Accompanying Irish music on guitar

Accompanying Irish music on guitar

I’ve seen endless discussions on this subject on the session about what to do and what not to do in search of some guidance usually ending up in a war of words between the participants and , sometimes some not so nice and flippant comments which are unhelpful . However , I’ve just watched the Dubliners 40th Anniversary reunion concert and the guitarists’ all stuck at the nut end of the guitar playing basic chords to accompany their tunes . So , if it’s good enough for the Dubliners it’s good enough for me !!

Re: Accompanying Irish music on guitar

And what’s your point?

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Gobby, my point is , for any guitarists looking for guidance on accompanying Irish music you can get by quite nicely by using the basic chords as used by the Dubliners and keeping the accompaniment simple . As I said , if it’s good enough for the Dubliners it’s good enough for me .

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Well Eamonn Coyne could usually do a little more than that but generally kept things simple compared to many of today’s players.

The issue isn’t whether or not a player should use different or more unusual chords, alternative tunings, or fancy rhythms etc but whether they "fit in" and work (or not).

There’s no harm in just playing at "the nut end" or "Farmer’s Corner"(I’m not sure why it’s called that?) as long as you play the correct chords where appropriate and have a good sense of rhythm. You shouldn’t play in an overpowering fashion and drown out other instruments but the same applies wherever you are on the fretboard.

Of course, the result may not be quite as interesting or add as much to the tune but it shouldn’t really detract from it either if done tastefully.
In many musical arrangements, the guitar or other backing can be very important and even help to "drive" the tunes along but this isn’t as crucial in a session situation where, in my opinion, the melody instruments are the most important.

Many years ago, I ventured into one of my first Scottish music sessions and the oldtimers there(sadly passed on) told me I was very welcome but advised me just to keep things simple. All they needed was was a good backing without any "fancy chords" or solo melody or "picking" . It was their job to play the actual tunes.

Of course, every session is different and things have developed over the years. However, the basic principle still applies with accompanying instruments(including the bodhran etc too). It’s better to keep things simple and do it correctly than trying to be to clever about things. Especially when it’s not wanted or needed.

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Alanstor,

As you will see from my last post, I agree….to an extent.

However, I wouldn’t argue that a player should limit his or her musical ambitions to such an extent. It’s wonderful to explore new ideas and techniques just as long as you know where and when they are able to be used effectively and appropriately. A session isn’t always the best place to experiment but if you know something works, that’s OK. No matter how easy or complex it might be.

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Ooops… a very big Ooops.

Eamonn CAMPBELL, I meant to say. Eamonn Coyne is great too, of course, but a grand banjo player. He was actually a Dubliner too, of course, in the true sense of the word. 🙂

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At the risk of finding we have kicked off another interminable thread on the subject, I’d suggest that whether a guitarist’s choice of chords is simple (Dubliners. as described above) or more sophisticated (John Doyle, perhaps) is not altogether the point. I’m sure quite a lot of folk music - Irish or whatever - can be supported by fairly uncomplicated accomp. (Though taste and skill with a guitar is as welcome as in any other instrument). The things that seem to me to be more significant in the context of session playing are:

- Does the accompanist know the piece well enough to choose suitable chords & changes - or do they spend the first couple of times through strumming randomly to try and find what key it’s in?
- Given that strummed guitars can be relatively loud, can they tailor their volume to the ambient sound level so as not to overwhelm melody instruments?
- Can they restrain themselves from joining in long enough to allow the tune-setter to establish the feel and tempo of the piece?
- Can they vary their playing to contribute to the musical aesthetic - by using spaces and pauses, rhythmic changes, picking as well as strumming, using euphonious chord inversions?
- Can they keep time?
- Etc.

(It’s not just accompanists, of course. A similar set of Qs - with their implied criticisms - can be raised in connection with sessioneers on any instrument: none of us are absolved from the responsibility, when playing with others, of trying to make the most considerate contribution to the collective effort that we can manage ).

