Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Hello all, I’ve lingered for some time but this is my first posting. If this is out of line please let me know and/or remove this, thanks! I’m a primarily bluegrass and old time mandolin player that’s been cultivating a love for trad music for some time now but have only recently getting started playing it. I’m getting married this April and will be traveling to Ireland (Mostly County Clare - Ennis and Doolin, plus some time in Dingle) from the US for our honeymoon. I’m hoping to bring an instrument and possibly catch a few sessions while I’m out there - Thus the dilemma of deciding what to bring. I have both a mandolin and a tenor guitar. I understand neither of those are technically trad instruments, but be that as it may it’s what I have.

My thoughts on taking the mandolin - it’s my main instrument, I can pick up tunes pretty quickly and it’s small and easy to transport. On the other hand, as I don’t know too many tunes yet I’m sure I’ll be playing backup mostly and mandolin kind of stinks for this role. I also would HAVE to take it as a carry on as it’s too valuable to me to check. Then there’s the tenor guitar, a newer instrument to me but one I’ve been having a lot of fun with lately. It has the advantage of being better for backup, and can handle multiple tunings, but would be quieter (possibly too quiet for a session?). Then again, if I don’t know the tunes quieter is probably better anyways. I’d have to check it, but a flight case for a guitar body isn’t too hard to come by and the instrument overall is much cheaper than my mandolin.

So that’s it. Does anyone here have any experience/advice in the matter? Any recommendations for pubs/sessions in those areas? I realize while I’m plenty experienced in bluegrass this is a whole other thing and I’d be fresh and green. I’m quite familiar with the concept of a "jam buster" and I’d never want to be that guy! At the same time this might be my one opportunity to do this so I want to try. I also believe there is a somewhat regular session at the Parting Glass back home in NY so I’ll try attending that and getting some more experience over the next few months. Thanks all!

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Maybe you were misinformed but the mandolin and tenor guitar are certainly trad instruments, tenor guitars are on the quite side so they don’t usually appear in sessions. Both aren’t loud instruments but in my opinion the mandolin would be your best bet. I play both instruments and they have a sound that just fits the tradition, they also sound nice when played together.
For playing tunes the standard irish tuning is GDAE.
McGann’s pub and O’Conor’s pub in Doolin are bound to have music happening at some point during your stay.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Go for gold and take your mando. It’s smaller for a start and it’s your main instrument as well. Just get some practice in on catching tunes on the fly, as you suggest.

Chris B.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Get a cheap mandolin that you won’t regret getting damaged by the airlines and take that instead of the valuable one. You might wait until you get there and purchase a reasonably priced playable instrument locally. I played a few fairly nice mandolins in a shop in Dublin a couple of years ago that I wouldn’t have minded having if I didn’t already have two. They were very reasonably priced as well.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Don’t worry about the ‘trad’ credentials of your instruments - there are eminent trad players who have recorded on both mandolin and tenor guitar. If you play them well, or show willingness to learn and improve, nobody can complain.

It’s entirely up to you which you take. If you consider one or other of them your ‘main’ instrument, the one you are most comfortable with, then take that one.

"… I don’t know too many tunes yet I’m sure I’ll be playing backup …"

A word of warning here: Bear in mind that there are some very skilled backers around the trad scene in Ireland, who *do* know the tunes and how to honour their every contour. Don’t assume that another backing instrument will necessarily welcome - the accompaniment role tends to be left to one player at a time, making their own subtle rhythmic and harmonic mark on the music. You might be lucky enough to strike up a rapport with another backer and find you can play well together. But, failing that, I would say that, when you hear an unfamiliar tune, your time would be better spent either learning it (listening, recording, picking it up ‘on-the-fly’ if you are able) or paying close attention to what the backer is doing and picking up some ideas.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Good advice all - thanks. And yes, I do want to be cautious with backup because I know it’s easy to get in the way there. With the tenor at home I have a friend who is a great guitar player and I’m pretty used to blending in on accompaniment with him, but he’s just that - a friend - and we’ve been playing together for years. I can’t expect it to be the same with other people in another country!

I’ll keep thinking and practicing and try to hit some sessions on this side of the ocean before I go, but it sounds like the mandolin is coming out ahead. Either way I win, right!?

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Bring the mandolin, you might want to take something less valuable than your good one. If you can find a flat back with a slightly larger body than typical bluegrass bodies that would be nice an instrument with more ring fits in a bit better. I use to have a Flatiron mandolin that I would bring with me on my travels.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Bring yourself first and foremost, and dont risk bringing those instruments…buy them over here and post them back to yourself in the states as you leave…trust me it’s a lot easier and less risk..also I would rather you listen to the session’s around Doolin & Ennis first, before you jump in and commit yourself or spend money buying or flying in instruments, you may only get the chance to look at them, not play them. The majority of sessions in places like these are not strictly open sessions these days, and can be quite heavy trad, practiced to perfection by the same 2,3 or four players , even visiting accomplished players get locked out. There is a lot of obscure tunes and tuning and a lot of odd musicians who will only accept you as a listener, regardless of your talent..Clare can be quite a daunting place….

