Accompanying on Mandolin

Accompanying on Mandolin

So have been acting fiddle for a while now and picked up a mandolins since a lot of the skills are transferrable.

Looking to learn how to accompany trad tunes at sessions. Anyone got any advice on what chords/progressions to learn?

Re: Accompanying on Mandolin

Welcome to The Session, Scott.
I guess a good starting point would be, for tunes in major keys, to use the I, IV, V combination (referring to the first, fourth and fifth notes in the scale): so in G that would be G, C, D, or in D it would be D, G, A. But some tunes require a minor chord in the progression, so think about Em for your G series, Bm for your D series.
I’ll leave anything more complicated, minor keys and modes, to the experts!

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You need to learn the chords/progressions for whatever tunes you are accompanying. Even three chord major songs come in a multitude of different progressions. Although there is some leeway and variety for any accompaniment progression, playing the chords outlined or implied in the melody is most important. Don’t play the "usual chords for that key", play the appropriate chords for the melody of that tune.

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Arguably, one of the CBOM instruments would be a better option for accompaniment than the mandolin itself although it can be done on the latter.

Yes, although there are obvious chords to use in each key, things aren’t quite as simple as that. Get to know the tune… You don’t necessarily have to be able to play it note for note but you have to be very familiar with its structure and over all direction.
Of course, many are constructed in a similar fashion and the same chord pattern often suffices but you can never take things for granted. Besides, you’ll want to make it sound as interesting as possible.

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My opinion only…the mandolin can be used to ‘comp but often need another instrument to carry the lower tones (in synch of course and this takes some skill). Avoid "chop chords" .

As mentioned, the I, IV, V chords, with forays into the III and VI, are useful places to start there are a lot of ways to ‘comp a tune. We argue all time on the session about modes, styles, and instruments, for ‘comping, if at all.

Assuming you are familiar with ITM melodies, I suggest you try Chris Smith’s tutorial. It’s mostly for players with some experience and familiarity with their instrument but I find it very useful.

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You can accompany with a fiddle, of course, the difference being that you can (by any normal means) only play two notes at a time. If you can play rhythmic backing, drones and double-stops on the fiddle then you can play them on the mandolin - and maybe that’s the best way for a folk fiddler to approach accompaniment?

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Mando, OM, banjo melody, and DADGAD guitar backer here:

1. Avoid chop— it’s not bluegrass.
2. Avoid cowboy chords.
3. Don’t back on a mando— get an octave mando, or a bouzouki, or (best of all) learn DADGAD guitar.
4. Don’t learn mando chords— if you use an octave mando, tune it GDAD for waaaay better drones and a fuller sound. Get a capo.
5. You only realy need to learn about 5 diff chords— then you move them up and down the neck, or you change one note inside the chord. You are aiming for stacks of drones.

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Agreeing with much of the above since my earlier rather simplistic post.
Of course the chords need to match the tune….if you are going to play chords and not the main melody, and they won’t always follow that I, IV, V combination.
The bigger instruments of the family work better for chordal accompaniment: mandola, octave mandolin, bouzouki, cittern.
And if accompanying song, you may get asked to play an "instrumental break" between verses, so worth knowing the main tune, or making your own variations of it.

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I would echo most of the above. Since you already play fiddle, why not simply learn the tunes on the mandolin? If you are serious about wanting to learn accompaniment then, as others have suggested, get one of the lower pitched instruments.

To start you off on accompaniment, there are tunebooks with chord symbols (e.g. the ‘Foinn Seisiun’ series and the ‘Mally Presents…’ books). As others have said, knowing the basic palette of chords to use is one thing but you need to learn what chord goes where; using the one of the above books will equip you to accompany particular tunes but also, once you have learned accompaniments for a handful of tunes, you will begin to understand how chords relate to melody in general and be able to start devising your own accompaiments.

Another important thing is to listen to (and, if possible, watch) other accompanists. You can also practice putting chords to unaccompanied recordings (or record the tunes yourself, if you like, to play chords along to).

You will also find it useful to learn some music theory, in particular about modes and their relationship with chords.

…Oh, and if you’re playing The Maids of Mount Cisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair 😉

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You can play backup on the mandolin but it’s not very effective. As noted above it doesn’t have enough bass really.
Don’t worry about tunings or capos: they are immaterial, a distraction or crutch- learn the tunes instead.

