Least and most welcome/common instruments in sessions

Least and most welcome/common instruments in sessions

Hello folks.

Haven’t been back to Ireland for a while. Being primarily a mandolin and bouzouki player, I was wondering how likely these instruments are to be found in sessions. On youtube there’s literally tens of people posting videos of themselves playing tunes with mandolins and bouzoukis, about the double amount of people playing the same tunes with fiddles, flutes or other instruments. I could (finally) be back in Ireland in November. I recently became worried about being a very common kind of musician and an unwelcome sight in pub sessions. Also given the fact that, as far as I know, only one bouzouki per session is allowed. How common are mandolin and bouzouki players in sessions, or young mandolin and bouzouki wannabe-players who hopelessly show up in sessions? If the number of contenders is insanely high, I might be switching to tenor banjo.

Actually, the true question is what instruments are more welcome, least common, and vice-versa?

Re: Least and most welcome/common instruments in sessions

you are fine with the instruments you play. banjo tends to be more welcome, though banjo has its haters too. mandolin & bouzouki are not really all that common. you are more likely to end up in a session with 4 fiddle players

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Don’t take a banjo if you don’t play banjo. At least with a mandolin you can play quietly in a corner without disrupting the session.

Given that 3 months ago you were asking for simple tunes for beginners, probably the best thing to take to a session is your ears. Whilst most sessions like to encourage beginners, getting up to the point where you can actually contribute to the session can be a long process, it isn’t something that can be achieved if you are just there on holiday for a couple of weeks. My own feeling is that if you are just visiting, you shouldn’t try to sit in unless you are at least as good as the regular players. (It’s different with your local session though)

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I think big issue here is having multiple ‘chordal’ instruments. 2 players can have totally different conceptions of how to back up a tune resulting in butt-ugly chord clashes. As a guitarist, when we have a bouzouki at our session, I will listen very carefully and make sure what I’m doing lines up with him. As far as attitude and perspective goes, I find it helps to bear in mind that ITM does not "need" me/a guitarist at all. The idea of someone banging out chords on a guitar with Irish music only started in the 60’s. A harmonic instrument adds a dimension to the music that I like but I can see how some else might not or maybe a purist may find it less ‘traditional’.

I think those that take a really firm stance and start banning things may have been at a session similar to one that I have attended where there were (aside from the fiddles n’ whistles etc) 2 or 3 guitars, a bouzouki and a bodhran all grinding away at once. Just enough variation in rhythm and chords to make a hell of a mess underneath the tune. I don’t blame folks for having to limit harmonic instruments when common sense fails.

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Thanks for the responses and the feedback everyone! You are now officially my Irish music mentors 🙂

However, in response to Mark M., I should add that I am not a beginner on mandolin (and bouzouki): I’ve been playing Italian trad on mandolin for many years, and I am used to playing in a group; so I’m actually a beginner IN Irish music ON mandolin 🙂 I furthermore am not a complete beginner in Irish music: I’ve been an avid listener for my entire lifetime and I used to be quite good on bodhran and tin whistle as a child, but I kind of put them aside while growing up and never got into Irish trad seriously. Up until 6 months ago. In short, I’ve been practicing like mad for the last 6 months to bring my mandolin (and bouzouki) skills from Italian trad to Irish trad.

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…..I wouldn’t boast about being "quite good on bodhran"…..myself.
As to what instruments are popular - I was very happy when we had four fiddlers the other night at our session, two of them doubling other instruments. We also had two guitars, but one plays almost entirely melody, which is totally acceptable but often inaudible, and the other and I tend to swop who is chording and who is playing melody between guitar and ‘zouk.
I would say shaky egg and tambourine are unacceptable, as would be a second bodhran.
I’m not keen on banjos ( that is to say tenor banjos with resonators ) as they are often too loud to just blend in with the other instruments.
A friend came back from a holiday in Eire and told the tale of a session where the landlord was keen to have more, and visiting, musicians, but the regular musicians weren’t !

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Folks in general just don’t seem to understand that this music allows any number of melody instruments to join in the fun, while opportunities for thumping and strumming along are more limited. And if you don’t know the melody, it is more appreciated for you to sit and listen than whip out a drum and start thumping. I have seen sessions where someone starts a tune that few know, and a drum circle ensues…

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Exactly, Al.
There’s no excuse for that !