Have a look at a post I did on changing attitudes in Irish Trad the other day..all I advise is be careful to avoid disappointment …you may by chance get an open session around gus’s in doolin if your lucky , but I would suggest you take a ferry over to the Islands, I played in Inis Oirr a few times, and because of the nature of the island folk , the visitors and the continual changing faces, session are a lot more open, a lot more friendly and a lot more led back and enjoyable… anything go’s and the scenery and way of life is breath taking.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

I was in Kerry/Dingle and Clare recently and brought a cheap mando but mostly for private noodling at the B&B— the sessions were for listening and soaking in the awesomness (and the Guinness). Enjoy the trip, the music and the people!

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Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

I would have thought that you could take your mandolin on as hand luggage , I’ve always been able to.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

A couple of thoughts.

1. The honeymoon is a time for the couple to relax and enjoy each other’s company. It’s not a time to create a whole load of unnecessary stress and hassle trying to get instruments through airport security and customs, and then leave your bride to entertain herself for hours at a time while you make merry with a load of strangers in a pub.

2. There are already plenty of highly skilled ‘backup’ players in Ireland. If that is the level of your participation it really isn’t going to add anything to the proceedings. Find a table by the fire, settle down with your beautiful bride and a pint of the black stuff and just soak up the atmosphere, listen and learn. You’ll enjoy the session far more that way than you would sitting alone in the circle with a mandolin in your lap getting frustrated and humiliated because you don’t know any of the tunes.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Leitrim Lad gives good advice re the nature of the obvious sessions in places like Doolin, these tend to be closed, musicians are paid - to cater for the normal tourist trade. You’ll need to ask around and his suggestion re the Aran Islands is good.

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Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

You can and should bring the mandolin as carry-on. On an international flight this will not be a problem unless you are the last one on the whole plane to board. (Even then I bet you’ll find a spot). You may want to check your airline’s policy on musical instruments though. I’ve managed to bring an acoustic guitar in a hard case as carry-on several times, although that is nerve-wracking because you never know if you might be asked to check it.

If you’re going in april, start learning tunes! Learning 2 or 3 per week should be easily doable. Don’t assume you can just walk into a session and bang out chords to tunes you’ve never heard before.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Also, I’d recommend visiting many different sessions and be prepared to just sit and listen if you don’t feel welcome. When I visited Ireland I found some sessions that were incredibly welcoming and friendly, and some where I was regarded as a punter or interloper. (Which was not in anyway inaccurate).

In one case, I was at a pub in Galway with my friend, when a session player saw our instruments and INSISTED we sit down at the table. We tried to beg off, saying we just wanted to listen for a while, but he said we NEEDED to come sit down and play with them. This was great! A minute later, another regular arrives, sits down across from us, and informs us that the seats we’re in are "reserved for musicians". I wasn’t sure whether he didn’t see our instruments, or whether we were getting a huge fuck-you. The fellow who welcomed us was busy in another conversation and couldn’t come to our rescue. Suddenly we’re trapped between being rude to the welcoming fellow by vanishing, and being oblivious obnoxious american tourists to the guy who is telling us to fuck off from his session. A very awkward situation that I still cringe to recall.

My point is, proceed cautiously.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Fair words, folks. I’m certainly familiar with the types of prevailing attitudes Leitrim Lad speaks of… it’s becoming more prevalent in the Bluegrass and even Old Time circles here in the states as well. I’m a semi professional musician and have been fortunate enough to play with many of my musical heros, who for the most part in the acoustic world I’ve found to be friendly, encouraging, and down to earth. On the flip side there seem to be more and more helicopter parents pushing their kids into the hot jams, calling tunes for them or otherwise trying to weasel them into whatever limelight they think might be there. More and more folks coming out of music schools and the like with serious attitudes toward the music and how they expect it to be played despite playing the music for less time than lots of others. And of course, I understand the difference between a closed session with paid musicians for tourism and a true open session, which seems to be around less and less I take it.

