View Full Version : Irish Rhythm Guitar Playing

John Flynn
Apr-05-2004, 2:20pm
I am very new to Irish music and I attended my first Irish sessions this past weekend. I was playing the mando, but I also play the guitar and a good crutch I have used in other kinds of jams is to look at the chords the guitar players to help me figure out the tune. However, in these Irish sessions, the guitar players were not playing standard guitar chords. They were generally only fretting two or three strings and sliding up and down the neck with each change. Can anyone tell me more about this? Were they in a tuning? Are there resources on the 'net that can give me primer on what they were doing? Thanks in advance.

Apr-05-2004, 3:40pm
Most likely they were using DADGAD (low to high) which has become very popular in the Irish world. However, only the 6th, 2nd and 1st strings are changed- the meat and potatoes of the stuff they were sliding with (hint- think partial chords on those strings and/or harmonized scales in thirds) was probably on strings 5 4 and 3, which are the same as standard. It's a cool sound.

Some mando players like Andy Irvine like G D A D. He doesn't really play melody much; you always trade off something when you go for alternate tunings; in that case you lose some high melody note potential in first position...it's a great sound for rhythm as you can let that high D string drone open and do moving stuff on the bottom, like the DADGAD folk.

Apr-06-2004, 2:45pm
Playing rhythm guitar at a session is like stepping into a minefield. The chord progressions aren't always clear and the tunes often change keys or modes in the middle. The rhythm also isn't obvious if you don't know the tunes already. I've been at sessions a guitarist tries to play bluegrass rhythm with straight major or minor chord progressions on top of modal reels or jigs. I really like having guitar or bouzouki accompaniment and think that it adds a lot to the music, but is is easy to get it wrong and annoy a lot of people.

Unfortunately, not everyone is polite about letting others know if they are doing something that isn't fitting in well with the rest of the music. I suppose it's a case of a few bad apples...

Your best bet is probably to just listen to a lot of irish music with guitar accompaniment and play some with people you know at first.

I think Mel Bay has a book on celtic rhythm backup, if you are looking for a book.

Apr-06-2004, 9:32pm
Frank KilKelly's book/CD "Accompanying Irish Music Guitar" is very good -- he covers a number of different tunings and styles. The book also contains a good discography and recommended listening for Irish guitar.

Also excellent is the Homespun video by the true god of Irish guitar, John Doyle.

Apr-09-2004, 5:37am
Withak described guitar accompaniment in Irish music as a minefield. An understatement, in my opinion!

Check out this from a local newspaper in my part of the world:

Interview with Comhaltas Spokesman about Guitars, Bouzoukis and Bodhráns (http://www.westernpeople.ie/news/story.asp?j=18784)

(For those who don't know, Comhaltas is an organisation dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Irish traditional music. Let's just say that some of its members have done wonderful work down the years, while others seem to prefer to use their membership as a licence to be plain rude in the airing of their opinions. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wink.gif )

John Flynn
Apr-09-2004, 7:38am
Woah! If 'ol Seamus doesn't like guitars and bodrans, I can only imagine how he would react to a mandolin! I'll bet he's tons of fun at a session!

As a wise person said in a similar discussion about traditionalism in old-time, "It's true you can't have a healthy tree without strong roots. But it's also true that if you keep sawing off all the branches, all you will have is an old stump!"

Apr-09-2004, 7:53am
"It's true you can't have a healthy tree without strong roots. But it's also true that if you keep sawing off all the branches, all you will have is an old stump!"

I like that a lot!

I hope the guy's rant hasn't put you off getting into Irish music - I don't think he's representative of the majority of Irish musicians. Most of my music buddies regard him as comic relief, he's so over the top.

Anyway, the mandolin would probably not draw the same level of disapproval from him as it's primarily a melody instrument in Irish music - accompaniment is his big peeve.

As regards using the guitarist to guide your own mandolin playing, I'd say that it's probably more trouble than it's worth, if they're playing in a style that's unfamiliar to you. There's no substitute for just listening to loads of Irish music, playing along when you know the tune and listening when you don't. And enjoy it!

Steve L
Apr-09-2004, 8:01am
Hmmm...who do we think has done the most to advance the cause of Irish music; Mr. Duffy or Donal Lunny?

Apr-09-2004, 10:09am
who do we think has done the most to advance the cause of Irish music; #Mr. Duffy or Donal Lunny?

