Bass instrument at sessions?

Bass instrument at sessions?

I have been wondering for some time now if anyone out there has had any experience(s) at sessions with bass instruments…..Be it an acoustic bass guitar, electric or upright bass. (double bass, doghouse, whatever you like to call it.) Also, what are your thoughts on it regarding it’s place in ITM. Or to some, diddly musicπŸ™‚

There are a couple of reasons for my curiosity. One, I have a friend who plays bass (electric and acoustic) whom I would like to get involved in this type of music. I have mentioned it from time to time, and he shows some interest, but I’m not sure he and his instrument would be welcome at a session. So, I don’t know if I should encourage him.

I experienced a session once where an electric bassist sat in, and I liked what it added.

I’ve also experienced sessions, one involving a viola da gamba, and another involving a cello. These two instruments especially, I felt, really added to each session….but am I alone here?

So, how do others feel about these types of instruments in sessions?

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Hi blowfly,

I posted the first paragraph of the following recently on another thread, but I think it’s more appropriate here.

In some of the sessions I go to, a guy occasionally turns up with his home-made "bass". This instrument is a wooden box about 2ft x 2ft and 1 ft deep which he places upside down on the floor so that the solid wooden base is uppermost. A broom handle stands freely in a small recess in a corner of this base and strong twine is tied from the top of the broom handle to a hole in the middle of the base. The player tensions the twine by angling the broom handle, plucks it and you get an impressive infra-deep bass sound. The player, a set dancer when he’s not playing his "bass", controls the tension of the twine and hence the pitch of its note accurately by the angle of the broom handle, and plays well in tune and in time. The instrument, an inexpensive substitute for a double bass, can be remarkably effective, especially in a band playing for set dancers.

In general, because the bass instrument, whatever it is, supports the whole band, is always heard, and has an enormous effect on the harmonies above, it it is most important that it plays not only a bass line that fits in with the tune but that the bass and harmony instruments (guitars etc) fit together harmonically. It’s less than satisfactory if, for instance, a guitarist plays an Em chord which fits the G of the tune, while the bass is playing a D or C either of which would work with the G but not necessarily with that Em chord.

Speaking personally, I play the fiddle in sessions, but have been playing the cello orchestrally for most of my life. There are a couple of reasons, both personal to me, why I don’t really feel inclined to play cello in sessions. The first is, I want to play the tune! Secondly, the cello, of all the stringed instruments, is the one that is most easily damaged and the most expensive to repair. A session in a busy pub is the last place it should be. I would only play the cello in a session if the musicians were in a safe area, such as a platform, to which non-players have no access.

trevor
20:10:35gmt

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Here’s some quick examples: chocolate is good & pizza is good - but chocolate pizza is not good. If someone said I’m inovating Jazz music by removing all those 9th & major 7th chords the end result would be a dumbed down boring form of Jazz. When someone says the bottom needs to be filled out in Irish music, they are again missing the point. This music is about melodies, getting inside of them & truely appreciating those melodies. If they can’t appreciate it for what it is then fine, but don’t try to change it. Your friend would be much more welcome with a traditional instrument & he’d get a lot more out of it.

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Basses are fun. We have a guy who comes and plays double bass on occasion at our session. He is very good and has his roots in Bluegrass. The bass sounds great in the old tavern. Mick Linden plays fretless electric bass with the band Skyedance (A.Fraser, C.Norman, E.Rigler…). His is an integral sound of that band. He even plays jigs and reels on the bass. And what about Trevor Hutchinson from Lunasa?

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A session, now defunct, which I used to frequent, had a very good bass player, about which I had initial reservations, but came round to the laissez-faire feel of the session.

Unfortunately it became a bit too laissez faire and attracted the "wrong crowd" to the extent that eventually things degenerated to 50% Irish instrumental music and 50% everything else, including sea shanties, country & western, U2 songs and so on. This is ok for the liberal minded, fine in fact, good luck to them, but some of us need hard core instumental trad to survive lest boredom, apathy & diminished street-cred set in.