All that said - is it just impossible to find friendly folks that play music anywhere in Ireland? That seems to be the consensus here. I’ll also say that my luthier/mandolin maker himself spent time in Ennis last year and brought his mandolin. He says he was able to find and sit in with sessions more often than not, which gave me the idea. Of course he asked before jumping in and is a generally likable fellow, but I’d say he’s no more experienced with Trad than I am. Proficiency is of course hard to judge and harder still over the internet, but I feel confident in saying I’m not some shmo blindly hacking through tunes over the top of everyone else. I’ve learned hundreds of tunes in other fiddle based styles of music, many of them by ear for the first time playing with others. I understand that accompaniment is in many ways more tricky than playing melody. I’m quite familiar with the idea of etiquette. I’ve got 15 years or so experience of playing acoustic music with others, many times with those I didn’t know at first, and I’ve made many long time friends through the playing of music.

This begs the question - if every session everywhere but on the Aran Islands is closed and unfriendly, how does anyone learn?

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

On the contrary, I found many welcoming, open sessions. Probably 50% of the sessions I visited were happy to have visitors.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

>>"This begs the question - if every session everywhere but on the Aran Islands is closed and unfriendly, how does anyone learn?"

By attending sessions, and/or by working in private with someone who attends the relevant session. But you can’t do it in a fortnight. It doesn’t matter how competent you are on your instrument, it still takes time to get to know an individual session - what they play, how they play it, what (if any) accompaniment they like, what their sense of humour is like. And for them to get to know you well enough for them to want you to join in their musical conversation.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

>>All that said - is it just impossible to find friendly folks that play music anywhere in Ireland?<<

Nope. Welcoming, friendly people everywhere we went. We rambled through Clare, Sligo, Mayo, and were always asked to sit in for a tune. But we did always ask. Husband had his guitar and was, without fail, asked to sing (to his dismay), so be ready for that one. (He took up the fiddle after we got home; I think he saw the light.)

Oh, and some asked us to play some American old-time tunes. Fair enough! Doesn’t hurt to have something in mind to share. It’s all dance music. But you really need to know the tunes.

There is some good advice above, particularly MarkM’s. Maybe this is just a recon for your next trip, especially if you aren’t a full-on tradhead with loads of tunes (and it might be the wrong load of tunes). Even though you are itching to dive into a session, it can be a experience just to sit and listen to the thing as a whole. The music can be stunning. If you’re trying to play unfamiliar tunes with folks you don’t know, you miss so much because you are too busy sweating bullets. There are so many people to talk to, and so much to see going on in the background, that I fear you might miss some important parts of the trip.

Like, it’s your honeymoon. The food is good, cool little towns to explore, the countryside is begging to be walked through, and there are beaches. And it’s your honeymoon, right? You are aware that sessions start late and go later? Logistics, here….

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Thanks for the words Michele! Yes, I am aware this is going to be my honeymoon and I’ll have plenty else to occupy me besides crashing ITM sessions played by people way better at it than me! In fact, this all may be a non issue and might just be a great recon trip as you say.

That said, I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel and play music throughout the US and Canada, so it feels weird going on a trip to a musical place and NOT having an instrument! Whether it gets used or not is another story. I’m all for hearing great music and cozying up and just enjoying being there.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned in bluegrass wandering around festivals at night is this - sometimes you hear a really great jam session, playing a song you love and play well - and no matter how great of a player you might be you don’t have to jump in. Sometimes a session is perfect as is, and changing anything even with great players can change the dynamic. However, I do think I’ll bring a mandolin on the off chance it works out and there is an opportunity to play somewhere. I love (and play) American old time music too so if anyone asked for that I certainly wouldn’t be thrown off. Between that and the few reels and such I know there is bound to be some form of overlap. Mostly I want to learn, and sometimes just listening is the best way to do that.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

If you are in Doolin, try to get to the sessions in nearby Lahinch and Liscannor which I believe are less "organised for tourists" and more open. There is a guy who instigates many of these sessions named Eoin O’Neill - he plays bouzouki - I’m his "friend" on Facebook because he regularly promotes sessions in West Clare and states that everyone is welcome. My partner played at a session with him in Ennis this autumn which was reported to be great. Eoin also hosts a Trad radio programme on Radio Clare..you could look him up if you use FB, send him a friend request (he has 5000+ musical friends!) and ask him which sessions would be the best to attend…

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

..give me a rough idea when you heading across…I am heading down to the Islands over the summer … i might get something set up..

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Bodatcha - thanks for the tip! I’ve actually seen a few youtube videos previously with Eoin in them so I looked him up on facebook and found we have a few mutual friends, mostly a few great fiddle players I know. At any rate if he is doing anything while I’m there Lahinch and Liscannor are certainly not too far away to visit. I also ran an (American) traditional music radio show here in the states for a few years so I’d be interested in meeting and talking with him about that as well. Thanks again!

