Jigs: trickier than you probably think

Jigs are generally considered to be much easier to learn and play than, say, reels. They are definitely, in the main, catchier and easier to memorize than reels, and so beginners tend to tackle them quite early on in their whistle-playing or Irish-music-learning career. But although your Irish jig may appear simple and jolly, in reality he is, in my opinion, quite a complex and sophisticated character, capable of a wide variety of moods. You really need to get to know him.

Why trickier than you think?

As usual, it's all a question of rhythm. And, also as usual, the way jigs are written down does not tell the whole story. You know, of course, that Irish double jigs (which is mainly what we are talking about here), are written in 6/8 time and consist largely of six eighth notes per bar, grouped into two groups of three. If you play these notes as written, i.e. give all the notes the same length, you won't get a good jig rhythm.

There are various ways of pointing you to an understanding of a good jig rhythm. Let's try some.

HINT ONE To achieve a good rhythm in jigs you want to lengthen the first note in the group of three, shorten the second, and leave the third alone. (But dotting the first note and making the second a 16th note doesn't quite do it either!)

HINT TWO People sometimes explain the rhythm of jigs as being akin to "diddledee-diddledee" or "rackety-tackety" or some such concatenation of syllables. (Now this is all very fine -- as long as you already know what a jig should sound like. Then you can pronounce these words so that they sound exactly like a jig. But if you don't know what a jig should sound like, you can easily pronounce the same words so that they sound like machine-gun fire, or the rattle of a jackhammer! You want your jig to lift people up onto their feet, or put a spring in their hearts - not mow them down or batter them into submission.)

HINT THREE A well-played jig, at a slowish or medium tempo, has a lazy, rolling feel to it, which it never quite loses even when played at maniacal speeds.

ENOUGH HINTS ALREADY! It's not very much use me going on like this -- the only way you'll know what a jig should sound like is to listen carefully and often to well-played Irish music, until you become thoroughly familiar with the sound of the jig. Once you've done that, you can easily put in onto the tin whistle. And maybe I can show you a couple of tricks to help you do that.

Updated 14 October 2004