best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Hello

Guitarists — which is better — spending time trying to learn as many tunes as possible or spending time learning a technique to learn any tune on the fly?

I really want to be able to sit in on a trad session, I play in double dropped D .I would say I have decent ear for music but realistically do the backing guitarist have to know the tune ? the way i look at it is if you dont know where the tune is going how can you effectively provide backing ? So my goal is treat the top 2 strings on my guitar like a bass guitar and work out the bass line of the tune in the A and B part first time round on the fly. Any guitarists out there able to do this

many thanks

Posted by .

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

First of all, welcome!

Re the question: yes and no. While you certainly don’t have to be able to play the melody of a particular tune in order to be able to provide backing for it, you definitely need to be able to play a few dozen different tunes before you can provide backing to any tunes at all. It’s not so much about the harmonic structure - more often than not, a tune can be backed perfectly well with only two or three chords - as it is about the rhythm. That’s much more difficult to get right, and it won’t happen until you’re able to play the melody. The melody itself, when played by someone who knows what they’re doing, has a rhythm of its own, which is easily drowned out by overly enthusiastic guitarwork. Once you can reproduce that rhythm in your melody playing, it will be much easier to figure out how to add some proper backing to it.

When someone plays a tune I haven’t heard before, I usually sit back for at least the first repetition. If, at the end of that, I feel confident about the general harmonic and rhythmic structure, then I might join in. If not, I’ll just wait, and enjoy listening.

Hope this helps you ;)

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Welcome, TF78. The first thing I would say is, you have the right attitude - don’t lose it.

I agree with what most of the above, except that I would place a little bit more weight on harmonic structure.

"It’s not so much about the harmonic structure - more often than not, a tune can be backed perfectly well with only two or three chords"

You certainly can back most tunes with two or three chords - and very well, if the rhythm is right - but what is important, harmonically, is where the chord changes are. Some tunes may allow considerable flexibility in this regard, but some have subtle melodic features that can get ‘glossed over’ by a misplaced (or missed) chord change - this is where knowing the tunes (at least in your head) comes in useful. That said, learning tunes on the fly as a backer is probably easier than as a melody player, since i. you don’t have to catch every note and ii. you don’t have to sort the notes into the right order, as you are playing several at once. But the more tunes you learn note-for-note beforehand, the better chance you have of recognising (or predicting) where a tune is going when you have not heard it before.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

It is much better to know the tunes.

You might be able to play some on the fly but the problem is this: when you can’t play on the fly you won’t know why.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

I think I asked this exact question about two years ago. I ultimately switched to banjo because I wanted to play the tunes (as opposed to backing) and the guitar was just getting swallowed up in the sound of the bar and the other instruments.

Here’s what I do: I record the tunes I don’t know (basically all of them) and then I go back and work on the ones that are familiar or I felt I could pick up on most easily. If the tune doesn’t jump out or stick in my head I don’t worry about it right away. It will come eventually.

The end result is sort of doing both things. You’re identifying the tunes or bits of tunes that you can pick up on the fly, and using that as the jump off point for practicing in between sessions.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

A couple of things to add:
i. There doesn’t have to be backing on every tune - there’s no shame in sitting out on the ones you don’t know.
ii. Having more than one backer at a time does not usually work well. If you turn up with a guitar and there’s already a guitarist (or other backer) there, best to leave them to it until they have a break. Alternatively, if you learn to play the tunes, you can join in as a melody player*.

*As Arthur Figgis says, single-note guitar playing can get lost in sessions, but that depends a lot on what and how many other instruments are in the session, the ambient noise level and the acoustics of the space. It is nevertheless a worthy pursuit to play tunes on the guitar, even if only for the quieter moments.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

It really does help to become familiar with the tunes commonly played at your local session (if you have one).
It’s much more fun, and far less stressful, accompanying tunes that you mostly know than trying to accompany tunes that you don’t know. The more tunes you know (or are familiar with) the more you will find you are able to work out accompaniment to tunes on the fly (or by the second pass).
By "know tunes" I don’t mean you have to be able to play them, although this can be rewarding in the comfort of your own home, but you should know where they are going.

As has been said, rhythm is important. Poor rhythm will mess up the tune. Having said that, chords that fit help an awful lot as well. I’ve seen a lot of accompanists with great rhythm who take what I would call excessive liberties with the harmony. That might be ok in a band situation where the harmony has been agreed and understood beforehand but in a session it can be very off-putting for the melody players.

