Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Hello. I would like to learn how to accompany Irish tunes "correctly" on piano. I know that I have to come up with some basic chord progressions, but how do I know what chords to use? I know usually I would have a really long post explaining my exact situation, but that pretty much covers it. Basically my question is "What variable dictates the chord progression?" or put simply "How do I know what chords to use to accompany a tune?"

Thanks! 🙂

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

That’s a very big learn there, Kellie.

For me, on guitar, it’s a combination of the following:
1. Having an understanding of harmony.
2. Being able to hear harmonic changes in a tune.
3. Knowing the tunes.

1 & 3 you can do by study. 2 takes years of experience and enables you to accompany (some) tunes on the fly.
If I was you, I would start with a tune you know really well (could be one of your own) and try to find chords that fit. This assumes you know about chords and how they are formed. If not, then read up on simple harmony.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Oh, and by "knowing the tunes" I mean knowing them so that you know where they are going (you don’t have to be able to play them all melody-wise). That means you don’t have to memorise chords sequences (as long as you can hear the changes).

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

The Interview with a Vamper book is a helpful start - not focused on Irish material specifically, but it’s useful.

http://www.canispublishing.com/

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Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

There are a lot of tunes where your I, IV, V chords will work, e.g. in the key of C that would be C, F, G, and you might find places to add in the relative minor, 3 down from the keynote or I chord, so in this case it would be Am. (I think there are other threads on what chords to use where!)
I agree with all Donald says.

I am a classically trained pianist, and vamping was a whole new technique for me. I also play some guitar, and have studied music theory and harmony, which all helped enormously, as did going on a couple of courses where the keyboard player of a well-known Scottish band taught the vamping style. The other things that can add to accompaniment are bass octave runs or walk-downs and some syncopation, but not so much that you throw the melody players off course!

And, not wishing to re-open any ears v dots arguments, I play in a couple of ceilidh bands, and do get given sheet music: it does not, however, have a specific 2-handed piano part: just the melody line and chords. Then it’s up to me decide how to play it: for some sets, I do play some melody, and do a left-hand chordal accompaniment, but for most of the fast reels and jigs, I would just be doing a 2-handed "vamp".

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

P.s. The single most useful tip I got from my course was to keep things simple: if you know what 3 notes are in any chord you can do the "one finger change" to move chords: this may mean you are in a different chord inversion from the root chord, but I don’t bother my head thinking about inversions! E.g. using C as an example again: C root chord is CEG; playing that in your right hand, just move little finger up one white note to A: now you have an Am chord on CEA (2nd inversion).

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

This might strike Irish players as being strange or irrelevant, but I would do a load of listening to Cape Breton pianists.

They know the tunes, and will drop into playing melody from time to time when the mood strikes.

To me, their accompaniment is more sophisticated and satisfying than what I hear with Irish ceilidh bands. It’s a world away from mere vamping.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

To start with, you could do worse than finding a tune book with chord symbols and learn set chord progressions to a few familiar tunes. Record yourself playing the tune so you can try the accompaniment - and vice versa - so that you can hear how melody and chords fit together. If you do this for, say, 10-20 tunes, you will begin to see patterns in how the chords relate to the melody and, in time, be able to start applying this to other tunes.

"… listening to Cape Breton pianists …"

I agree that the Cape Breton tradition has, in some ways, a more developed style of piano accompaniment - and some Irish piano accompaniment is a little too simplistic for my taste. The trouble is, for me, CB-style piano makes the music sound very …*Cape Breton* - no bad thing in itself, but it can obscure the nuances of Irish melody playing somewhat. I much prefer the more understated but nonetheless sophisticated approach of players like Charlie Lennon, Brian McGrath and John Blake (no co-incidence that all three of these accompanists are also oustanding melody players on other instruments).

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Chord inversions are magic. As Trish pointed out above, they can be used for one or two fingered chord changes, complex chords, walking bass lines, and other nifty stuff. (But don’t let cool chords get out of hand. This isn’t jazz. Or the Beatles.)

