Tunes on the mandolin

Tunes on the mandolin

I’m a tenor banjo player that moonlights on the mandolin, mostly for Andy Irvine-type songs and tunes, but lately I’ve been increasingly more interested in playing Irish dance music on it. Are there any well-known session mando-players out there? It seems like little work has been done post-Planxty with the mandolin in Irish music (I could be mistaken here), especially when it comes to straight-up trad. tunes.

I remember Mike Keyes commenting some time ago that he felt a mandolin played like a tenor banjo sounded thin and derivative. So what do you session.org mando players do: play it like a tenor banjo with lots of triplets? Do you use partial chords in the tune, double stops, drone strings? Fiddle ornamentation?

Cheers
Sean.

Re: Tunes on the mandolin

Hi Sean - I play mandolin sometimes at sessions but it does get drowned out when crowded. I tend to be one of the people who stay to the bitter end, and the mandolin comes into it’s own when there’s just a few people left. I play melody, allowing strings to drone, some partial chords, triplets and a bit of fiddle ornamentation. I never chop chords except sometimes if someone is giving us an old belter of a song. I think the mandolin can make a great contribution but you need one with a bit of volume. I’ve got a large-bodied one made by Paul Hathway and it certainly does the job.

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I play mandolin in sessions on occasion. Although, recently, I’ve decided that when I spend too much time with my mandolin, it really hurts my banjo playing. To me, it seems like you have to play the mandolin harder to get good tone out of it. The pick stroke has to be stronger through the strings, but if you do that on a banjo, you’re overplaying the banjo. Other than that, my technique isn’t all that different. I will do more double stops on mandolin, maybe. And maybe fewer of the leading notes and slides. But in general, there isn’t much difference for me. I do have a link to a recording of some jigs by one of my bands in my profile where I’m playing mandolin (“Jane’s Jigs”)

I have had the pleasure of playing with a wonderful mandolin player named Marla at the Plough and the Stars in San Francisco. But she is about the only person I can think of that mainly plays mandolin in sessions that I’ve been to. Pretty much everyone else is like me and RichardB, where the mandolin will appear from time to time, but it’s not necessarily the primary instrument…

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I’ve just about given up on mandolin playing in sessions - it takes twice as much effort as banjo for half the volume. I think as soon as I have my flute/whistle act somewhat together, I will stop taking the mando to sessions, as an alternative to the banjo, and reserve it for duos with fiddlers, along the lines of Hayes/Cahill. (Check out their latest album) In situations where amplification is appropriate, which I tend to avoid - no problem.
Yeah, Pete, Marla (Fibish) is great. Her yearly class at Lark in the Morning Camp is well worth attending.

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Two of the best known Irish mandolin players are Paul Kelly and Martin Murray. Paul recorded the excellent ‘A Mandolin Album’ - https://thesession.org/recordings/874 - which might still be available from his label (and sound clips are available here - http://www.malgamu.com/htms/Pkcddet.htm). The last time I was in Dublin Paul was playing regularly at Hughes’s pub.

Martin’s solo album, ‘A Dark Horse’ - https://thesession.org/recordings/2428 - is long out of print and, in any case, features just a smidgeon of mandolin playing.

I’ve played melody at sessions, but only in cahoots with one other instrument (fiddle or flute) as, although my mando has a wonderful tone, it’s drowned out by anything bass-heavy.

As for technique, it’s tempting to play lots of triplets (encouraged by the seemingly natural down-up-down of the pick), but I’ve also experimented with playing in higher positions on the G & D strings (fifth fret and above). However, unless you’ve a really resonant box, you’re never going to be heard at sessions doing that.

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Re: Tunes on the mandolin

Séan, I suggest you listen to some of the Scottish players if you think there hasn’t been much mandolin development since Planxty.

My favourites would be Kevin MacLeod and Gary Peterson (Hom Bru), but then that’s being unfair to Dagger Gordon and Luke Plumb and that great all-rounder, Dan Beimborn, and countless others

Have a listen at Aidan Crossey’s fantastic free-downloadable compilation of donated mandolin tracks , An Maindilin :
http://www.paythereckoning.com/thepage.htm
All the names I mentioned have contributed

I’ve even contributed one embarrassingly bad track, “pour encourager les autres”