As I said the session is now defunct.

Bass playing per se is fine in a liberal session setting, but (in my opinion) it depends on what type of session it is/in what direction the session is aiming, and how good the bassist is.

If the session comprised of the (aforementioned) bass, one fiddle, one box, 3 guitars, 3 bodhrans, 2 sets of spoons, 2 bongos/exotic drums, and unquantifiable numbers of drunks masquerading as singers, it’s hardly the type of session you’d either join in (or if you get captured and press ganged to join in), you’d boast about to gain street cred among your actual musician mates.

To recap: In my experience, the electric bass is OK in semi-Irish/semi-jam sessions (in London anyway) if that’s what you want, but these tend to be ephemeral compared to some of the long-standing, respected sessions which are the bedrock of the tradition. Things may be different elsewhere, though.

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Yes, Dan and Brad

In general I think I’d agree with you on this one. The home-made bass player I referred to brings his instrument (sometimes) along to sessions at an Irish club where we would be accompanying set dancers later on in the evening. In those circumstances it works fine because he is a dancer and understands the dancing. But I have my doubts about whether it (i.e. any deep bass instrument) would be a good idea for most sessions, especially the "classical" trad ones. This is the third reason why I wouldn’t take my cello to a session unless it’s for a specific tune where a bass could enhance it - and those aren’t common. I think that about the only circumstances where a cello could be used really successfully in Irish trad music would be in the solo playing of slow airs, in which it could sound magnificent in the right hands; but then we’re talking about the concert platform and not the average pub session.

trevor
02:05:10gmt 1dec2002

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There are some more drawbacks - basses are big, they take up the physical space of at least two other musicians. In a space cramped session, this can be a serious problem. They are also hard to hear in a session, those low notes just don’t seem to hold up against the music, noise of the bar & foot-tapping.

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Tevor:
we were giving out about basses, and I think that meant bass guitars! Anyway, my point is - slow airs sound Phantastic (he iterates using the old - and proper - spelling) accompanying the fiddle. Paddy Glackin on that album with Jolyon Jackson (I can almost hear the swoosh of the purists Wading in to put me right on wot it wos called ) was otherworldly - yet totally Irish.

But, sadly, I think you’re probably right about your cello.
Give it a couple of years, once we’ve banished most bodhrans, burnt all bones, eaten all eggs, gutted the nondescript guitarists, then your time will have come.

After all, we live to try & improve our lives, not to continually put up with sh*t.

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The cello takes up even more space than the double bass. The db player stands up and would pluck the strings in a typical trad environment. The cellist on the other hand is seated, bows his instrument, and needs considerable bowing room because the bow is moving horizontally, unlike the fiddle player whose bow is moving more in the vertical plane.

trevor

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The other problem with the cello is the sound comes out under the table

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I’ve used a Thornbury fretless acoustic bass in sessions for some time now and a number of people have said how well it fits in. Maybe they’re just being charitable but I like to think that it’s something to do with the fact that its not a lot bigger than a standard guitar so doesn’t physically dominate the room. Also it’s not particularly loud so the bass line is insinuated rather than being too blatant.

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Brad’s point about playing a melody instrument blends nicely with Trevor’s about chord choices. The music is melody-based and any number of chord patterns will support the same tune. All of which can experienced at once in a session with more than one guitar, add in the bass and the cacaphony is complete. Mick Linden and Trevor Hutchinson play PERFOMANCES in BANDS, not SESSIONS. They rehearse with the other players and know what particular path is going to be followed beforehand. My vote is for one backing instrument and one bodhran per tune in a session as point of session etiquette.

Keep in mind also that most folk acoustic bass players learned bluegrass which doesn’t use jigs, slip jigs, or slides and has a very straight 4/4 rhythm timing on reels. Unless they play a melody intsrument in Irish trad style already they will have enormous difficulty adapting the instrument, usefully, to a session.

