View Full Version : Mandolin as the only rhythm

Dagger Gordon
Oct-17-2004, 1:46am
I had a couple of unusual sessions last week.

I took my fiddle-playing 12 year old son for a couple of nights at 'Blazin' in Beauly' , which is a week long fiddle class/workshop/series of sessions and performances run by the top-notch Scottish fiddle band Blazin' Fiddles in the Highland town of Beauly.

I found myself in a tiny bar with at least 20 fiddles and not much else, so I played back-up all night on my 1912 Oval-hole A model Gibson, strumming chordal accompaniment.

Really enjoyed it. While the lower sound of the guitar or bouzouki would get lost in the noisy hubbub of the bar, the rhythmic sound of the mando cuts through no bother. It also probably helped that I was standing up (as were many of the fiddlers).

I came away thinking that the mando is underrated as a rhythm instrument in Celtic music. Most discussions I've read here tend to be about melody playing and the volume problems as a melody instrument in a session. (Incidentally, I've been tending to play the Gibson at sessions recently. I find that it seems to cut through the noise better than my Sobell - different sound.)

What are your experiences?

PS Blazin' Fiddles are a great group- check them out.

Oct-17-2004, 4:28am
Great observations David, it sounds like you had fun and probably (hopefully) inspired a few of the other fiddlers to think about taking a chance with a fretted cousin. I've tried it a bit in kitchen parties but in the big seisun's around here - the rhythm aspect isn't very well appreciated (or tolerated). Were you able to do the "weaving" type of background or even add a level of off beat syncopation to the mix?

I keep thinking about Hazel Wrigley's (and Peerie Willie Johnson's) subtle style of enhancing a tune but get baffled when the sound just seems to get lost in the pub mix. I frankly don't know if anyone besides myself can hear what I'm playing or trying to add ...

At least in your session you it seems you weren't struggling with two boxes and four flutes or whistles PLUS a small army of fiddles.

Oct-17-2004, 6:07am
Great thread!

I did a workshop with Dave O'Neill, one of Australia's finest mandolin (and guitar, and fiddle...) players a couple of years ago before our National Folk Festival.

Dave covered quite a few ideas on rhythm mandolin including droning, modal chords, diminished chords, chord substitutions, muting, different strumming patterns... My head was about ready to explode at the end of it!

Definitely lots of potential, rhythm wise, in the mandolin. We did a backing for the jig "Cook in the Kitchen" which started off using a G drone and muted modal chords for part A before moving to some more standard muted chords for part B before moving into open ringing chords for part C of the tune. The rhythm backing kept "building" and really gave the tune a lift.



Dagger Gordon
Oct-17-2004, 6:41am
Yeah Dolamon,

I was weaving, off-beating, on-beating, doing every trick I could think of. I'm very used to accompanying on my 8 string cittern, which I tune ADAE, but the mandolin was in standard GDAE and that was almost certainly the longest sustained session I've done on rhythm mandolin.

And yes, some of the fiddlers were asking me how I was doing it.

As a related aside, I really enjoy Mike Marshall and Chris Thile's 'Into the cauldron' CD. Amazing playing. Just the 2 of them on mandolins (2 tracks with Mike on mandocello), so their rhythm playing is a big part of it.

Oct-17-2004, 9:08am
Forgive the plug, but if anyone wants to investigate rhythm playing in this context further, I do have a few items dealing with just that.

Mandocrucian's Digest #25 - Introduction To Playing With Pick & Fingers, Additional thoughts on Mando Backup ("Swinging On A Gate"), Mandos From Finland w/Arto Jarvela ("Seijarin Polska", scored for 2 mandolins and octave mandolin), The Jamming Player's Repertoire Appendix Part 2 (English Country Dance, Czech, Irish, Scottish, Finnish, New England contra-dance, Old-Time, Dixieland, Swing/jazz), Solo Mandolin w/Radim Zenkl (single line melody solo - "Happygrass"), A Look at Playing Greek Music, "George IV" strathspey, 1993 Listening Survey, record reviews.

Mandocrucian's Digest #24 - Backing Up A Fiddle Or Other High Register Instrument In A Duo Setting* ("Garry Owen", "Swinging On A Gate"), Solo Mandolin w/Radim Zenkl ("Greensleeves", "The Last Supper"), Cajun Mandolin w/Tommy Comeaux ("Les Filles a Nonc Helaire"), mando pickups and brackets, Jamming Player's Repertoire Appendix (Cajun, klezmer, Cape Breton, Texas-fiddle, Chicago & Piedmont blues), technical exercises - keeping your (left) fingers down, record and book reviews. [* Instuctional cassette tape of this article available]

80-minute long tape demonstrating the material in the MD #24-25 articles and expanding upon them. Complete stereo separation between the mandolin backup parts and the lead instruments (fiddle, accordion, flute, whistle, concertina), using the tunes "Garry Owen" and "Swinging On A Gate" as demonstration vehicles. Also includes long "play-along" tracks at manageable tempos so you can actually practice backing another instruments. Backup can be so much more than just the "chop"! You won't find this type of instruction anywhere else!