That you even ask the question shows that you, too, are a person of "low esteem and undiscerning musical tastes"! #http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/laugh.gif

Hubert Angaiak
Apr-09-2004, 6:28pm
Okay... in playing rhythm.. would it still follow the I-IV-V or what would it "normally" follow. I've played as what I can do, and watching the guitarist is hard to follow because they are moving as fast as the lead musicians playing. So sometimes is looks and sounds like you hit on a down beat or you strum and follow as the melody.

Steve L
Apr-09-2004, 8:40pm
...you, too, are a person of "low esteem and undiscerning musical tastes"! #
And proud of it, sir! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wink.gif

Apr-10-2004, 8:56am
But how does Seamus really feel about other less traditional instruments in Western Ireland? I seem to detect an ambivalence to the human race per se in his rage. "If you ain't dead, it ain't traditional." Interesting if brittle thought process. Perhaps, being locked into a unison mentality has its benefits ... if you only can play a melody oriented instrument. Double stops are probably not permitted within his own home.

Poor bludger - never experienced the joys of shape note singing. Poor deprived bludger ...

Bob DeVellis
Apr-10-2004, 9:42am
Hubert - I don't think the I-IV-V is likely to work in a traditionally-oriented session. In fact, not only won't the sequence work, but the individual chords themselves may not even work. A lot of the accompaniment, as others have pointed out, is based on partial chords, often leaving out the third to create an ambiguity with respect to major or minor. It's really a whole other type of music in some of its manifestations. Of course, there's a lot of what you might call Irish-American hybrid music that is kind of a mixture of Irish with country/bluegrass. The standard progression might work better there. Last time I was in Ireland, by the way, American country music was considerably more popular than Irish traditional. I think that may be partly why the die-hards cling so tenaciously to what they rightly view as a national heritage. Not too different from our own died-in-the-wool bluegrass traditionalists who cringe at the mention of more progressive groups with a bluegrassy tinge to their music.

Personally, for the little that it's worth, I think people should (a) play what style they most enjoy and render a tune in the manner they see fit, and also (b) try not to impose their musical views on others who are aimed in a different direction. But sometimes the two are in direct conflict. I think it comes down to choosing what you play with whom and deciding who's receptive to broadening their perspectives a bit and who isn't. Where both Irish and bluegrass are concerned, I really enjoy some very traditional and some very progressive stuff. But not usually at the same time.

Apr-10-2004, 2:53pm
I think that musicians coming at Irish music from a different type of music (Bluegrass, for example) are often caught off balance by the fact that there isn't generally a straightforward I-IV-V type of chord sequence behind the melody. They end up looking for something that's not necessarily there. For the most part, Irish music evolved as a purely melodic style. The older tunes were composed by people who had probably never heard a "chord sequence" in their lives. A lot of the tunes don't even use regular major or minor scales - they use certain modes instead. The melodies take all sorts of twists and turns that are often way too subtle and devious for a #"conventional" chord structure. Trying to back Irish music with big, full-on I-IV-V chords is, a lot of the time, like trying to drive a big RV down narrow, twisting Irish backroads!

Bob hit the nail squarely on the head with his comments on progressive versus conservative. For me, a vital part of what I do involves respect; respect for the music and for other musicians. I try to play with people, not against them, and if they don't want me to play I don't, and that's fine. And unlike Séamus Duffy, I sure as hell try not to make sweeping generalisations about those that hear music differently from me.

Anyway, I tried to send a reply via e-mail to the newspaper that the article appeared in, but it bounced. Looks like Comhaltas have taken over the mail servers! I can just see them plotting now - "Today the 'Western People', tomorrow 'Mandolin Cafe', by Tuesday there will be no more chords!"

Apr-10-2004, 3:48pm
I just read the article and forwarded it on to our bodhran player for his amusement. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Although I think that the diatribe is bluster about change, there is always truth in there too. Traditional music needs both it's purist's and it's innovators. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two ends, and the conflict between them creates the survival of whatever traditional genre there is.

The purist keeps the traditions alive and proud while the innovators push the limits of what can be expressed ensuring that there is room for all in the mix.

Just my little two cents.


Dagger Gordon
Apr-12-2004, 2:16am
Your original question about what tuning the guitar is in deserves a bit more attention.

DADGAD is certainly common among Irish players, but so is standard or dropped D.

However, largely because of the influence of the sound of open tunings, players quite often use chords in standard that sound more open, rather than the straighforward first position ones.