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"banjo tends to be more welcome, though banjo has its haters too."

It could be said that banjo has a more established place in the ‘tradition’. But I am convinced that the main reason for this is simply that it is easier to hear above the other instruments in a session. This characteristic can be just as much a ‘con’ as a ‘pro’ since, the louder the instrument, the greater its session-wrecking potential. So people are far more likely to be a bit nervous when an unknown banjo player turns up to a session than an unknown mandolin player.

"mandolin & bouzouki are not really all that common. you are more likely to end up in a session with 4 fiddle players"

I quite often go to sessions where mandolin family instruments equal or outnumber fiddles. I know that’s not typical, but I think the balance of instruments depends a lot on the locality and factors such as whether it is an exclusively Irish session or a more mixed one.

In my opinion, whether a particular musician is welcome in a session has more to do with the musician than the instrument; if a musician plays sympathetically with fellow musicians they are unlikely to be made unwelcome. However, there are probably not many players of, say, saxophone or 5-string banjo, that can achieve this in an Irish trad context*; a sensitive musician would be aware of this fact and leave their instrument at home - or have a different instrument for playing in sessions. I am always interested to hear Irish trad played (properly) on ‘non-traditional’ instruments, but there are certain instruments that just don’t fit in a session (warpipes?). A mandolin, though - or a melodica, ukulele, recorder, thumb piano, kazoo, swannee whistle (maybe not all in the same session)… - if you can play traditional music on them and make it sound like traditional music, why not?

*There are a few 5-string players who can do justice to Irish trad tunes. I have also heard a few good players on sax, but I doubt whether any of them could play quietly enough not to drown out everyone else in a session - or quietly enough for themselves to be able to hear anyone else.

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Worst session experience of my life was when someone started Southwind and everybody grabbed a whistle and joined in. 12 or 14 out of tune badly played whistles. I shiver still thinking about it. Of course most of those "whistle players" had just set down guitars they had been banging ineffectually for some time…..

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O yeah, and the conclusion of my rant: Some instruments, to me whistles, guitar/bouziki, and bodhran don’t seem to fit well into a session in multiples…. Perhaps banjo might be in the group too, but I’ve not enough experience with them to judge. The problem, I think, is that most of those instruments have a given dynamic level…loud. I play whistle, but I try not to if someone else is. I once wrote a piece for a friend called The Naked Whistler which was based on the comment that taking a whistle to a session was like walking naked down the street….. Besides, I can hide better on my EC (no not anglo…sorry).

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I agree with the comment above, about how some instruments don’t work well in multiples. Chordal backing instruments for obvious reasons (clash of chord choice and/or timing), but more than one whistle tends to set my teeth on edge as well, unless they’re not very loud and in reasonable tune with each other and the rest of the group.

I think it’s the combination of high register — very noticeable when anything is just a little off — and the way whistles aren’t easily played "into" intonation on the fly, to blend with the group’s floating intonation the way fiddlers can, or to a certain extent flute players when lipping notes. One whistle adds a nice top note to a session, but as soon as more are added, you start noticing the clash of fixed pitches that are all just a little off between each whistle.

Regarding the OP’s post about mandolin specifically… as long as you’re playing tunes and not backing with chords, my experience as a mandolin player is that mandolins are always welcome at sessions in my neck of the woods. I think people assume that we’re harmless, since we’re likely to be drowned out anyway, unless we’re playing a resonator mando.

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Good point about the whistles, cboody! In the higher register, the sound can get piercing, and it is hard for multiple instruments to blend well (consider the fact that even the largest orchestra generally uses only one piccolo at a time). As the old joke goes, the only way to get two whistlers to play in tune is to shoot one of them! 😉

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As far as bouzouki and guitar are concerned, I think it very much depends on the style that one plays in. A bouzouki player who plays mostly contrapuntal lines and such can fit quite nicely in with a guitarist who is mainly concerning himself with chordal accompaniment. But this also generally only works if both are good players who know the tunes and each other (the less they know each other, the better they have to be in order to figure out how not to step on each others’ toes). But for your standard medium sized session, I’d think the max would be one guitar, one bouzouki, and one bodhran.