AOG

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I use the Bass on songs and ballads, some instrumental pieces that are well rehearsed! The point being that a well planned and rehearsed tune can incorporate a bass part effectively. We play less than half of the instrumentals with bass and all of the songs get bass parts. It’s a matter of respecting the style and flow of each tune! Use some musical sense, learn several instruments, and don’t make all the tunes sound the same. I love the texture and flow of all of the instruments and I love to mix and match, use many combinations. As for sessions, I leave the bass at home…
Brent

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Just to rebut on AOG’s comment about playing in bands rather than in a session— The point is that bass instruments can fit in with ITM. The occassional bass player we have fits in marvelously at our session. Any good bass player can fit in with any kind of music. I’d like to see some more relevant experiences rather than just idealogical opinions.

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So basses are fine, but D/G boxes aren’t?


Wierd.


What’s wrong with pipes’ drones or box bass buttons for accompanying ballads?

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I have to take the side of non bass at a session - it can sound good in a band situation. But apart from that - in a noisy session situation it does take up lots of space and something that sounds low does get lost.There are some amazing players out there who can back trad brilliantly, but I dont think that is particularly suited to sessions.

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Re: B****** instruments at sessions?

SPeak - No problems with G/D boxes (melodions), the problem is the limited basses available.

The main problem with the session instruments complained about, be they bodhoran, bongo, box or bass, (and anything else begining with B) is not the instrument, but the player.
You CAN play acceptable chords, unobtrusively, in the right place if you so choose, it is just that many people DONT.
Most complaints seem to be about the volume these are played at.

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Bass (guitar, fiddle, mandolin etc.) can work well at sessions in the hands of a good and/or sensitive player. It’s really nice if you’re playing for dancers, and it can help keep things together in a noisy pub. It can also suck the life out of the tunes in the hands of a player who doesn’t know or care enough to play with the right rhythm. It comes down to the same learning curve everybody goes through, and how willing the other players are to tolerate the learning phase. Anyway, it keeps them away from the bodhran and bones…

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In a session unless your sitting next to the thing your not going to hear it anyway. I’m speaking from many experiences, not just on an idealogical opinion. Back to the main point if your friend wants to take up the space of two musicians & add virtually nothing - that’s up to him, but as I said he’ll get a lot more out of it if he picks up a traditional instrument.

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Michael,
Another problem with the cello at sessions is that the beer drips into it, a waste of good beer. My fourth reason for not taking my cello to sessions.
trevor
18:54:30gmt

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I know the question is specific to sessions, but I’d like to add anyway… I play electric bass and whistles in an ITM band. I don’t pull out the bass for every set, but there are some tunes with a lot of drive where it’s a nice complement. Again, we rehearse and perform on stage, but at that basic level the sounds really do go well together. As for a session, I don’t know why he shouldn’t be able to play. What I do is play the electric with a battery-powered set of headphones, so I’m the only person who hears what I’m playing, unless it’s worth sharing. Which, at this early stage, is not all that often. ;P

Cheers,
Trinil

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It depends what kind of session it is, is it a jam session or a trad session? Because it is true that a trad session can turn into a jam session really quickly and that is a pain. I like spanish flamenco music to listen to - doesnt mean I’m going to turn up to (whatever they have instead of sessions) with my wooden flute and fiddle and start playing a rumba or whatever. Its about respect for the music and the culture and trying to fit in and not do anything that annoys too many people. If you want to play bass or bongos or eggs with sand in it or anything else that annoys most serious trad players then why not start a jam session that is acceptable for all kinds of music and instruments.

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Just stepping in to clarify:

My bassist friend in question…..or should I say on trial?πŸ™‚πŸ™‚πŸ™‚πŸ™‚
owns an acoustic bass which is the type you hold as you would an acoustic guitar. (He does not have an upright) I’ve not seen or heard his particular instrument. I have no idea of the amount of volume a bass like his puts out without amplification. I do believe it has on-board electronics if amplification is so desired.