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I have to disagree.
A mandolin player with an understanding of the tunes and rhythm can provide good backing for ITM, which makes for an interesting change from the usual guitar or bouzouki/mandola backing.

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Strummed mandolin (backing) is a horrid loud shrill sound. Single strings (melody) are too quiet in anything but a tiny session.

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Many, many years ago at The ALP , the female tutor at a mixed instrument class tried to "encourage" me to play accompaniment on the mandolin rather than play the tunes.

However, I just carried on regardless.
😛

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Personally I just play the tune melodies on a mandolin. I want to learn to fiddle because it’s the "classic" sound and I already know the fingerings due to same tuning as mando, but I’m awful at bowing :(

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with respect i have never understood this question. in any form of music you would learn the harmony of the piece you were playing. before you played it. this is an art form, you would not, again with respect, strum along with the boston symphony playing beethoven.

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Breifne, I’ve seen some backers that would attempt to back Beethoven with three chords!

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With greatest respect, one is not invited to strum along with Beethoven at the Boston Symphony because there is no guitar part and the music is rigidly scored.
That is not the case with trad. In Cape Breton, for example, an accompanist would be expected to make a stab at tunes he or she did not know. As I was told by one piano player, you correct your mistakes the second time through.
I prefer not to accompany unfamiliar tunes as, apart from anything else, it can be hard work but on many occasions when sitting out I have been encouraged to "strum along".

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And I find Beethoven works best with a K flat augmented 18th.

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Re "That is not the case with trad. In Cape Breton, for example….."

Ah well, that’s the rest of us told.
If it happens in Cape Breton that trumps everybody else in the whole wide world.

[I havent used "trump" like that for ages: quite satisfying!]

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No suggestion that it "trumps everyone else in the whole wide world", from me, allan21, just a statement of fact.

I only play STM myself so can’t comment on ITM.

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K blunt demented seventeenth!

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I’m sure that the Cape Breton did tell you something.
That’s a fact.
I’m not sure that what the Cape Breton said was a fact.
It might have been an opinion, a view, a joke, a lie.
Are facts different in stm and itm?
;^)

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As ever, you’re totally on it, Yhaal House.

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No, allan21, that’s what happens on Cape Breton Island.

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I’ve been there and witnessed it with my own ears and eyes.

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But it’s also true that the Cape Breton repertoire is primarily Scottish (with more obvious harmony) and the accompaniment is more closely related to Scottish styles, even on Irish tunes.

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I’m not much of a session guy these days - but when I was younger, I took part in many ITM sessions in Nova Scotia in particular, with some top-notch players. It was assumed that the real skill in accompaniment was to be able to do so, effectively, behind tunes you’d never heard before - just as with Scottish Cape Breton music. In fact, that’s been my experience anywhere in Canada where fiddle-based music is part of local tradition. I guess things are different in the rest of the world!

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Mmmh. Cosmic.
I sort of like the idea that a fiddler and a guitarist are led into a room, sat down opposite each other, both chant 1,2,3,4 and simultaneously launch into a tune.
I accept that good accompanists might be able to back simple tunes they havent heard before, after hearing the first run through of a tune.

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The fiddle player will choose a tonal centre and stick to it for a good while.

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It’s also the case that the accompanists will know most of the tunes anyway as they are usually melody players as well. So you might have Howie MacDonald playing fiddle for half an hour backed by Brenda Stubbert on piano and then they trade places with Brenda on fiddle and Howie on piano.

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"I sort of like the idea that a fiddler and a guitarist are led into a room, sat down opposite each other, both chant 1,2,3,4 and simultaneously launch into a tune."

There’s no "1,2,3,4" - the fiddler simply starts up the tune, and the guitarist jumps in.

"I accept that good accompanists might be able to back simple tunes they havent heard before, after hearing the first run through of a tune."

I’m not trying to win any argument here, just making an observation. Your experience has obviously been quite different from mine. If I have a notion that someone is a half-decent accompanist, I’m going to assume that they’ll do a passable job the first time through, if there’s nothing particularly unorthodox in the chord structure, and that they’ll do a better job second time through. Sometimes we might go through it a few more times to tweak it, but usually not. Now, I’ve had my disappointments and frustrations, when I’ve discovered that an otherwise good accompanist can only accompany certain, specific tunes, but the idea that an accompanist should only play along with tunes that they "know" never occurred to me until I read it expressed on this forum. Of course, there are some pretty twisty tunes that I would not expect anyone to get right off the bat ….