Ordering details at the on-line catalog (http://www.btinternet.com/~john.baldry/mando/hokkanen.html). (Note: MD back issues and any MD companion tapes are not carried by Elderly).

Niles Hokkanen

Oct-17-2004, 11:00pm
I was just wondering what rhythm techniques could be used on a mandolin, specifically in the context of Celtic and ITM. For instance, is it appropriate to "chop" 4 finger chords like in bluegrass or do you do a bit more strumming, perhaps with the more "open" 2 and 3 finger chords? Should you play only the 2&4 like bluegrass, or do you play the more accentuated 1&4, or do you try to hit all of the beats like a guitar might? I have a sneaking suspicion that many of these questions may have already been adressed or at least hinted at earlier in this thread, but if they were I kinda missed it.

Oct-18-2004, 3:33am
I've experimented with playing mandolin accompaniment in GDAD, same as my bouzouki (but an octave higher, of course) and I've really enjoyed it. Andy Irvine has always been one of my favourite musicians, so it was listening to him that inspired me to try it.

I've always used it on top of a guitar or bouzouki - I've never used it as the only accompaniment instrument. It's something I've been intending to look at though - it's always good to get more colours on the tonal palette.

To partially answer dwc's post, I'd be inclined to go sparingly on the chop chords. They sound great in Bluegrass but can be a bit over the top in Irish music when used all the time. That, of course, is just my opinion, and I don't know enough about the music of the other Celtic regions to venture an opinion on them.

Oct-18-2004, 5:53am
DWC - Celtic Rhythm can be a can of worms when you just start out listening to or playing celtic tunes. Even bodhran or dumbek players learn to lay back when they are playing. Often it sounds as if the rhythm is off the beat for a bar or two and then played in a rubato style of every beat ... and so forth. Traditional groups really use the rhythm sparingly, more modern, rock influenced - well it's done with a more pronounced structure.

Rather than try to explain a wisp like concept, I suggest listening to a few terrific examples of the airy, "weaving" like sound which (to me at least) is so appealing. First off and probably most available are any of the Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill CD's (Live in Seattle is spectacular), any of the Wrigley Sisters CD's, and anything which has Daithi Sproule or Andy Irvine or Alec Finn on it. This is a small sampling of some jaw dropping rhythm concepts which are definately out of the chop norm but - tantalizing. I think - all of these musicians use both a counter rhythm - with a counter melody to hold the music together. The concept seems to allow the melody a structure to dance on ...

The more I listen to it - the more I am transfixed with the idea. With David's now fresh experience of doing it on a mandolin with a host of fiddlers - well I have some work to do.

Any other suggestions for groups to listen to or explore will be greatly appreciated.

steve V. johnson
Oct-19-2004, 2:57am
I normally play bouzouki (GDAD) and guitar (DADGAD) in Irish sessions and with a fiddle player and bodranist in our band. On some occaisions when there has been a wealth of guitarists and zouk players in session I have switched over to mandolin, and since rhythm is what I do, I do that on the mando as well. I haven't been playing mando long, so I'm pretty limited on it.

When I play the zouk and guitar, I usually play a sort of cross-picking style cribbed from Zan McLeod's bouzouki and Ged Foley's guitar methods, and those sorts of things seem to translate sort of ok onto mandolin as well. I'm not a melody player, and I like to keep some harmonic motion going from within chords. I use mainly open, two- and three-finger chords. I usually end up emphasizing the lower register. (It's what I do. <GG>)

I haven't heard many mandolinists do bluegrass-type chop chords in Irish music, tho Mike Schroeder in Louisville does it very nicely, throwing chops in among his melody lines.

When guitar players who aspire to the John Doyle strumming approach try that on mando, it generally doesn't translate very well. IMO...

Just recently a guy handed me his grandfather's '28 F4 in the midst of a session, and that was a life-changing experience!!

I think there is lots of potential for mando rhythm in Irish music, but it is still a bit unusual, at least in the Midwest of the USA, so far.


Oct-19-2004, 3:18am
I get the sneaking feeling that there are some unenlightened fiddlers and other such melodists who would assume that if I played rhythm, rather than melody, on mandolin at a session, it was because I wasn't "really" able to play the instrument. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/laugh.gif

All the more reason to do it, then!

Oct-19-2004, 1:44pm
If you want a start, you can my videos on my website here http://cbom.free.fr/30.htm
Don't forget, the most important is the Rythmic hand, not lot so much the chord hand.
You must be support the melody player, not squeeze them. Make ambiance http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wink.gif

Paul Kotapish
Oct-22-2004, 6:52pm
Over the years I have often found myself playing in situations where the mandolin is the only accompaniment instrument. I love playing duets with fiddlers, especially if they can switch off and play some backup lines, drones, and chords, too. It's fun to weave melody, counterpoint, chords, drones, etc. in and around a tune.

In Kevin Burke's Open House we performed and recorded a number of pieces with the unlikely combination of fiddle, mandolin, harmonica (or clarinet), and foot percussion. Definitely a different sound, but we liked it, anyway.