Also regarding cellos and the few sessions I’ve experienced involving them:

If I remember correctly, the cellists chose to drone when they didn’t know the melody.

I love pipes and especially drones. Unfortunately, I’ve rarely been to a session with a piper present. WHERE ARE THEY???πŸ™‚ We do have a couple of box players, but they most always opt for melody only.

So, I think the cello helped fill the drone void for me.

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I

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Blowfly,

Would your friend’s instrument be a Bajo Sexto (if that is the correct spelling)? Which is (almost self-explanatory in the current context) a Latin American accoustic Bass Guitar, I believe, correct me if I’m wrong.

In which case, it just about bridges the gap between belonging to a Jam Session and a Proper Traditional Session, and could thus apply for Legal Citizenship as a Proper Irish Traditional Session Instrument, but I hear the process of Naturalisation takes several years, nay, decades, as was the case for the Banjo, Small Pipes and the Bouzouki. I hear the case for the D/G Box is still pending an enquiry.

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Also I’ve just read geoffwright’s posting - what’s a bodhoran? and egg doesn’t begin with B - unless you’re a busker (geddit? never mind - not funny - used to busk, meself, years ago, as it ‘appens).

I know it’s off topic, {but we should be able to allow ourselves to be holistic and transcend these self-imposed constraints (man!)} so joking aside, thanks for your approbation wrt D/G Boxes.

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I have to add to this conversation as a double bassist with a jazz and classical background who has recently (in the last couple of years) gotten pretty seriously into Celtic music. Many valid points have been made and very few bad ones.

For the double bass to work in ITM or Celtic styled music it has to be done in the hands of a very capable and versitile player. If one wants to use it beyond 1 set an hour without sounding as if he is doing nearly the same thing on every tune he needs to be capable of several things:
*using a bow very adeptly, be able to play the melodies in thumb position (so it’s not to low and mucking things up),
*be able to think of the bass as comping instrument (i.e. using the bow to add to the lift in what some would refer to as a shuffle pattern),
*use the instrument as a drone instrument from time to time
*be able to follow the root movement of the guitarist/zookist with uncanny claravoyance(sp?). This is perhaps the hardest of all.
*have the ability to layout when and shut up when he’s not adding anything.
*And done well, as with a cello, airs are a natural (a point already made well).

It’s a daunting task to do it well, just as it is on any instrument. But, because the bass isn’t REALLY established in traditional forms yet and so much of the music is fine without the bass, it is a challenge that will take a few revolutionaries to do it without ‘sounding’ too revolutionary, if you get my drift.

I’ll keep trying! Are there any other bassists out there trying this? Being relatively stranded in Nashville, TN I’m not sure.

I look forward to hearing others thoughts on this, good and bad!

Dan Immel - Nashville, TN

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Dan,

you asked if other people are doing this. Lunasa is a band that has strong bass (upright electric); they are setting a trend; you may want to check them out if you haven’t yet. But this goes again to the point thas has already been made, that you can do things in a band (rehearsed) which you can’t do as well in a session (unrehearsed).

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Hey Glauber,

Ironically, it was Lunasa’s Otherworlds that drew me into Celtic music. It seems so far to be a great example of what can be done with the bass in the music. Certainly, bassists from any style or background can appreciate the bass playing there. However, the bass parts seem to me to not be much more than doubling the guitar parts to give it more drive and umph for ears more atuned to modern production techniques. Music directed by marketing perhpas? There still seems to be room for a more complete bridge between the path of bass-abstanence and it’s potential role among ‘traditional’ instruments. I think I’m late night rambling though.

I’m still very interested in what every one is thinking from this point.

Take care, Dan Immel

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Nope, not a Bajo Sexto. Lark in the Morning catalog says it’s a Mexican 12 string bass guitar tuned one octave lower than a 12 string guitar. Maybe we should start a new discussion on this instrument!