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Re: Tunes on the mandolin

Mandolin is my main instrument although I do play a little tenor banjo as well. Whether or not you are heard (or can hear yourself) at the session depends on many factors such as the acoustics, your location in the room, the number (and type) of instruments that are playing, whether or not they are interested in hearing you, and your technique. I’ve stuck to my guns against advice and experience for a number of years and I see that things are improving for me. The mandolin can bring a unique color and texture the tunes. I love playing tunes but also backing singers with counter-melodic lines and partial chords. Yes - it can be frustrating at times when you start a set and someone else runs over you completely because they have no idea that you were starting a set… but that’s just part of life as a mando player at a session. The less you let it get to you, the better off you’ll be

As far as technique, I use a different approach to banjo and mandolin. They deserve to be treated as separate instruments. I do more rolls on the mandolin and more single note triplets on the banjo. I use more hammer-ons and pull-offs on the mandolin. I use one finger per fret on the banjo but fiddle fingering on the mandolin. I push the mandolin to it’s volume limits but lay back on the banjo

btw - listen to the band Touchstone (The New Land) for some surprisingly mandolin-centric tunes.

Avi

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Your list of Scottish mandolin players, Bren, only reinforces what “sean og” was saying. Kevin, Gary and “Dagger” have all been playing since the early 80s, and even 70s. And you missed out Iain McLeod, Luke Plumb’s predecessor with “Shooglenifty”. Could you name any players who have made an impact in the last 10 years ? I can’t.
Best mandolin player I’ve come across in that time is “the artiste formerly known as “spoon” on this website. [ Can’t recall what he calls himself these days. - Sorry, David ]
Claudine certainly played some nice mandolin with “Touchstone” - look up the “Kilmoulis” jig, which I posted some time ago.
Still think Mick Moloney’s yer man ! I also agree with the names mentioned by “Floss the Tethers” and like Denis Cahill’s playing on the latest recording with Martin Hayes.

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Re: Tunes on the mandolin

“Best mandolin player I’ve come across in that time is “the artiste formerly known as “spoon” on this website.”

Commiserations, Kenny.

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I guess you’re right Kenny, but it would be a shame if Sean was unfamiliar with these players.
And Kevin’s CDs of the last few years showcase a unique approach

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since I’m sort of (at best) an intermediate player and mandolin is my primary instrument, I play mostly melody with little in terms of chords. I will accompany singers, though, since the tremolo seems to blend nicely with voice. Since we have a relatively polite beginner/intermediate session, and i’m one of the few people who can remember how tunes start and keep a relatively steady rhythm, i get to start tunes fairly often. When we play out, i’m always miked if anybody is, but in session, i don’t really care if you cn hear me or not, as long as I can hear me.

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Our late session buddy Ray Murphy, was a genius on mandolin and banjo. He had great attack on the mandolin, yet tastefull and had great phrasing, there was no chance of not hearing him at a session no matter how many were playing… I miss the sound of his mandolin at Porter House sessions most of all. I believe he placed second at one of the All Ireland a few years back.
Tam Lin was a favorite of his and that was one of his winning tunes. I recorded Tam Lin on fingerstyle guitar and there was no way I was playing that without Ray playing it in the backgound.

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‘Could you name any players who have made an impact in the last 10 years ? I can’t.’

Simon Mayor?

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Simon Mayor is an exemplary player, make no mistake. But I don’t really connect his playing with Irish (or Scottish) Traditional Music. Certainly, he has come under its influence, and used elements of it in his compositions and to build his own style and technique. But he plays his own music, which doesn’t quite fit within the trad idiom.

However, I may be wrong to discount him; I have never met him, or heard him live and I am aware that he is greatly admired by a lot of trad players.

Paul Kelly is another one who, although rooted in Irish trad, seems to prefer (if his CD is anything to go by) branching out into other styles.

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“Declan Corey is a genius (sic)”

…Not forgetting him, of course.

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I’ve been playing the mandolin for about 10 years and bring it to sessions occasionally to have a break from the banjo. It stays in the trunk of the car mostly, because if it’s very noisy, I can forget about hearing it. But it sounds very nice as a duet with a flute or fiddle, and is also easy to “think” with..

I have always believed that the mandolin’s charm (for this type of music) is subtle and therefore has to be heard to be appreciated, hence the duet. Accenting the “anchors” of various phrases with octave notes or half-chords, and picking out the individual notes of triplets really bring out the dancing, twinkling side of the melodies. But if you can’t hear that it’s happening, then what’s the point?