When playing rhythm mandolin in an Irish or Quebec or Scottish-tune session, though, I find that it works best if I switch off between arpeggiated chords using a lot of open strings--Alec Finn style--open chords strums, and some abbreviated octave forms that parallel the melody. I rarely use full chop chords for Irish tunes unless I'm playing a contradance or I'm in some monster jam where groove bludgeon is called for.

Last summer I had a ball doing a concert set with just mandolin, concertina, voice, and upright acoustic bass. No guitar, piano, bouzouki, or other conventional chord instrument. Kooky but fun.

Oct-23-2004, 4:14am
...groove bludgeon...

Mind if I use that phrase?

Oct-23-2004, 3:31pm
I was sort of wondering about weaving chords into a tune. I have little desire to strap into a closed chord and strum like crazy, but I was wondering if anyone in a session would take offense if I were to weave a few chords in and out of melody. take for instance a really simple tune like Road to Lisdoonvarna, Key of D. At the beginning of part B, I often sub/strum a G Maj chord and then quickly hit a couple of ghost notes before hitting a D chord. I think this works because the chord changes in the second part are Em to Dm to A. With Em the relative of G and Bm the relative of D I think it sounds kind of neat and works well solo. But, would I be taking up too much space if I were to do this when playing with others? And am I changing the basic outline/feel of the tune by modulating out of the minors?

Turas Mor
Oct-23-2004, 6:13pm
Honestly, I don't know what I'm doing from a traditional point of view, I simply play what I like to hear. Since Irish Trad is generally in the key of D or G, it is well suited to playing two or three finger chords, in a cross picking style, that can accentuate certain melody lines, and add rhythm chords as well. Particularly in these two keys the mandolin tuning allows you to play two finger chords, with open drone strings, that can be played actually as if you were playing chords on a piano. The melody note is usually the highest note, while the remaining three are the accompanying chords.

Frankly though, I'm just a piano player who took up guitar, who took up bass, who took up mandolin. So I'm just doing what sounds good to me, and is a combination of what I play on other instruments.

Dagger Gordon
Oct-26-2004, 1:58am
Paul's got some good stuff there. Bluegrass chop chords can work, but I wouldn't do it all the time. You might be better to think of it as a higher pitched bouzouki and weave lines and chords around the tune, much as Paul describes.

Dwc and Turas, I think you should definitely work in chords etc if it sounds good to you, again much as Paul describes.

There's not a big tradition of Celtic mandolin playing so to a certain extent anything goes, if it sounds OK to you and you're not obviously clashing with somebody else. However, you could say the same for guitar or any chordal instrument. A lot depends on the exact combination of people you are playing with.

Oct-27-2004, 7:21am
Here's an excellent book regarding Celtic back-up. It's written in standard so applies to all instruments but is chock full of good ideas.

He has a section in there called "The 15-Point Plan" in which are 15 different ideas for accompanying a tune.

For Example:
Bass drone with changing chords
Moving Bass Lines
Voice leading (very cool)
Silence (it needs to be said)

The playing and recording on the accompanying CD is very nice too.


Oct-27-2004, 7:36am
You can also listen to Celtic style rythmic guitar players like John Doyle; many of his substitution ideas can be applied to mandolin. With him it's as much in the strumming hand as anyhting else. Amazing syncopation. I think it's important to use some open partial chords to do this and to dampen a bit with the right hand.

Also some of the bouzouki learning materials have some chord runs that can be transferred to mando.

Mixing it up for different sections seems to be where its at. I seem to remember that the liner notes to Hartford's "Speed of the Old Long Bow" discusses how they keep their fiddle tunes varied.

Anybody ever experiment with ADAD mando tuning for Celtic back-up?

Once thing is for sure: the whole concept is a nice change from 2/4 chopping http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif

Dagger Gordon
Oct-27-2004, 2:51pm
Someone has posted a picture of me in full rhythmic flow on Blazin' Fiddles web-site, playing at the very session I started this discussion with. You never know where you're gonna turn up next!

If anyone's interested, you can see me in action on


The picture on my computer is much darker than a print-out for some reason. Other pictures at www.sandraharvie.co.uk/beauly


Oct-27-2004, 6:15pm

I see you went with your strapless evening attire http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

Seriously no strap and standing...impressive!

steve V. johnson
Oct-27-2004, 8:19pm
Perry asks "Anybody ever experiment with ADAD mando tuning for Celtic back-up?"

Eoin O'Neill!


Michael Wolf
Oct-28-2004, 3:49am

is this Davy Stuart on your left-side on the photo?


Dagger Gordon
Oct-28-2004, 6:23am
Don't think I knew that guy.

I used to know Davy (I take it you are talking about the New Zealand based Scottish mandolin builder) a bit during the 70's.

He had a duo with the late Tony Cuffe before Tony joined Ossian and Davy moved to NZ.

Actually the nice thing about the sesion was that I DIDN'T know many people apart from the Blazin' Fiddlers who were there. Most of them had come from all over the place to go to Blazin' in Beauly (California, Switzerland etc).