As for whistles, I generally tune mine before playing, but I’m surprised at the number of people who have very nice, easily tunable whistles that just take it out of their case/pouch and play it. And here I am wrestling with the top of my Generation…

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I agree that zouk and guitar can work quite well together, and they must know each other and mesh with what the other is doing. When learning to accompany, there was a zouk player who actually taught me more than the other guitar players I encountered. He is no longer with us, and I miss him.
I love the big sound that Dervish gets with guitar, zouk and mandolin/octave mandolin, which is more accompaniment than one would think could work together well. There is a lot going on, but it is masterfully done.
When it is whistle time, with my Clarke whistle, I am the alpha whistle, and all others must tune to me. One whistle to rule them all, bwa ha ha ha!

Re: Least and most welcome/common instruments in sessions

I’ve played with more than one banjo at a session but I think we only ended up playing together on one tune. It’s easy to play banjo badly and it’s best to take the temp down just a bit to really appreciate it. When things get fast I actually play really lightly and you might barely hear me.

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I play the whistle and agree with comments about multiple whistles not being in tune. You should try going to a whistle master class sometime. eek. To combat this I also play low D so that I can avoid the clash with another whistle player. Or I’ll sit out a tune altogether, I don’t mind.

Instruments I don’t like - guitars played badly because they kill the tune stone dead and shaky eggs - man, those things are so annoying.

Do I ever say anything? No, of course I don’t. I’m not king of the session.

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To me the most welcome thing to see are loads of fiddles and flutes. Many are the local sessions that have only these, plus a good whistle player. A good piper really brings everything up to a different level.

One would think that pipes are one of those "no multiples" instruments but there have been two or even three pipers, all quite in tune, and it’s great.

I myself am not a fan of any of the plectrum instruments, perhaps because fiddles, flutes, pipes, and boxes create a continuous flowing sound and plucked instruments create a sharp intermittent percussive clacking sound.

The difference, the distinction, between flowing instruments and clacking instruments was most strongly brought to my attention when I was trying out a Yamaha MIDI Wind Controller. It’s a plastic clarinetlike thingy with keys all over it and you blow in one end as you would a Low Whistle. It can be set to recognise flute fingering, sax fingering, or clarinet fingering. It senses your breath so that you can play expressively, and it will produce any sound you choose from a MIDI tone generator. I found that no matter what tone I chose, the beginning, the attack, of each note was annoyingly sharp and percussive. No matter how softly I approached the notes with my breath that clacking attack was there. I asked the salesman about it, and he said "oh, you’re using piano tones. People often forget that the piano is a percussion instrument."

Least favourite session instrument: when a local guy who plays concertina decided, for some reason, to bring an electric guitar and amp to one session, and play it. Talk about your session buster.

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Oh this reminds me, a friend a while back was listening to a certain Irish guitar player backing up some musicians and told me "he sounds like a bodhran with strings". Ouch.

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"I myself am not a fan of any of the plectrum instruments, perhaps because fiddles, flutes, pipes, and boxes create a continuous flowing sound and plucked instruments create a sharp intermittent percussive clacking sound. "

Brilliant! Now I know why I love to play the guitar, mandolin, or banjo!! It’s the sharp intermittent percussive clacking sounds!!!

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I find the contrast of the legato instruments to the sharp attack instruments a totally desirable thing. Most of my favorite duo combinations are one of each.

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Yeah, Mz WhiteBread, that is really hard to listen to.

Will, you don’t get to have an opinion on this, because you play one of those awful plucky clacky things. 😀

Re: Least and most welcome/common instruments in sessions

"I myself am not a fan of any of the plectrum instruments, perhaps because fiddles, flutes, pipes, and boxes create a continuous flowing sound and plucked instruments create a sharp intermittent percussive clacking sound."

The challenge in playing a plectrum instrument is using its sound in such a way that complements the continuous flowing sounds of the flute and fiddle. I find this easier to achieve with mandolin than banjo, which is why, although I own a banjo, I rarely take it out to sessions.

Call me loopy, but I think intentionality has a lot to do with the music that comes out of your instrument. You can get a flowing sound even out of a banjo, if flow is what you ‘put into’ it. A flute can also be very percussive. When I listen to Matt Molloy’s recording of The Gold Ring ( https://thesession.org/recordings/35 track 4), I hear a banjo in there somewhere - I know it’s just my ears playing tricks on me, but there’s something in the timbre and envelope that mimics a banjo. OK - I admit, I am loopy.

