The first house in Connaught, with short rolls on the off-beats on G and F# (XXK - coming soon)

Some more examples

Below are a few more extracts from tunes featuring off-beat rolls, some with clips, some without. First, the start of the reel O'Mahoney's.

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The first line of O'Mahoney's with off-beat rolls on F# (45K)

O'Mahoney's is a four-part tune that might be a bit advanced for you if you're just starting with rolls, but I thought of it because of all those off-beat F# rolls.

Here's a slightly easier example - no clip for this one. It's the first line of the ever-popular Green fields of Rossbeigh - a great tune that will give you a chance to practice off-beat rolls on E.

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A special case

Before we move leave off-beat rolls, let's look at a related animal. Again, this is a roll that many people would call a short roll, but which I wouldn't.

Although this type of roll has a lot in common with what we've been looking at on this page, I can't call it an off-beat long roll, because it doesn't fall on an off-beat, but on the main beat. In fact it straddles the main beat. Here's an example in the familiar Michael Gorman composition, The mountain road.

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Look at the two F# rolls that I have notated with my usual asterisk: both fall on the first beat of the bar (the second and sixth bars). But like your standard off-beat roll, both are preceded by a note of the same pitch. Once again, if you want to play a roll at this point in the tune, you have a choice: you can tongue the quarter-note F# and play a common or garden short roll; or you can slur into the quarter note from the previous note, effectively creating a standard dah-blah-blah, or long roll that sits across the bar line. The latter method is what I much prefer.

The first line of The mountain road with longs rolls on F# across the bar lines (53K)

I am not going to bother inventing a name for these special cases but I wanted to alert you to them. They're more common than you might think.

Updated 14 October 2004