Irish Session Guitar Playing
I love playing guitar in sessions, though I don’t get to very much, and not enough to stay in practice. I thought I’d put together a few rules of thumb for other guitarists who may be learning.
1.) If you have to guess the key, DON’T PLAY.
2.) The great baseball player Ted Williams nearly always took the first pitch he saw of the night from a pitcher, without swinging. He wanted to see what the ball was doing, verify assumptions about velocity, timing, etc. He became one of the greatest hitters the world has ever seen doing that. If you haven’t heard the tune before, don’t play. Let it go by once or twice, at least, until you know where it’s going.
3.) Learn as much as you can about the New Orleans "Second Line March" beat (you need this in lots of other styles, anyway.
4.) Jigs are in two time signatures AT THE SAME TIME. (So are reels, sometimes.) If you can’t hear the 3 against 2 timing with jigs as well as the 6/8, at the same time, lay out. Don’t play until you hear it.
5.) Ok, go to the V. But only when absolutely necessary.
6.) Ok, go to the b7 major chord. If you must.
7.) Alternating bass is good. I like to alternate bass with guiness. What? We’re not talking about beers? Ok. Then musically, leave the alternating bass for the bluegrass and folkie jams across town.
8.) Learn to flatpick as many Irish melodies as you can. Dow’s List is the 2nd best place to start with, the best place being the tunes actually played regularly in your local.
9.) Learn as much O’Carolan for solo guitar as you can.
10.) While you’re at it, learn as much Bach for guitar as your technique will allow.
11.) Learn a few cool turnarounds for Irish music. Like I-vi-IV-V at the end of a major key reel. Then hardly ever play it.
12.) Learn how the iii chord works.
13.) Understand the difference between the dorian and aolian sounds, and play appropriately, most of the time. (i.e., be careful with playing, say, a Cmaj7 in an Em tune. Chances are good in Irish music the melody will go to a C# and not a C, if it goes there. Ditto with playing Bb maj7 in a Dm tune, Fmaj 7 in an Am tune, etc. I don’t say NEVER do it, because it can sound nice if you know what you’re doing. But know what it is you’re doing.
14.) Keep it simple.
15.) There is only one John Doyle. Just like there’s only one YOU.
16.) There’s only one John Doyle, and there sure as heck was only one Bo Diddley!
17.) Take direction, particularly if you’re new. Don’t be thin-skinned or egotistical. Occasionally you’ll get conflicting advice, because different people like different things from a backer.
18.) Listen to great Irish playing, all the time. Especially not guitar players.
19.) Keep it to one guitarist at a time at the beginning.
20.) Use your ears, not your eyes. Different keys have different idioms that you can recognize with enough playing, and you won’t have to ask "what key was that in?"
21.) Do your homework. Nearly everyone on a melody instrument has put in many hours of work on their instrument outside the session, learning repertoire, timing and technique. The guitar requires as much work, in its own way.
22.) Don’t be the knucklehead who’s always speeding up. (That’s the fiddle player’s job!)
23.) If you’re a bluegrass flatpicker in transition, go get some lighter picks.
24.) This isn’t jazz. There’s no stigma associated with capos here.
25.) Use different ideas, even within a set. Dynamic changes are your friend.
26.) There’s amazing musical power in laying out for a time through the tune, or through the tune. Or the set. Or for, like, an hour. Or a month. Whatever. Ommmmmm.
27.) If you’re playing guitar to impress chicks, you’re doing it wrong.
28.) If it’s stupid but it sounds good, it isn’t stupid.
29.) Less is probably more.
30.) Constantly ask yourself, "What would Arty McGlynn do, here?" Or Michael O Domnhaill. Or Tim Edey. Or Steve Cooney. Or Tony McManus. Or Daithi Sproule. Or Denis Cahill. Or Jim Murray. Or whoever else. Pick your favorite! And then change that favorite up every once in a while until you have your own sound and approach… or multiple approaches to any given tune and setting, but all sound built on solid foundations, respect and mastery of the idioms (even if you go in a different direction, yourself).
31.) The most important element in your playing is.
Talk amongst yourselves.