But the point is, you can make an instrument that produces a continuous, flowing sound, give the impression of being percussive - and you can make an instrument that produces an intermittent, percussive sound, give the impression of being flowing.

Re: Least and most welcome/common instruments in sessions

To a newcomer to The Session, it’s a tad disappointing at how readily some members insult or patronize others … in print, often anonymously. Civility would make discussions much more concise and informative for those focused on music, rather than ego.

(1) As for "traditional" and "welcome" instruments in sessions, a common complaint here seems to stem from wonderful instruments being played poorly. Unfortunately, many complaints seem directed at the instrument rather than the player’s skill level and artistic sensibilities (or lack thereof).

(2) What does “traditional” mean? Pipes, whistles, and harps are traditional Irish instruments, and the other instruments came later. I presume the British introduced the fiddle, which "Irish traditionalists" would do well to bear in mind.

(3) Any type of instrument can be played softly, with care and practice.

(4) Plectrum instruments can sound as smooth as bowed instruments, with care, practice, the right pick, and appropriate technique.

(5) This thread suggests that fiddles are innocents, always in the right, often aggrieved. In modern times, fiddles rule the roost in Irish and some other music styles, deserving deference … but not worship. Too many fiddles and poorly played fiddles affect sessions the same way as other instruments, and can kill the music just as readily, especially given their volume.

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I generally use my fingers to play the guitar. I have never liked plectrums (hmmm,….there aren’t that many things that rhyme with ‘rectums’). I find I can get a much better rhythm up with my hands. You’ll have to wait till I upload some recording to judge the effect (a couple of months yet). Bouzouki, I’ve found, I’ve had to compromise.

@ Shéamus, although I agree with you on your point about civility, this site has made great progress in recent years, and I think perhaps you are judging us just a bit too harshly. It’s all mostly quite friendly banter, and you’ll notice that when it slips out of hand all the polite people will jump in. Maybe you’ve not been a reader long enough to pick up on the individual persona’s that many of us are used to. Quite often when you read something rude it’s like too mates arguing in the pub, but it often doesn’t come over like that in writing. It’s part of the great character of this site. There is actually more respect on this site nowadays than there is rudness. Other than that, don’t worry because Jeremy keeps a firm hand on it. Remember;- the forces of niceness always triumph over the forces of nastiness (Maxwell Smart).

Re: Least and most welcome/common instruments in sessions

"I find the contrast of the legato instruments to the sharp attack instruments a totally desirable thing. Most of my favorite duo combinations are one of each."

I agree that it is sometimes a really nice combination that creates a great effect, if both players are of skill, of course.

Furthermore, I really like how uilleann pipes blend with almost anything, if played well! Especially fiddle, banjo, and flute.


"Any type of instrument can be played softly"

Please explain how a piper or whistler can play more softly. The instruments don’t always allow for much change in volume. Even if a whistle does allow for it somewhat, that is going to effect the tuning. Some instruments simply don’t allow one to change how soft or hard the instrument sounds by so much.

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I’ve seen whistle players point them toward the floor when they are unsure of the tune. Not sure if this makes any difference to volume …

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… yes it does, Jim — the whistle sounds much louder when you put it in your mouth.

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Re: Least and most welcome/common instruments in sessions

I was listening to a Quebecois group (maybe La Bottine Souriante) play "Le Valse De Belugas" (Waltz of the Whales) the other day, and was very impressed how lyrically the mandolin and melodeon played the melody. And that melody required a lot of bellows direction changes, so that was no small feat. It can indeed be done.
In fact, I would suggest that one of the signs of mastery of a particular instrument is to develop the ability to overcome its inherent limitations…

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Somehow I knew that at least one plectrum player would respond with the claim that their instrument could be played smoothly…

I’ve heard pianists say the same thing, that they can "make a note just appear".

Fact is, any instrument which creates its tone from striking or plucking creates a sharp attack followed by the decay of the note (the shape being > always, nothing the player can do about it) while on the flute the attack can be as soft as the ear can hear, coming from inaudible up to full volume (shaped < if desired).