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

I think there are many factors involved. Show up looking like a tourist, and you’ll be treated like one. Show up like you’re one of them, and you’re likely to be directed to a free seat at their table. And if you know your stuff, you’re more than welcome back.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Is mandolin really a "backing" instrument in ITM? This is not bluegrass. No mando "chopping" in the background. Know and play the tune, or play nothing at all, seem to be the only two options.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Matt, in my very first post I mentioned that mandolin is not really a backing instrument, but I appreciate you re-affirming that statement. I also was not aware that ITM is not actually bluegrass, so thanks for clearing that up.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

JustusTrue -

Didn’t intend to be difficult or snarky, but you mentioned backup not only in your initial post but at least one subsequent one as well. I started out a lifetime ago in Old Time and Bluegrass. I was only trying to suggest ITM is a thing entirely unto itself, and even mentioning mando backup indicates a need to dig way deeper into the nuances of ITM.

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Matt -

No offence taken, I fear my attempts at sarcasm didn’t translate well to the written word so I’m sorry if I came off as snippy. In reference to backup I believe I was mainly thinking of if I brought my tenor guitar, which I often have tuned as sort of a single course bouzouki to play accompaniment on. Now that I’m more or less leaning towards the mandolin yes of course melody playing would be the name of the game.

I’m always looking to learn and dig deeper into music, but I most certainly understand that ITM is a thing onto itself. I would never have even considered the idea of bringing an instrument to another country to play their music if I wasn’t at least somewhat familiar with it! Where I’m from in the states I haven’t found a ton of sessions but I have sat in for a couple yet and plan to more before I go. I’ve also been listening to ITM for years and years, possibly even longer than bluegrass in some cases. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert at it but I’ve dug deep enough to read up and listen to the variations and styles that exist even between counties in Ireland, because that stuff fascinates me. Having traveled around the US playing music and seeing the differences in styles that exist here, having met and heard fiddle players from the Scandinavian traditions, fiddle and cello players from the Scottish tradition, and even getting to play some mountain music with a few fine folks from Nepal, I love learning about the nuances and differences in traditional music.

I understand the concern… "Ugh, tourist from America shows up with instruments, knows none of the music but forces way to the best seat in the session… decides to call a halting version of "drowsy maggie" or sing some poor version of something while everyone sits down and waits for it all to be over." Honestly, that’s the last thing on earth I want to be…

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

I know the feeling …

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Not to bring back an old thread, but I figured it might be advantageous to mention how my trip to Ireland actually ended up going. In short, it was amazing. The weather was great and sunny about half the time, far better then the icy NY April we left. The food and beer was great, and our rental car let us see all sorts of ruins and countryside not normally frequented by tourists.

As for music, that was great too! I brought my mandolin in a soft backpack case, which was easy to carry and provided no issues with bringing it on the plane and stowing it under my seat. I can’t thank user Bodatcha enough for the suggestion to look up Eoin O’Neill! I ended up playing 3 sessions with him, 2 in Ennis and 1 in Lahinch. The Ennis sessions were quite crowded, with folks from all over Ireland, Europe, and even Japan in attendance. Eoin actually said he felt bad they were so crowded and offered that if I made it to Lahinch it would be a lot more intimate.

We did make the trip to that session, and it was well worth it! Facebook alerted me to the fact that 2 bluegrass friends of mine from the US happened to be on tour nearby, and we ended up meeting and going together. Given that it was smaller and more intimate I was able to chat with Eoin some and he expressed that if I didn’t know a tune note for note he was quite fine with me playing rhythm with him. This put me at ease, and while perhaps it wouldn’t work for everyone I believe after listening to Irish Trad for a number of years, bouzouki backup and Eoin’s playing in particular, I was able to blend and support pretty well. Everyone there was happy and in great spirits, and I had one of the best nights of the trip. Here’s a picture of that night taken on my film camera by the golden voiced Noirim Lynch: https://scontent.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/18222620_10158737892475694_7085902968720069279_n.jpg?oh=4868c93c3901f87f37bc1b25e551dc9f&oe=59BE07C5

To sum it up, some of the things posted here before I left made me almost not want to bother bringing an instrument. I’m sure aggressive sessioning and closed sessions are no doubt a thing, but all I can say is I didn’t experience them in the least. In fact, when I asked Eoin if he was familiar with that I believe his response was in effect "My experience with the Clare scene has really been the opposite…. I mean if someone’s an A**hole we’ll tell them, but I haven’t gotten too much of that." Everyone I met was very friendly and happy to chat in between tunes.

I guess it goes to show that if you take everything you hear on the internet at face value, you might miss out sometimes. I’m glad I’m the kind of person that has to try something out for myself. I’m pretty sure there will be more Clare sessions in my future… now it’s time to learn more tunes!

Re: Going to Ireland for the first time, should I bring mandolin or tenor guitar? Advice?

Thanks for sharing!