The accompanist is there to help the melody players and, if possible, enhance the harmonic understanding of the tunes. My advice would be to do lots of listening to get familiar with as many tunes as you can and listen to what other accompanists do. The tuning you choose is a personal choice and, in my opinion, has little to do with success or failure.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

"… listen to what other accompanists do."

Also find recordings of unaccompanied tunes and practise accompanying them.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Everyone else has to learn the tunes, why shouldn’t the guitarist?

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Indeed.
And at my local session it’s often me the flute player turns to to ask, "How does ‘such-and-such’ go?" when he can’t remember the start. (He’s forgotten more tunes than I’ll ever know).

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Knowing the tunes isn’t sufficient, that’s just the start of what’s required to be a successful backup player.

Learning how to listen to the tunes and determine the underlying root key and mode with on-the-fly shifts between roots and modes to play appropriate backup is an additional skill that one can actually learn and practice, just like learning and practicing tunes.

That’s what Dr. Chris Smith’s book is about and why I recommended it.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Michael, what are "shifts between roots and modes", on-the-fly or not?

I don’t really think I consciously think about modes when I’m playing - my fingers and chord choices are guided by my ears.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

DonaldK, I’m talking about those tunes that change keys/modes between the A and B parts (simple example, Drowsy Maggie: EDor->DMaj), or, less commonly, shift between modes (for example Mixolydian to Major and back) within one part.

There are also those tunes that are in a root key but start on the V chord, like Providence, which has an A part that is in D major but starts on a A Maj chord (V) and moves to the D Maj (I) , that’s where knowing the tunes informs the choice of chords. Someone who doesn’t know the tune might think it’s in A Dor and start playing A Min/GMaj/EMin sorts of sequences. I’ve heard that done by backup players in sessions for tunes that don’t follow prototypical patterns and it is a flashing red light that the backer may not actually know the tunes.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Gotcha, Michael.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Michael Eskin: "There are also those tunes that are in a root key but start on the V chord, like Providence, which has an A part that is in D major but starts on a A Maj chord (V) and moves to the D Maj (I)"

That’s the kind of thing I was referring to in my 1st post as ‘subtle melodic features’ (although, in hindsight, ‘melodic quirks’ would have been a better term - they’re not always that subtle). I deliberately refrained from referring explicitly to ‘harmonic structure’ because that is, in a sense, incidental, rather than fundamental, to the tune - a tune loses nothing by not having chords accompanying it. But, if you’re going to add chords to a tune, they might as well be ones that support every quirk of the melody rather than obscure them.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Many session guitarists, ostensibly playing accompaniment, try to "keep up" with the melody. That is they strum on every note. It is particularly annoying on fast jigs, and only achieves a muddying of the overall musicality. This style of backing does not appear in most other musical genres, although it has some similarities. with head-banging thrash music.
Such players could cut in half the amount of work they are doing, and produce twice as much music. ITM session guitar players would do well to listen to American old-time fiddle recordings like the Skillet Lickers.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

They would be better to listen to Arty, RIP or Paul Brady,John Doyle.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

When extemporising accompaniment one has to listen, listen, listen; keep it harmonically as simple as possible; and spend years sitting in the pub playing tunes. Be aware of tunes not starting on the I chord!
Of course, playing along to recordings is pointless! One has to learn with real other players. One sort of mimics a reduction of all the instruments you hear.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

A few thoughts
1. I like Tjin’s approach. Reflects how I learned. Most backers will benefit from thinking more about their (in most cases ) right hand more than their left. I would prefer to hear 1 or 2 chords played with precise rhythm rather than a whole bunch not truly reflecting the tune’s rhythm.

2. I disagree strongly that you have to know the tunes or not play. Of course you have to be discreet and respectful if you don’t know it and maybe play with a delicate touch that almost just you can hear until you come to grips with it. I’m also a tune player and I’m aware that I’m using a "different brain" when i’m backing rather than playing a tune. While I’d never advocate a "template" approach to backing the tradition is full of melodic "cliches" which allow the backer to build on their knowledge of similar tunes. The skill that develops is how to respond harmonically to the unique phrases.