Stylistically, I agree with Reverend. I play the mandolin in much the same way as I play the banjo, with the exception of some double stops, drones and chords which aren’t really sensible on the banjo. It depends on the tune, really, but there is some overlap. Keeping styles similar isn’t something that I strive to achieve, it is just incidental. When talking about the mandolin, I like to tell people that the mandolin is not a fiddle, it is not a set of pipes, nor a whistle, nor a flute, nor a banjo. It is a mandolin, and should be played as such. There are ornaments common to other instruments which are basically impossible on the mandolin. If a given triplet or whatever is awkward or too difficult to pull off with style or grace, then it should be discarded. It is not a mandolin ornament.

I prefer a solid top, f-style instrument to the round-backed ones with the oval sound hole, I just prefer the tone and always have. In my experience, oak, hickory, and maple mandolins are the loudest with best projection.

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I agree Iris, I miss his playing terribly. I am so grateful we recorded the few sets and songs we did.

Peace,
Ed

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Lest anyone forget Seamus Egan back in the early days of Solas and before if you heard him as a teen around NYC or Philly, he was a brilliant brilliant mandolin player. Not sure if Soals recorded with him on mandolin ever though…but maybe.

I play a bit of mandolin, now and then, it’s not really my thing, but I have my old 1918 (I think) brazilian rosewood Martin mandolin which is a real sweet sounding thing. I don’t do it justice so often thing to sell it… at those times, I re learn a tune or two on it and say….nah…won’t sell it just yet. It never captivated me to the point of taking me prisoner practically like fingerstyle guitar or now harp, the ultimate fingerstyle experience.

The most amazing sight I had seen in years was after a gig at IAANJ we had a session, and Tony McManus borrowed a banjo and started playing it fingerstyle… and it sounded great.

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True enough Ed. I keep a framed picture of Ray, with his mandolin, in my living room, and don’t mind admitting publicly I often say “Hi Ray” when I go by it. We had been friends for over 30 years. His father also printed the first book I ever published. He was also, not many knew a really good fingerstyle guitar player on tunes. He was just someone who had the music in him and knew how to epress it.

Things would get especially heated up at Porter House when both he and Frankie McCormick were there for dueling banjos!
When there is an empty chair at Porter House, I can just about imagine Ray and hear that mandolin playing along with us.

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“Lest anyone forget Seamus Egan back in the early days of Solas and before if you heard him as a teen around NYC or Philly, he was a brilliant brilliant mandolin player. Not sure if Soals recorded with him on mandolin ever though…but maybe.”

I remember hearing a Solas track with mandolin on it - I can’t remember which album it was on.

There are a few good players who ‘moonlight’ on mandolin. Sean Casey, better known nowadays as a fiddler and previously as a banjo player, is about the best player of Irish tunes on mandolin I’ve heard.

A couple of years ago, I went to a session at The Palace Bar in Dublin, where there were only two other players, both in their 20s. One played flute, while the other was backing on guitar. The guitarist turned out to be an excellent mandolin player (that having been his first instrument as a child), with a very individual style. Unfortunately, I can’t remember either half of his name.

I think it is partly as result of the mercenary approach that is prevalent in the traditional music scene today (i.e. musicians being paid to ‘lead’ sessions), that mandolins are seldom seen in sessions. Backing instruments, such as guitar and bouzouki, are seen as essential to the ‘sound’, whilst instruments such as fiddle and banjo are seen as strong ‘lead’ instruments. Since a lot of mandolin players double one or other of these instruments, they often end up playing that in public and confining their mandolin playing to private situations - or, sadly, abandoning it altogether.

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I also think that the mandolin can add a nice element to the music, but in a noisy session, I end up hurting myself just so I can hear myself. In a quieter session it’s great, though.

My mandolin is a modern one, made by Herb Taylor, and it’s a very nice instrument. Shortly after mine, he started making his mandolins with small sound holes on the top, so a small bit of the sound comes up so that you can hear. It doesn’t seem to have much of an appreciable impact on the sound of the instruments, but it’s really amazing when you’re playing, because you hear yourself much more clearly. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting one of those from him… He’s actually putting those in his guitars and bouzoukis too!

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I try to imitate a fiddler as much as possible. Triplets, taps, etc. Though sometimes, if the tune seems to like it, I’ll reach back and drone a string or have an occasional double stop.

Depending on the session, you can get a little grief for playing it. But it sounds natural enough to my ears. Plus if you’re with some players with wandering musical attention spans and open minds, you can kick off an old-time tune.

But others are right… it just doesn’t back a punch like my banjo in a noisy session. Of course, sometimes that’s a good thing when I’m unsure on a tune!

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