No, his bass is something you would order out of an American Musical Supply or Musician’s Friend catalog…..or find at your local music store. Nothing unusual. I think his is an Epiphone. Not sure where they’re building Epiphones presently. I believe in Korea. Who knows anymore? Maybe south of the border….in a Bajo Sexto factory….?

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It would still have to apply for citizenship & swear not to play any Korean or Mexican music.

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Dan,

They’re not exactly traditional in the purest sense (they play "jig-punk"), but The Prodigals are also known for their bassist, Andrew Harkin. He plays some sensational traditional melody lines on electic bass and he’s great to see live. They have some tracks from each album for free download on the website, http://www.prodigals.com if you want to check them out.

Cheers!
Trinil

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I saw two verrrry interesting words in Glauber’s entry above. He writes: "But this goes again to the point that has already been made, that you can do things in a band (rehearsed) which you can’t do (and here they are) "as well" in a session (unrehearsed).

Agreed that it won’t work as well unrehearsed. There will be some clams and clinkers, as there are with all the traditional instruments from time to time. But, (and I realize many of you have stated your opinions already) should it (bass playing) even be "attempted" or "allowed" in a session….unrehearsed?

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I’ve played a couple of unrehearsed sessions and one gig with either a cello or upright bass in the group, and I appreciated the thundering drones and driving beat each brought to the tunes. The bass player in particular was very good at anticipating the changes through two hours of tunes she had never heard before.

I didn’t think our resulting sound was the most "traditional" (whatever that is), but it was good music and good fun. Of course, playing without a bass or cello has been the norm in the circles I’ve played in over the years, and I’m prone to enjoying new experiences rather than shying away from them, so I welcomed the opportunity.

I like Dan Immels comments, and I think it’s cool that we hear from bassists and other instrumentalists on this site—even if some meatspace sessions aren’t so "open," I for one am glad that the discussions here are open and welcoming.

All that by way of addressing blowfly’s last question. In short, I’d sit next to a bass at a session, and I’d probably stick with them through a few months on the learning curve if they were serious about giving the tunes a go. But I can also imagine lots of sessions where a bass wouldn’t be so welcome, and their reasons—along the lines of what we’ve heard here—would be valid. It’s up to the individual session, then, as it is when it comes to adding the third guitar, or the 45th fiddle, or the second bodhran….

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Just second bodhran? Lucky you…..

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Heh, heh, yes Domhniaill, we usually max out at two goatskins, and our various drummers are very good at finding another way to contribute if two drums are already going. (Reading between the lines, that means one of them switches to spoons—but not on every set—and another will play guitar or bouzouki, provided we haven’t already met our quota there too.) Such are the blessings of living in the Big Empty, where most people assume we’re playing Canadian traditional music and they’ve never heard of a bodhran….

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This demonstrates some of the skill in the art of making a session work. The musicians try to make due with what or who’s available. Every situation can vary unlike an organized band.

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Thanks for the further comments.

It seems that it comes down to a few things then:
1. the particular session’s inherant culture (open to new things vs. just preferring to keep it traditional)
2. the particular bassist’s/cellist’s/tubist’s(eek!) capabilites, approach, musicianship, and respect for the tradition
3. ? Anybody

Based on my experience with the bass in sessions (and I don’t know why I didn’t mention this before) even the most staunch practicioners of traditional playing have been open to it. It seemed to come down to my having a respect for the tradition and trying to give the tree another branch rather than wielding an axe in order to chop down the tree of tradition in the name of progress. Once they saw that they were all intrigued with the possibilities and wanted to help me take it further. All the comments here have helped me to do so too.

Thanks for the open discussion,
Take care,
Dan Immel - Nashville, TN

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One of my sessions is with some close friends. They have a variety of musical backgrounds. Still - they manage to maintain a session with at least 80% Irish tunes. I don’t like the Tuba but I have a buddy who brings his. If for nothing but pure humor, he plays a jig or a polka on it. We laugh - he laughs and puts it away.