In practice a whistle, flute, &c can flow like _ _ _ _ while the plectrum is a series of >>>>.

Obviously people get used to it and accept it as the norm, as sounding "right", but it is of a different nature.

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Now that… is one of the reasons I give up on many forums… and just go play music instead.

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What is?

Posted .

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A fiddler/guitarist in my area wants to start up a new Friday session at a welcoming pub. As of 6pm last Friday he had received only 3 email/phone responses - me (fiddle) and 2 bodhrans. Not surprisingly, the first session has been put on hold. I think, in view, of some of the comments above that when this session gets going (as I hope it will) it would be worth having a session rule about not more than one active bodhran or active harmony instrument (and no resonator banjo if it comes to that), bearing in mind that it is not a large pub and a dozen musicians is probably the sensible max.

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To me it’s all about the musician not the instrument, and sympathetic playing always…unless you’re leading the tune…then you should just take off and bring it wherever you can with wild delight!

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I am learning to play c#d button accordion. I can also play a little bodhran. I play a little piano as well. I go to sessions quite frequently, some are bad, annoying, some are terrific. What I like least are folks who really rarely hear or listen to Irish Traditional Music, and try to sit in anyway. Eventually, these people wind up ruining an ITM session because they inevitably slide into R&R, Bluegrass, Beatles whatever. The least welcome are folks that are unaware how poorly they play and thus sound, regardless of the instrument. I no longer play in sessions at all, prefer to listen (and not necessarily learn tunes) because I am not proficient enough to keep up with the pros. However, too many fiddles are tiresome. Sometimes, there will be a musician and/or singer who waits their turn when the session is quiet, and sings/plays a solo. Mostly, folks listen. Often, the other players know the tune/song and commence to join in, which in my mind ruins the solo. I am often encouraged to bring my box and noodle around, which I have tried. But, I know quite distinctly that I DO NOT have anything near perfect pitch, and with the many vagaries of majors, minors, 5ths, 7ths, 3rds, vamping, melody, harmony and so forth, I have a long row to hoe.

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@beernie29 - "What is?"

Posts that make my head hurt when I try to understand them… this is wayyyy too complicated for me. I’d just rather play and if it makes the wrong sound then apologies… 🙂

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Seems like I stirred up a hornet’s nest here :P

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Hornets are not welcome at sessions!

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At our Stockholm sessions we often have three of us who play the tin whistle (though all three mostly play other instruments (flute, bodhran and guitar)). Now and then we tear into a tune on two or three whistles and it sounds good and also makes for a nice change of sound.
Two prerequisites for this though:
1. Good tin whistle players
2. Tunable whistles

Re: Least and most welcome/common instruments in sessions

Here’re my two cents’ worth. Or, my friend’s two cents. He is a maker and player of quality whistles, a natural talent and plays in a ceilidh band in downeast Maine. I passed along to him comments from this forum. Here is his response, which I second. I could not say it better:

I’ve done lots of sessions with all sorts of instruments and have concluded it’s the way folks play, not which instruments attend. Too many violins is just as overwhelming as too many accordions. Too many guitars is confusing compared to too many melody instruments for me. Several bodhrans, played together but judiciously is great. It’s like various personalities in a group expressing themselves; extraverts don’t overwhelm if they don’t all talk at the same time. The best part of sessions is the mixing of music and socializing. When done correctly it’s as though you know each other much better and look forward to making yourself more valuable to the group musically, not being the dominant voice.

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Hello Jeff,

I see in your profile it says you spent a year watching YouTube to learn the bodhran. Was that a joke?

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I was in a session at Whitby recently, and tuned up my Abel whistle to a meter. Some other musicians were amazed that I was tuning up a whistle and had never seen it done before. Some tin whistles are way out of tune when bought, and they’re cheap instruments that look easy to play. I’ve been in sessions were people are playing Eb in a D session.

Re: Least and most welcome/common instruments in sessions

I was in a session at Whitby recently, and tuned up my Abel whistle to a meter. Some other musicians were amazed that I was tuning up a whistle and had never seen it done before. Some tin whistles are way out of tune when bought, and they’re cheap instruments that look easy to play. I’ve been in sessions were people are playing Eb in a D session.