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Excellent points Johnny jay and Bazza . Newbies interested in guitar accompaniment could learn from reading this upbeat thread and not feel intimidated when asking out of eagerness to learn how to do it . I think watching the Dubliners would be an excellent starting point and then , if the notion takes them to delve deeper into trad guitar accompaniment with constructive advice from more experienced players .

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On a side note:

I love the Dubliners instrumentals but there’s one tune, I forget which, where the guitar player is playing E Major chords over an A Mixolydian tune and there’s another tune, (I also forget which) where the guitar is beat behind in the chord changes. Like he doesn’t know when the B section starts and he waits a beat to change.

This also happens a lot in those old recordings where the studio used a house pianist who didn’t really know Irish music. My favorite is Paddy Sweeney’s "George White’s/Lass of Caracastle." It doesn’t really bother me but in a session it likely would.

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Hello chums!
Just because someone is a ‘pop star’ doesn’t mean to say they can hold their doo dah better than you.
And star-struck-ness is a dangerous currency.

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YH— the problem is that when pipes enter the mix, the guitar in standard tuning doesn’t always sit well with the D drone. I’m not an accompanist, so I assume that’s why DADGAD is often preferable. The musicians with whom I play generally discourage guitar players from coming to our small sessions.
Neither instrument — the pipes nor the guitar - is easily tuned so that every note is perfect. Geoff Wooff’s discourse might explain why a guitarist has to be more than just competent:
"We normally call our drone D, and we tune it to the chanter by playing an A or G on the chanter. We are tuning by ear a perfect fifth or fourth, and we all should be able to do this. The tuned drone is then checked against the other notes of the chanter to see if all agrees, which in practice ** it rarely does**. We can, however, establish the best pitch for our drone. It is then possible to pick any note on the scale and move the drone up or down until our ear tells us that we have achieved a nice chord between the drone and the chanter note. It then follows that from the direction which we have had to move the drone we now know what note on the chanter disagrees with the average, or in-tuned position, of the drone. If we then adjust any notes that are wrong-by using tape or wax on the holes-we may produce a perfect scale. ….
We must remember however that this perfect scale is only tuned to D. D is our first "key note," and with it we can combine more notes than any other "key note." For example, if E is a perfect second to the D, and F# is a perfect third, then we can combine them as a chord and it sounds good! Try that on a piano [or guitar] and hear what it sounds like- ***not too nice!*** "
http://www.uilleannobsession.com/extras_geoffwooff.html

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In backing— unless one is John Doyle— less is much, much more. One could play a typical Dorian tune (eg Scatter the Mud) all the way through with just the dominant. If a guitarist doesn’t know the tune super well, this is a good strategy. Or playing I and V without and thirds. Most mix tunes go nicely with 3 chords (eg I, V, VII).

The most important thing is, not being too loud, and being solid on rhythm. One solid good chord in hypnotic metronomic rhythm beats fancy wobbles.


chris

Re: Accompanying Irish music on guitar

What’s a perfect second (or third for that matter)?

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> What’s a perfect second (or third for that matter)?

I think Geoff is using rather loose terminology to refer to (accurate) just intonation, nothing to do with the name of the intervals.

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That’s kind of what I thought, Calum, but I just couldn’t resist being pedantic.

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>Arthur Figgis< theres a recording of Barney McKenna playing the High Reel and whoever was backing on guitar constantly played an E major chord where the G chord should be -it annoyed the hell out of me! Maybe that’s the one you meant? Most Dubliners tune sets are ok if you just listen to Barney and John Sheehan, the guitar backing varies from acceptable to amateurish.

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"if it’s good enough for the Dubliners it’s good enough for me"……. Well that’s not really the point. What counts is, is it good enough for the melody players that you would accompany. I would feel quite loath to play my fiddle with a guitarist who could only strum block chords at the nut end. I have walked away from too many of them. I spent years playing guitar in a rock band and played only barre chords yet I have found myself lacking when I come to try and back my own fiddle playing. To do it well requires more skill than I can give priority to. Sure I could ‘get away’ with backing most tunes, but ‘getting away with it usually cheapens my fiddle playing. So, good enough for you maybe, but if that is all you are confessing to I still don’t see the point of your post.