But first, listen, listen, listen. Practice chord changes to tunes you’re already familiar with. Practice to recordings. Practice common chord changes all on their own until they are automatic. A search of "piano" here will reveal multiple threads on the subject, and they will include recommendations on pianists to listen to. Youtube can be useful, too. There are many styles to inspire you.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

I am kind of in the same boat. I started playing about three years ago on the whistle and flute and I feel pretty good about where I am along the long path I am on. I started as a sax w/flute and clarinet doubling chops and learned to play adequate piano for pop bands - which is all ear and instincts. I learned jazz harmony and voicing but am worlds away from calling myself a jazz pianist - they are beasts.
When I started trad and would occasionally sit down at the piano I was lost. The harmony was not instictual. Fairly recently though I’ve been trying and I can lay down a pretty good backing. I didn’t work on it but the combination of my past piano experience and basic chord knowledge, knowing a respectable amount of tunes, and tons of listening seemed to have just showed up out of the blue.
Donald K’s answer is simple and concise. I really like it. The only thing I would add is that the harmony can be very improvisational. There are many ways to interpret the chords behind the melody. Slash chords are very nice and jazz type chords can be used if they don’t distract from the rhythm and the melody. It becomes an aesthetic argument often between traditional and modern. I choose to play where my tastes will lead me and so far my music friends have had nothing but good comments. It is a lot of fun and I can’t wait to start playing at our local session. I refuse to use the bar piano because it is so out of tune and poor sounding but I’m thinking about a little controller board with my old Roland module. We’ll see how that goes over with the trad Nazis but I’m going to give it a shot.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

I don’t play piano but love to hear it done well - the Cape Breton style has already been mentioned, check out the related Shetland style, particularly Violet Tulloch, her musical partnerships with Tom Anderson, Aly Bain, Willie Hunter, etc are brilliant

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

"… check out the related Shetland style, particularly Violet Tulloch"

Yes - definitely check out Violet Tulloch. If there is such thing as *the* Shetland piano style, then I suspect she probably invented it. Her accompaniment follows every twist and turn of the tune, but with a simplicity and modesty that, for me, Cape Breton playing lacks.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

"The only thing I would add is that the harmony can be very improvisational."

This is true to a certain extent in that there can often be different chord options that will work equally well in certain settings. Whatever the setting though, I like my chordal accompaniment to "tell a story" in that the chords are not to be considered in isolation but as part of a whole (harmonic progression).
There is a danger, say, of looking at each bar of a tune in turn and saying "that chord fits those notes the best" and ending up with a nothing progression.
In other words, sometimes chords that don’t initially seem to fit the best will work if part of a strong progression.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

"In other words, sometimes chords that don’t initially seem to fit the best will work if part of a strong progression."

How would one go about accomplishing (writing) this strong progression? What makes a progression strong?

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

A strong progression is one that goes somewhere harmonically. It’s very difficult to put into words but you would know it was strong by how it sounds.

Take this waltz phrase (can’t remember the name of the tune or even the correct key) in C major:
c3 B c2|A4 G2|A2 G2 E2|G6|
A weakish chord sequence might be |C|Am|Am|C|.
Stronger would be something like |Am|F|G|C|.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Why do those specific chords fit with those notes?

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Think Donald’s quote above might be from the second half of "Leaving Lismore". Not sure if there is a "correct key" for this, but I have versions in D and A. But you can play it in whatever key suits you.
Why specific chords fit with certain notes is (apart from any theoretical and harmonic considerations) down to how they sound, as others above have suggested. There is not necessarily one right or wrong sequence. However, if you are playing the same tune through more than once, it is nicer sounding to vary the chord sequence second or third time around, perhaps moving from the very basic I, IV, V first time, to including more related minors and 7th chords next time.
And another proviso: if you are the only chord player in a group, you can to some extent be more adventurous and experimental, but if you are playing e.g. with guitarists or accordionists, it is best if you have an agreement to use the same chords at the same time! (Most people will have encountered the session situation where all chord players are being "instinctive" but no two are playing the same chords, with rather dubious results!)

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Yes, it’s Leaving Lismore, and I’ll second everything Trish says.