This will lead you all the way over up the neck as you work out different possibilities.

A basic example would be the chord of A. Play the 5th fret -2nd string. The 6th fret- 3rd string. The 7th fret-4th string. That gives you a more open sounding A, from which you can easily slip into versions of D, E7, C sharp minor 7th, F sharp minor 7th etc. It may sound more complex than it is, and these are chords that sound good in the key of A.

Another trick is to slide this A shape down two frets. It works as a sort of G chord with drones in tunes where the basic progression in A down to G (eg The High Reel, Langstrom's Pony etc). I hope that is not too confusing.

You can see from this that it requires a different approach from what you might be used to in bluegrass.

I have seen John Doyle's video. Very good. He uses dropped D.

You would learn a lot from it.

Bruce Evans
Apr-12-2004, 7:28am
I've been attending an Irish session for about 6 months now. It is in the heart of Michigan, with a lot of enthusiastic but not-very-traditional amateur musicians. Like most musical events around here, there are enough guitars to tear most of 'em down and build an ark while still having enough to play the accompaniment. #http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

They have sheet music of the standard tunes and sets of tunes, and few people could play anything else. I just realized this is starting to sound disparaging. It is not intended to be so. I'm just explaining how it is.

Anyway, I started out by very carefully listening to the other guitar players. It seems that everyone has a pretty good grasp of what chords to play (after all, they're written on the page) but there is very little inventiveness in the right hand. There are a lot of quarter note down strums. So, I'm doing my own thing. Surprised?

First, I agree that some of the tunes just don't need a chordal accompaniment. The chords written on the page #are something like, D Dsus D D D Dsus, etc. Some others are modal and go Em D Em D, ad nauseum. So I lean on my guitar and listen to the bodhrans on those tunes.

On the tunes that have enough tonal variation to be interesting, I have adapted my bluegrass strums. I use the alternating bass heavily, but I leave out the characteristic bluegrass licks. A Flatt G run in Sibeag Simor just don't fit! I do try to improvise some kind of scalar or arpeggio fill in when the melody sits on a dotted half at the end of the phrase. On a few tunes, I use an octave or open fifth drone for the first 4 bars of the B section. On the up tempo tunes, I throw a few syncopated strums in with the alternating bass. It keeps me from going mad. This method does seem to be consistent with what I hear on the few Irish music CDs that I am listening to.

While I understand the position of the rant in that newspaper article, I also understand that the music in Fenian's Pub in Conklin, MI is being played by, and for the enjoyment of, the people in the pub. It is not intended to be a conservatory of Irish music. We are there to have fun.

So, if someone can offer an opinion of what to do with the rhythm of the Irish rhythm guitar, I would appreciate hearing from you.

Apr-12-2004, 7:37pm
Listen to what good guitarists do on recordings. We can type all day about it, but you have to hear it and feel it.

Apr-13-2004, 7:19am
Welcome to the MineField ... John McGann put his thumb on it - "Listen to what good Guitarists do on recordings!" #There is a problem with a lot of recordings and that is ... the guitar is often mixed down to a point you need to struggle to hear the "weaving texture" which is the signature of good/great celtic guitar (or Bouzouki / OM). With that in mind, the following are some of my absolute favorite Irish Musicians of the Guitar / Bouzouki species.

1/ Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley
2/ Dennis Cahill and Martin Hayes
3/ John Doyle on Solas (or Liz Carrol) CD's
4/ 'Peerie' Willie Johnson (the originator of the style)
5/ Any Tom Anderson, Phil Cunningham or Aly Bain CD's
6/ Ciaran Caran of Altan

The style seems to come from the playing of Willie Johnson in the 1940's - which has a rich heritage of jazz dance bands and piano technique. Any of the above players will open some doors for you - the Tom Anderson listing has bare minimum guitar accompaniement but ... the remarkable swing which his playing exhibits just begs for an airy, weaving accompaniement.

It's a very nice path to explore and it will open your eyes to the possiblities which are NOT done in American or B/G music.

Rhytmically - the accompaniement fits between the melody and the rhythm of the bodhran. Much of Celtic music comes from dance ... that is a clue to the spirit and focus of playing it. An unheralded classic is Hazel Wrigley's backing on the "Waltz", Tide at the Taing. This is a 3/4 tune with dotted 1/8th notes starting every bar and virtually no quarter notes. I absolutely couldn't get that tune under my fat thumb - until I saw the way it was written ... Jennifer on fiddle is just dancing on top of a very sparse guitar backing. Amazing ... #Another mind blower is Cahill/ Hayes on the "Live from Seattle" CD. They do a 28 minute set of mixed tunes with not a word said. When they resolve into a little ditty named "Kilnamona" ... Jaw Dropping structure.