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My experience leads me to believe that I need to learn a tune to play it on the mandolin or guitar or zouk.
The idea that an accompaniest is able to enhance it without knowing the tune at all is … unlikely.
That’s my opinion… but I have others if you don’t agree.
;^)

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As the other fella said: "That’s MY OPINION! And if you don’t like it - I’ll change it."

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"The idea that an accompanist is able to enhance it without knowing the tune at all is … unlikely."

Check out Tim Edey with JP Cormier in the clip below. JP may have told Tim that he was starting with The Mathematician but after that Tim just has to go with the flow. He probably knew a lot of the tunes anyway but at one point JP says "A" to indicate he’s changing key. No need to do that if it’s all rehearsed.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8W59k3UPEQ

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Do you think Tim Edey enjoys playing music????

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Oh. The playing in the video was a bit rough! The back up guy was all over the place, drowning out the melody, continually playing higher notes than the melody. Poor.

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You’ve got to be kidding.
You obviously inhabit a different world to me. Playing higher than the melody is perfectly acceptable as far as I’m concerned. To call that poor defies belief.

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That’s it from me.

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Stunning!

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If comping with note pitch above the melody is wrong, then all the Cape Breton piano players are doing it wrong.

I thought the accompaniment in that video was pretty good for someone who hadn’t practiced the performance, if a bit heavier on the boom-chuck backbeat than I might have liked. Guitar players (and I am one, in a former life) often find it difficult to follow and not lead when playing accompaniment, which is what this music requires. If you fall into a steady backbeat rhythm, you can override the subtleties of the rhythm in the melody player’s line.

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Not much wrong with that IMHO! Tim Edey -"back-up man" - is one of the finest guitarists and accompanists around and no slouch on the melodeon either, being able to play both the semitone tuning and the fourth apart one.
"Playing higher notes than the melody" = harmony.

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Dare I risk resurrecting the "Session V Performance" argument here?
🙂

It’s probably true that accompaniment on mandolin and/or "playing above the melody"(whether mandolin, guitar, or whatever) isn’t the normal or most effective thing to do in an *Irish* session… I’ve emphasised Irish here as we’ve been also taking about examples from elsewhere.
However, with the agreement of the other musicians, implicit or otherwise, a player is quite entitled to accompany on mandolin and/or play whichever way he or her chooses. This is more likely in a performance situation, I agree. However, it could also happen in some sessions too.

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"he or her" should be "he or she", of course!
🙂

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What Chris Stoltz said !

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Re: Accompanying on Mandolin

Stiamh, I’m bewildered by your posts. Sorry, but I am.
Ben

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Re: Accompanying on Mandolin

I looked back a few threads & listened to the clip with Tim Edey so now I get where this is going.
Sorry for the momentary lapse. Carry on!

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sorry allan21 you really got that wrong - the ‘back up guy’ is Tim Edey one of the finest musicians and nicest fellas you could meet - and I could hear every note of the melody loud and clear over Tim’s accompaniment. Maybe get a hearing check-up?

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The main reason not to use the mandolin for accompaniment is that its pitch and frequency range will clash with most melody instruments. Yes, the double strings are attractive but the novelty value soon wears off.

That’s why most accompanists choose instruments that occupy a different sonic space. It’s really all about light and shade, yin and yang, different colours of sound providing a portrait that is most pleasing.

Another issue with a mandolin is the very short scale length. Past the first position, playing chords becomes more and more difficult and involves scrunching up your fingers to fit the shape. This makes accompaniment more and more difficult and note separation is also an issue.

Basically, ten thousand flies….or in plain language, consider other options!

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And Christy - Specsavers? You just echoed what I said 2 days ago, but glad we think alike on Tim Edey. 😉

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trish - haha, fair enough, I dont always check other posts as carefully as I might! I had the pleasure of sharing a gig with Tim a couple of weeks ago in our home county of Kent.

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You should be so lucky, Christy! I am nowhere near Tim’s standard. Was delighted to see him at Stonehaven Folk Festival last July, in a double-header slot with Luke Daniels. They sort of took it in turns to be lead player and "Back-up guy" as well as doing sets with 2 guitars, one guitar/one accordion, and 2 accordions. Both showing their skills at being lead player, accompanist or duetting harmonist.