As to "why those specific chords fit with those notes", well I think, Kellie, you need to study some basic harmony: how chords are formed, the basic chords related to a scale and how the chords relate to each other (including the cycle of fifths as in Boots’ video link above).

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

…again, I tend to agree with DonaldK’s ideas about harmony and it is difficult to explain as well.

Some might consider him too modern but I think John Doyle is a master at using chords to tell the story. A simple explanation of what he does is he adds tension in his chords (in various ways) as the song develops. Often times he doesn’t play at all in the first chorus or he will play open chords early in the tune with no 3rds. The tension chords he uses later, though I haven’t studied him enough yet, are things like; slash chords (Chords rooted with a different note than the fundamental), 2nd’s, m6th chord substitutions and, a whole list of harmonic vocabulary he has. His recordings are something that I plan to spend some time with.
The process of learning backing harmony could work with simply ear training from recordings of your favorite player but it will never work with an instructional book alone. The theory helps organize your harmonic ideas as they develop but it cannot stand alone. Donald’s three points again are wonderfully simple and concise. The time, experience, and learning behind those points is immense.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

It is comforting to know that there are other who appreciate the skill and effort involved in successful accompaniment.
Some people are critical of the accompaniment style of John Doyle but I have more respect for the opinions of Liz Carroll and Jerry Holland. He’s a brilliant musician and a very worthwhile study.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Even for piano players.
But for the best piano vamping accompaniment I would second listening to and studying the playing of Violet Tulloch.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

" well I think, Kellie, you need to study some basic harmony: how chords are formed, the basic chords related to a scale and how the chords relate to each other"

Any idea where I could gain access to such knowledge?

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

If you can spare the $20 a month, the OAIM(Online Academy of Irish Music) has a course on accompaniment for piano.

Geraldine Cotter’s book "Seinn An Piano" is also excellent.

These are the two best forms of tuition I’ve found in my personal journey to learn Irish music on piano, and they both offer not only backing/harmony, they also offer melody/self-accompaniment

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

People have mentioned some chord progressions sounding "strong" and others "weak". It’s amazing how changing one chord in a progression from the knee-jerk obvious root-based chord to a substitute chord can make magic.

A couple examples come to mind. Sorry but I’m not fluent in ABC but it’s the easiest way to post melodies here, so here goes.

The Scottish reel Pipe Major David Manson, just the first line. A mixolydian, C# and F# but G natural.

| A2CB CAAC | E2AE CAAC | D2FD CECA | C2DC BGGB |

Now the obvious thing, probably, would be

| A | A | D A | A G |

but how much more drive is given by

| A | A | D A | F#m G |

Another thing so common in Irish accompaniment so as to become cliché, though for the very reason that it’s so effective, is taking reels where the obvious pattern, especially in the 2nd part of a large number of reels in A minor, is

| Am | Am | G | G | Am | Am | G | G |

and instead doing

| Am | Am | G | G | Fm | Fm | Em | Em |

or F# minor, or F Major instead of F minor, you hear various things, but the "walking" progression still works.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Erm,… are you sure about that Fm chord, Richard? Don’t think I’ve ever used or would ever think of using an Fm chord in an Am tune (unless it had a change of key). Sometimes an F chord in a true Am (Aeolian) tune.

I prefer to stick to simple chords but sometimes use chromatic bass runs. So, for example, in the turnaround (last two bars) of Brenda Stubbert’s I might go: |G2 F#2 E2 F#2|G2 G#2 A4| .

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

All the above recommendations are great for piano backing specifically. I suggest also listening to early Lúnasa - Donough Hennessy and Trevor Hutchinson present very nice progressions with variations. Some players do a lot and some do very little. I like to think of a good/strong progression in two ways, similarly to a short story and long story. Note how some musicians stay on one chord for a very long time, sometimes for an entire part (or two!). This creates nice tension.

