Home Media News & Blog 6 Hidden Reasons Your Embellishments May Sound Like... Well... Sloppy Joes
6 Hidden Reasons Your Embellishments May Sound Like... Well... Sloppy Joes

6 Hidden Reasons Your Embellishments May Sound Like... Well... Sloppy Joes

Do your embellishments sound like this sloppy joe looks? If so, consider 6 key (yet hidden) pitfalls that may be causing the problem.

This is the last straw.

You've heard for the last time from the last person that you're embellishments are sloppy.

You've tried everything you could think of to "clean them up" but it still seems to be the biggest detractor in your playing. Perhaps you get good comments on your instrument sound, the steadiness of your blowing, perhaps even the musical merit of what you're playing- but these embellishments are holding you back. And in a big way.

Why are embellishments such a huge roadblock for playing? Nothing else seems to be this hard, and there are so many players around that seem to have these down pat. Why are you having such a hard time?

The Cold Hard Truth

In my experience developing my own embellishments and teaching many (many) students, I think the biggest issue with embellishments is that there are frankly so many things that need to happen - and they need to happen, ultimately, in an extremely rapid fire manner and in a very short period of time.

If anyone of these essential things is lacking, the whole embellishment will be ruined. I'm not saying this to scare you, I'm saying this because it's a fact.


Meanwhile, let's quickly consider the people around us that seem to have great embellishments. In my experience, one of the following is true about them:

A) They have a great underlying "bedrock" of fundamental technique, which facilitates great embellishments. Many (but by no means all) of the Grade 1 and Professional pipers out there will fit into this description.

B) They're actually just producing the "illusion" of good embellishments by crushing things into a small oblivion, disguising the fact that what's going on underneath is NOT good. This, as you can probably guess, represents the overwhelming majority of players who have "good" embellishments. Even a significant portion of "top" players. (Psst - If you're reading this now as confirmation of how great your own embellishments are, but for some reason the hair on the back of your neck just stood up a little bit - you owe it to yourself to read on).

Back to the Building Blocks

So, as I mentioned before: There are several key elements of embellishments that need to be perfected before you can expect them to materialize in a non-sloppy-joe manner. If even one of these are missing, untidy, or even just a wee bit "off," kiss your embellishment buh-bye.

What makes this even harder is that, as most of us are fully aware, embellishments have to happen FAST. They're supposed to "crack" off the chanter, and help the music ripple and flow.

Let's have a look at the "big 6" pitfalls that can hide inside of any embellishment...

Hidden Pitfall 1: Ignoring the Steps

Sometimes, in the frantic effort to play a complex embellishment in an extremely short window of time, we completely overlook the discrete steps that have to come together to create an embellishment.

For example, a grip from E to E has three individual steps - Play Low G, Play D Gracenote on Low G, then Play E.

But, in the mad rush, what ends up happening is just a mad flailing of fingers, tending not to have much to do with the three steps at all! There is no way, ever, in a million years that this can lead to a non sloppy-joe embellishment.

Somehow, we're going to have to transform the mad flailing quasi-grip into a fundamentally-correct performance of the steps of the grip. Until we do this, there will be sloppy joes. And lots of them to go around.

Hidden Pitfall 2: Crossing Noises

In pitfall 1, I pointed out that embellishments need to be played by the steps in order to come out correctly. With that said, it's important to acknowledge that these steps will often contain note changes. And, with note changes come the potential for crossing noises.

Yep, if it wasn't hard enough to avoid crossing noises in the main melody of your tunes, now you're going to have to do it in the pressure-cooker environment of embellishments as well.

But, you have to do it. If you don't? You guessed it. Tomato-ey ground beefy goodness on a few-days-old hamburger bun.

Hidden Pitfall 3: Gracenote Size

Again, looking at the steps you see from pitfall 1, you'll notice that gracenotes are important sub-ingredients of pretty much any embellishment.

Well, if your gracenotes don't sound good, your embellishment can't sound good.

What makes a good gracenote? Well, it all comes down to the size of the gracenote. Each and every gracenote you play should be as short as audibly possible. It makes a teeny tiny sound, and no more. If the gracenote is played any bigger than that (especially in the context of a rapid-fire embellishment) it's going to quite literally start to "swallow up" the key melody notes that surround it.

In the case of the grip example from pitfall 1, a gracenote that was played too big would cover up the Low G sounds we desperately need for a successful grip.

The result of a gracenote size that's too big? Sloppy-Joe-Mega-Tropolis.

Hidden Pitfall 4: Gracenote "Sync"

This one's a little bit trickier to explain, and I won't try to eat the whole elephant here. But I will say this:

If a gracenote happens during a note-change, the gracenote must be well-synchronized to that note-change.

Let's take a common example.

If an A to A taorluath's steps are: Play Low G, D Gracenote on Low G, E gracenote to Low A

A) We don't have to worry about sync problems on the D gracenote, because there is no note change here (we start on Low G and end on Low G).

B) However, we do have a very real sync-threat on the E gracenote. If the E gracenote is played out-of-sync with the note-change to Low A, we're going to get a "redundant" extra note-sound as a result.

Let's leave it at that for now. The moral of the story? If gracenotes are played out of sync - you guessed it:

Ooey-Gooey meat mixture.

Hidden Pitfall 5: Even-ness

Again, let's consider the steps of the taorluath example above.

All of the three steps of this movement must be even to avoid sloppy-joe syndrome.

If the Low G step is played longer or shorter than the D gracenote step, the movement will sound out-of-balance.

Hidden Pitfall 6: Missing the Beat

Jim McGillivray's amazing book "Rhythmic Fingerwork" goes into amazing detail as to the importance of where the embellishment must be played relative to the beat. I won't try to recreate his masterwork here, but I will say that beat-placement is essential to a clean, crisp embellishment.

If your embellishments are not anchored well to the click of a metronome or the tapping of a foot, it will throw off the rhythm of the tune itself, and potentially spawn any one of the previous 5 pitfalls as well! Be very careful here, and make sure you get the beat-placement right.

The Important Part: How to Take Action on Improving Your Embellishments

I'll be honest - fixing sloppy embellishments may be one of the hardest elements of bagpiping to correct. Due to the nature of the beast (several tricky fundamentals compressed into an extremely small package), you'll need a game plan.

For starters, slow things down. Play embellishments in a "painfully open" fashion as often as possible.

Next, carefully and methodically engrain the steps of each and every embellishment into your head. Try to replace the "muscle memory" that is causing sloppy-joe embellishments, and replace it with fundamentally accurate steps.

Lastly, you should check out our 100% FREE checklist guides on mastering Low G embellishments. These guides show you how to identify every possible pitfall inside the embellishments, and how to avoid each one.

If you have problems with more than just D Throws, Grips, and Taorluaths, you can extrapolate the skills found in the Low-G-Oriented Embellishments Perfection Guide and apply them to literally any embellishment you'll ever play!

----> Click here to check out our Low G Oriented Embellishment Perfection Checklists Now! [totally free]

I hope you enjoyed the article, and that you aren't turned off from Sloppy Joes (frankly, I find them delicious!) forever. 🙂


Andrew Douglas Andrew is a prolific practitioner of the bagpipe, having been active at the highest level of pipe bands, solo competition, teaching, and creative endeavors for the past 20 years. He's also the founder and creator of Dojo U and of PipersDojo.com