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A few years back, I was at a Tommy Peoples gig where he also chose to be accompanied by a female friend who played guitar at "the nut end" throughout.
She was competent although not brilliant but that was what he wanted that night.

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I have nothing against first position block chords if done well and used to accompany those tunes that will accommodate them. Sometimes it’s the percussive rhythm that is important. I especially love using that simple Em like that. But only in a limited capacity; it won’t do for everything, and even when somebody is good enough to hold it together with only nut-end chords, it becomes like having a bodhran banging along through every tune;- i.e., it gets monotonous. Beyond that, any guitarists who are content to stay down that end of the neck are surely robbing themselves of what music is all about.

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Re: Accompanying Irish music on guitar

if I’m backing tunes on guitar I probably play 1st position chords 75% of the time if its all that’s needed to drive the tunes along - occasionally i’ll play an inversion on the 5th or 7th fret just for a bit of variety [and to show that I can] but ultimately its not about where on the fretboard you ‘re playing , its about what’s right for the tune.

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I don’t think I’d take that Joe Burke / Anne Conroy video on its own as an argument in favour of playing basic chords. In this case, the right hand is doing far more than strumming across a number of strings and is removing all potential negative impact of playing basic chords by picking out appropriate parts of the chords. The result is the all important sympathetic accompaniment.

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I’m not arguing that this is the way it SHOULD be done but only that it’s one acceptable way. 🙂

As you say, the right hand work is the most important thing here but the same applies whatever chords, tunings, or position you choose to use.

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Excellent video Johnny jay , and the melodeon player seemed very happy with the accompaniment which despite being at the “ nut end “ of the guitar and , to my ears , didn’t detract from the melody at all . Gobby , my post was directed more to the newbie guitarists with an interest in accompanying Irish music who may not be up to speed with tunings , inversions, rythmns etc and the Dubliners video and Johnny Jays video would make a nice starting point and was in no way intended as the be all and end all of accompaniment. We’ve all got to start somewhere .

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2p from a 5+decade (mostly jazz) guitarist and 1.5decade (ITM STM Cape Breton) fiddler. First, listen to the melody players for the tune’s time and feel, then add some modulated support, colour, and lift where necessary (backup, if you will).

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Yup, I’d go along with drone on this. Simple is best in the beginning. By simple I don’t necessarily mean bog standard chords. I mean simple chords. It’s knowing how to simplify that’s part of the art. Different melody players have different accompaniment expectations - some will allow more freedom than others (Catriona Macdonald would always give a sneaky wee smile when you did something a wee bit different).
If you want to play cowboy chords all night that is fine, though you are severely restricting your tonal palette. But you know your doing OK when your playing is complimented at the end of the night.

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Playing quietly until asked to turn up (a compliment) is preferable to being asked to turn down.

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Backing up Johnny Jay’s comments, I just watched Joe Burke and Anne Conroy on a recent TG4 Bosca Ceoil
show [28th oct] and you get some good close ups of Anne’s right hand , looks like she’s using a thumbpick and 2 fingers to play bass runs - simple but sounds great. The program’s worth watching anyway for Cara Dillon and Siobhan Peoples.

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ok i’ll probably sound snobbish but I’d rather hear someone who can hear the tunes properly playing 6 fully muted strings than someone with no idea bashing away on unrestrained "campfire chords"

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*bashing away on unrestrained "campfire chords"*

Well, I don’t think anyone should be doing that but I’ve heard lots of very tasteful music played at the "Farmer’s Corner" end of the guitar and also witnessed many pointless and often "messy" arrangements "up the neck".
It’s knowing how, where, and when to do either or both which is important although it can often just be a matter of taste.