Another one of those friends will bring his bass upon occasion. I can’t say that I am opposed to it at all.

Does it fly in the face of tradition? I think so. Do we care? Not really. I have a great fondness for pure Irish traditional Music. I also have a great fondness for the group who lets their hair down.

Mark

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Mark, you have to be kidding me. I first brought up the tuba a long time ago here at The Session because it was the only instrument I could think of at the time that no one would possibly try to play trad music on — are you really telling me that someone does it? Even as a joke? Yipes. *grin*

zls

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Zina - I can’t tell you how many times I have groaned when he brought the beast. He calls it a Souza Phone instead of a trombone. The sound is close enough to the same. It’s one thing to see the flutes leaking a bit at the sessions. His spillage is just plain WRONG!

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The sousaphone is a marching band instrument, looks like a tuba that went on a diet. The sound is not as pretty as the tuba’s. πŸ™‚

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Talking of Lunasa, I went to see them in a small venue last week, and was lucky enough to be sitting about 2 feet from the stage, right in front of Trevor Hutchinson, and consequently, right in line with his bass amp. You might think this would be a bad thing - but it didn’t at all drown out the other instruments, and in fact, it was fabulous! I love low-pitched sounds, and am a bit starved of them in ITM - there are nowhere near enough pipers in the world, and many of them neglect the drones much of the time anyway. Listening to Trevor’s lovely bass was like having a hot bath… gorgeous stuff! With the stupendous energy of the whole band - and *three* low whistles all played together, such a treat - by the end of it, I felt like I’d been given really good drugs. πŸ˜‰

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Tuba

Zina: "Whack Paddy With The Tuba" πŸ™‚ thanks!

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Up until a performance I was involved in last Saturday which included a harp, I had forgotten how much low-end they can add to the music. As with pipes, it’s not often that a harp shows up at any sessions I attend. I don’t recall harps being mentioned as an instrument that can add bass to a session in the entries above, so I thought I’d throw this in.

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The DG melodeon serves me well in this area, I don’t know about those around me. When I had the basic one, if someone was playing a tune in D major, I could always take time out and play a continuous D-chord bass, in on one set of buttons, out on another. This way I could kid myself I was impersonating something highly traditional but classy with it, like Liam O’Flynn’s drones at a Planxty get-together, and very easily into the bargain. (It was a much more dodgy business trying this in the key of A major - the basses in this key are only available on the pull, on the basic DG box, and one can start to accompany some hectic reel in A with a truly menacing Highland pipes style "blaaaaaaaaaaaaaarp!.." - only to find the bellows fully opened, and no way to get back to starters, leaving those in earshot under the vague impression that some kind of sinister swarm has departed.)
These days I play a two-and-a-half row DG, with bass chords in D,G, and A available in either direction, but my main reasons for using them in this particular way remain the same:
I haven’t learned to play the tune;
I’ll never learn to play the tune;
I don’t care for the tune;
I can’t play at that speed;
It makes a change.



As for other bass instruments, I remember way back listening to a bass guitarist quietly backing a prodigiously good whistle player through a set of jigs for quite some time - it was a real session-stopper, in the affirmative sense of the word.

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I have played my Englehardt three-quarter size bass fiddle at the local session many times after being invited and encouraged to bring my bass fiddle to the session. For several years, the only instrument which I brought to the local session was my digital piano because the people who originally started this session said they really needed a piano to fill out the sound and add to the general cacophony of the session. As a result, when I first brought my bass fiddle, I already knew many of the tunes and was familiar with Irish music. I quickly discovered that the bass fiddle worked best with reels, polkas, and slower tunes instead of jigs and slip jigs. I would set up the bass fiddle on its stand next to my digital piano and switch back and forth from one instrument to the other depending on what was being played by the other musicians.