Sorry if this is thread drift, but could equally apply to mandolins…..whether you choose to play tune only or a mix of tunes and chords, or chords only: I personally prefer tune, or tune+ chords, and leave the full chord accompaniment to the bigger instruments in that group.

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trish- no, mandolin doesnt work well as an accompanying instrument in ITM or STM, though I also play in an Americana/Bluegrass band where mandolin chords work just fine - I never really figured out why it works for one genre of music and not the other? One of life’s mysteries.
ps my band was playing support to Tim at a concert I wasnt actually on stage with him!

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"(…)I also play in an Americana/Bluegrass band where mandolin chords work just fine - I never really figured out why it works for one genre of music and not the other?"

I’ve always thought of bluegrass mandolin backing as slightly more percussive.

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Right, in Bluegrass the mandolin is basically a substitute for a snare drum with the muted "chop" chord when backing backing the other instruments. Then it switches to pure melody when playing a solo break.

The reason it doesn’t work so well when backing Irish trad (IMO) is that we don’t structure tunes to allow space for individual instruments as in Bluegrass, we don’t usually chop on the mandolin, and it can be confusing to hear strummed or arpeggiated chords in that same pitch range. Our ears are trained to hear accompaniment with more separation from the melody line, usually pitched lower.

That said, I think mandolin accompaniment can work sometimes, but maybe not something you’d want to do on every tune. I’ll sometimes mix in a little bit, like playing the first two repeats of Banish Misfortune as melody, then switch to chords the third time around. If there isn’t a guitar player in the group, that "fills out" the tune on the last repeat, which can be a nice effect. YMMV on that.

The Dark Side of mandolin accompaniment is the temptation to fall back on chords when you don’t know a tune. I’m guilty of that sometimes, but I do try to resist it. It can annoy the melody players, especially if you REALLY don’t know the tune and are blowing the chord choices. A wrong chord in the same pitch as the melody line sounds much worse than it would on a guitar, OM, or bouzouki.

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Oh.
I didn’t realise Mr Tim Edey (no idea who this person is, I havent met him, he hasnt featured on my radar or record collection or any gigs I’ve been to) was officially "a nice guy"……..
I just commented on video.
Please let me know in the future; I don’t want to express any personal or honestly-held comments and cause upset.

On reflection, the performance reminded me when i went to the festival club at the Ullapool Guitar Festival one year. Guitarists, who had been played in a completely professional and sophisticated way in their solo sets, played together in terribly crass ways, drowning each other out, cutting across melody lines and faffing about. Maybe it’s a guitarist thing, or an alcohol thing. I didn’t go back.

If I am playing in session I like to hear the melody over any accompiament. It sits on top. Harmonies are nice, if played on a lead instrument.
IMVHO, whacking a guitar way up beyond = drowning out.

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In the JP + Tim Eady clip, I could hear the melody OK, even when the accompaniment went up high.

However, some of the lower melody notes seemed to get lost when they were in the same range as the accomp, but I guess that would happen in any 2-guitar combo, would it not?

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Aye. You only ever need one guitar.

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@allan21 //Aye. You only ever need one guitar.//

Fair comment, I guess. Depends of the scenario

I know it’s most certainly not Irish traditional, but have you ever seen the old Hot Club videos where there are three loud and powerful Selmer guitars? When it comes to the solo, you can see how the other two guitarists move away from the bridge, and their strumming arc gets smaller too, so they make sure they don’t overpower the solo player.

They don’t do it like that any more 🙂

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Yes. There were 2 guys who played in the Glasgow area, a wee while ago now, who played in the hot club style and they were a delight. They had the 2 different Seller styles and stuck to the classic repetoire. The lead and backup complimented perfectly and they never sounded too loud. Can’t remember their name - Jazz Guitars?

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Good reply from Conical Bore: does more or less answer the OP’s question and beyond re accompaniment style, apart from maybe which chords to use, which was answered before.
Allan21: do go and see Tim Edey live if you get the chance: those festival club sessions are not the best place to hear good guitar music!

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allan21 - Tim has toured with Sharon Shannon, The Chieftains, Brendan Power, Seamus Begley, Mike McGoldrick - so he must be getting something right. I maintain I could hear the melody just fine over Tim’s rhythm guitar but maybe we all hear things different.