Just keep listening to all sorts of groups and even look into Chris Smiths book on Celtic Accompaniement for Other Instruments. So many options out there ... it isn't quite as bewildering as it seems, you just need to hear what a lot of different people are doing, learn what you like and

Bruce Evans
Apr-13-2004, 8:18am
Well, I went back and listened to (almost) all the Irish stuff that I have on CD with a fresh ear yesterday. While I did hear some examples of the style of playing which I described in my previous posts, I heard several other approaches, too, including some great finger-style playing. There seem to be as many variations on the style as there are guitar players.

Conclusion (for now):
As there is not an established tradition for guitar accompaniment in Irish music (see rant in the newspaper article referenced above), it doesn't matter what style you choose as long as it supports the melody and rhythm of the music and sounds good.

That's what I'm going with for now, but I do plan on borrowing a little from everybody. That makes it "research" instead of "stealing". #http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wink.gif

Hubert Angaiak
Apr-13-2004, 2:05pm
"Rhytmically - the accompaniement fits between the melody and the rhythm of the bodhran."

I love to listen to Irish music, but I guess I need to listen more in an attentive way. The above statement works for me. If I'm off base, correct me, but its not "playing" rhythm in a standard sense and I now see if as part of the tune, where you add a color to the tune. Most of the tunes I listen to have the lead parts up front where you can't really hear the rhythm, but come in at the right time. In saying that, I will need to begin to know tunes and add (hopefully)something to it. (and not make anyone mad) Having a shopping list of artists is good. Thanks... this is great.

Dagger Gordon
Apr-14-2004, 2:47am
One fiddle/guitar duo I enjoyed was Kevin Burke and Micheal O'Domhnaill. They made two lovely albums called Promenade and Portland.

Being based in the States, I imagine they were quite influential on Celtic music over there.

With no other instruments and 3 or 4 songs in Gaelic sung by Micheal, Portland is an excellent CD for really hearing some classy guitar accompaniment; Micheal is really good (these guys were both in the Bothy Band).

In fact, I would go so far as to say if there was only one album I had to recommend for listening to and learning how to accompany Irish music it would be Portland. (Green Linnet 1982 GLCD 1041).

Steve L
Apr-14-2004, 7:43am
I would also recommend "The Iron Man" with Tommy Peoples and Daithi Sproule and Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds with Paul Brady.

For a Scottish flavor, fiddler Alasdair Frasier has some great fiddle/guitar duo stuff; "The Driven Bow" with Jody Stecher and "The Road to Kintail" with the amazing Tony MacManus.

I would also say that if you want to hear great rhythm guitar playing, when looking at CDs, buy just about anything that Arty McGlynn is on. I really love his playing.

Apr-17-2004, 1:47pm
I would also recommend "The Iron Man" with Tommy Peoples and Daithi Sproule and Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds with Paul Brady.

Anything, in fact, from Daithi Sproule. He's a member of Altan, as well. He plays mostly in DADGAD.

Apr-22-2004, 10:04am
First I want to agree with Pafraig and Harlan that the traditional is important. Most people have very little exposure to traditional Irish music and on first hearing it can seem plain or even simplistic after the complexities of everything else that we hear. The main thing to remember is that in traditional Irish music it's all about the melody. That is why the jazz based chord use like m7, 9ths, dim, etc. doesn't fit. Of course it can fit, and sound good, but then it isn't traditional any more. If that doesn't matter, it's all right, but realize it. This is another good reason not to play so fast,either. It isn't about speed or flash, it is about the melody.I play in a "Celtic" pick up band(OM) and I sure don't play traditional and it's a lot of fun, but when I play alone or with one or two others, it's very different.

In the Fleadh Ceol of the comhaltas, duet or trio competitors must play the melody at all times. In the accompaniment competition they are quite clear that they don't want to hear a bunch of minor chords. The nebulously "pan-Celtic" music is good stuff, but it isn't Irish or Scotts or Welsh or anything in particular, it's just sort of a style, ya know?

Tocotodo, where do you play in Michigan? Is it Conklin? I have been there a few times, and if it's not, I want to know about another session.