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Each to their own, Copperplate.
Personally speaking, I’d rather not listen to 6 fully muted strings all night - a snare drum would give you that effect an awful lot better.
I know plenty of players who use "campfire chords" who also have pretty good ears. Sometimes TKMax is just as good as Dior.
I’d rather accompany a tune player who, even if they played a bit slow, played music, rather than a tune player playing a sequence of notes up to tempo.

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yeah = fair enough. I was a bit over the top. Fully agree that it doesnt matter where you play on neck as long as you are listening to the tune and striving to support it and paying attention.
Still - my (current ) pet beef is guitar strumming without any muting and power variation - just 6 strings vibrating hammer and tongs. Just because you have a V* engine doesn’t mean you have to floor the pedal constantly. 🙂

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I would agree with the six strings thing. A pianist has ten fingers but I don’t expect them to use all ten simultaneously. Likewise with the guitarist and his six strings (let alone twelve).

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So, I’m confused about the phrase "nut end" of the guitar. The nut, of course, is the bit where the strings cross from the tuning pegs to the fretboard. The videos posted show folks playing close the bridge, i.e. the opposite end of the nut.

I’ve been playing guitar and banjo for 50 years now, and have never heard the term "nut end". What have I missed?

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I think it’s what is sometimes referred to as first position, Tervs.

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Technically, Tervs and Tunes, you are correct, since the playing is actually done with the right hand (unless you play a leftie) fairly close to the bridge.
I’m sure, though, your understanding will permit the thought that we might have been referring to the left hand position, since the right hand probably doesn’t move that much in line with the strings, except for special effects.

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Duh. Got it. Thanks folks.

Cheers

Matt

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Theres no money above the fifth fret

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"Theres no money above the fifth fret"

(a) There’s an apostrophe missing.
(b) What is it supposed to mean?

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Only for standard tuning and only in french (sorry…), I wrote a book : "Accompanying Irish music on guitar" :
http://banwarth.free.fr/guitare.htm#methode
Some of you will maybe be interested…

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OK, I’ve been accompanying trad music on guitar for a LONG time. I’ve heard all the pros and cons, the debates, the impassioned views of those on either side. All I know is that my attitude to and appreciation of traditional Irish music was completely transformed by the realisation that sympathetic and appropriate accompaniment can act as a potent catalyst and bring the music to another level. (The opposite is also true).

With the greatest respect to the Dubliners, their brand is based mostly around the songs, so they don’t stand or fall by the tunes they play, and the accompaniment always tended to be basic. Eamonn Campbell was a fine guitarist but he correctly deduced that simplicity in terms of musical accompaniment was at the core of the Dubliners sound.

Lots of trad players want accompaniment to be in the background, predictable and unobtrusive. Which is fine. Anne Conroy is a wonderful accordion player in her own right and knows all the tunes backwards. She does a great job of keeping everything simple and appropriate. Hats off.

Other musicians want accompaniment to be an integral part of the music and want to be challenged and inspired by their "backers". These are the musicians I enjoy playing with.

I also dislike the attitudes which prevail in some quarters which suggest that trad accompaniment is "simple", "throwaway" and "disrespectful" etc. etc., along with the notion that accompanists are not real musicians. Unfortunately, guitar accompaniment attracts its fair share of chancers who get away with lowest common denominator playing and bolsters the opinions of those who seek to demean the use of the instrument.

Thankfully I have managed over the years to find and play with lots of trad musicians who challenge and inspire ME.

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Thankyou Lysaghtm , this has been a very positive and enlightening discussion for me and I’m glad I broached the subject . It has been very positive with lots of helpful comments and , hopefully guitarists wishing to enter the realm of accompaniment will gain some knowledge from reading this thread . Thanks to everyone for their comments and , enjoy the music , which is what I believe we are all here for .

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While we’re talking about the chords at the nut end, let’s not forget that the right hand has a lot to do as well, in phrasing, in rhythm, in accent, in NOT playing so as to let the music through, whether by plectrum, or thumb pick and fingers.
I also regard two guitarists at a session as being as bad as two bodhran players. But maybe that’s just me……