You don’t have to change chord every time the melody suggests that you don’t, and if you do, you don’t have to change to the same chord every time. If you’re going to play a tune three times, you can choose several approaches - a "basic" progression (two or three chords, depending on the tune itself), a more "busy" approach, a "long story" approach, a combination of them all…

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Here’s the walking down thing, where you could go 1, 7, 1, 7 (Am G Am G if the tune is in Am) but instead go 1 7 6 5 (or the equivalent)

it starts at 3:27

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFthTtqaNVY


Without a guitar in front of me I’m not sure of the exact chords being used, but the effect is there.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Em - D - C - Bm

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

The BEST is Brendan Dolan — he backs up a lot of Brian Conway’s recordings and also plays for the Pride of New York Ceili Band.

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Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Pianists and guitarists unfamiliar with Irish music often are puzzled by how difficult they find it to play for us. They recognize that the music is not harmonically complicated (mostly), that the number of chords needed for a given tune are relatively few, but still it’s tricky. I play fiddle and piano. As a fiddler I know that this music is overwhelmingly a melodic/rhythmic tradition. The harmonic structure of most ITM is quite simple, but the melodies don’t sit still in one chord for long (drone-based tunes excepted). A better player than I once told me: "If in doubt, don’t change the chord." Crude as it seems, this advice was useful. He also said that it’s important to realise that, although the chords are few, they often don’t change at predictable places in the tune. Only an intimate knowledge of the music is going to help there.

A question like: Kellie’s "Why do those specific chords fit with those notes?" is a question less about style and more about fundamental musical understanding, Irish or any other. My best answer is: look up what notes are used to form chords, try different sequences of chords that contain those notes and listen, listen and then listen some more. I also found it interesting to think of chords not by their letter names but by their degree in the scale. Take the key of D major: not D, Em, G, A, but 1, 2m, 4, 5.
Even better: I, IIm, IV, V. This can be used for any key. And as if by magic you’ve just learned the rudiments of Figured Bass, a system used for hundreds of years by harpsichordists and bassists in Baroque music. There’s a bit more than this to Figured Bass, but that’s the bones of it. Just in case any of that was unclear:
Key of Dmaj (start with the major keys and if you keep at it, the mysteries of accompanying minor keys will yield themselves up).

NOTES OF THE SCALE OF D MAJ D, E, F#, G, A, B, C (a note cannot be major or minor, but a chord can).
CHORDS BUILT ON THOSE NOTES I, IIm, IIIm, IV, V, VIm, VII (rare) use these figures for any key
It’s useful to know that, as in the list above, with some exceptions, I is always major, II mostly minor, III mostly minor, VI major, VII is as rare as hens’ teeth so forget it.

The reason some of these chords are major and others minor is simply that they are built using the "legal" notes of the scale. Don’t be discouraged if this all seems a bit complicated. To quote the I Ching: "Perseverance furthers". You will will lose fewer melody-playing friends and be in demand for sessions and shows as a member of a surprisingly small gang of capable ITM accompanists. Good luck. By the way Cape Breton piano style is a lot of fun, even if its wild and jangly craziness doesn’t always suit the more intricate Irish tunes. Ottawa Valley and Québec piano styles, on the other hand, have always left me cold. No doubt a character flaw of mine.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

I’m mainly a guitarist and only dabble in piano accompaniment, but….

the main trick to accompanying Irish music is to understand not only the tune melody and its harmonic possibilities, but the WAY the musicians are playing the tune, its ebbs and flows and natural structure. In a sophisticated ensemble, melody and accompaniment are symbiotic; more often (e.g. in an informal session) they are not, so the accompaniment has to "follow" the melody players in a more obvious way.

What can absolutely kill a set stone dead is accompaniment that overly-imposes a set rhythm on the other players. Just as much as ignorance of the tune or appropriate chords, this generates a lot of bad feeling and negativity towards accompaniment, and is equally relevant to bodhran players etc.

Just my tuppence worth.

Re: Piano Vamping to Irish Tunes

Kellie, Click on my user name, and you will find some basic info on accompaniment in my profile. It is oriented toward guitar, but also contains a lot of information you will find valuable. You don’t need to use a lot of chords, as long as you use the right ones at the right times. Simplicity is a virtue, especially when starting out as an accompanist.