3. It took me longer than it should to realise how powerful it is to start playing tunes yourself on any trad instrument. While I’ll always have a "backing brain" and a "tune brain" they are now much better acquainted - even best friends 🙂

4. Listen - listen - listen. Listen actively to the likes of Artie McGlynn, John Doyle, Jim Murray etc etc. Isolate them in the CD mix - or better still use Youtube and watch them. Musical ideas can only come out through your hands if they exist in your brain.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

I just read Yhaal House above. 100% agree with that too

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Backing Irish music is no different than backing any other. Learn your fingerboard, learn the idiom, learn the tunes (yeah it’s really important), learn to listen, learn Music Theory 101. That’s the way to be a backer welcome anywhere, or you can be "that guy". It’s not as easy as you might think. Have you ever found anything that was easy that was worth the effort? Oh and like Michael said, get the Chris Smith Book.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

I don’t think I said you "have" to know the tunes (or not play), … . but it helps.

I’ll sometimes attempt to back tunes I don’t know, but that’s a judgement call based on the perceived acceptance of the melody players. And that backing will only improve as I get to know the tune.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Ross Faison puts it succinctly in his post. But also in my view, there is fundamental problem with the open ITM session which starts with the melody being played by all instruments. It seems that tradition would have been workable with two or three instruments, a far more intimate situation. The addition of guitar to ITM is unclear.

I suppose one could debate, until the cows come home, what instruments were present at the inception of the Irish tradition. Voice, whistle and pipes being my guess, not necessarily in that order. However, it is fair to say the preponderance of guitars at contemporary ITM sessions has more to do with the post-World War Two -guitar craze, than any Medieval Spanish export.

Today’s wide and often frenetic strum could be forgiven if the practitioner had higher aspirations, but after watching the same result every week for a couple of years, we can be fairly certain their American designed, cut-away Dreadnaught pattern guitars, never out of first position, could be just as effectively exchanged for ukuleles.

The tolerance of this type a guitar playing at sessions has created the illusion that it is traditional, unfortunately, it does not encourage a technique which compliments the melody. The guitarist should be able to hear the difference.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Well, being a guitar player myself, I have some (controversial) thoughts on this subject matter. I assume that this guitar playing is the regular form of backing… So here’s my list of tips, and life advice.
#-2: Play the mandolin instead.
#-1: Play the banjo instead.
#0: Are you sure you want to play guitar? Have you thought about taking fiddle lessons?
If so then…
#1: Try to find out what key the tune is in, and know what time signature it’s in.
#2: Know a general pattern of how chords progressions work for tunes in different keys… For example, a lot of A Dorian reels have very similar chords.
#3: Observe and quietly experiment while being ashamed of the fact that you’ve become a noodler.
#4: Put everything together and let the muddy frenetic strumming begin!
#5: Forget everything, so when the tune is played next time, you have to start over from scratch.
#6: Claim your free drink.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Realize you don’t have to play six string chords all the time - two and three-string chops are fine, as long as the rhythm is tight. Also, don’t try to lead the tune with the rhythm. Better to play slightly behind the lead beat than to get out in front of it.

Posted by .

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Listen to Arty McGlynn, Dáithí Sproule, and Mick Moloney (good guitar backing in addition to being a great banjo/mandolin player). Realize that the modern approach to guitar backing ITM is using DADGAD. Back when I was using a guitar in ITM (mid 80’s) tunings were all over the map. I mainly used drop D and sort of took a Travis picking approach.

Listen to the music. You need to learn and internalize the melodies. You need to recognize when tunes are moving C and C# within the same measure. If you listen you will notice a lot of chord voicing’s constructed with I and V missing the third - this is intentional. Notice the rhythms. Jigs and Reels dominate but polka’s, hornpipes, slip jigs, and others are often encountered and you should know and appreciate the differences.

Record your local session and listen and listen and listen. Once you’ve visualized the chords then try to play along. There is no right or wrong, nothing is written in stone. Right is what works well. THERE ARE SOME TUNES WHERE YOU SHOULD NOT PLAY GUITAR ON. There are some that have defied all attempts at having a decent backup developed for them - just smile and drink a beer when they come up.

Go to a local learners session if you want to develop chops not the regular session - jazz, bluegrass, old timey, metal, Texas swing don’t count.

There are many festivals and camps where guitar backing taught - ATTEND.

I have a short scale length octave mandolin that I use in one of the quieter sessions and will play backup on it as required. The noisier sessions call for the tenor banjo and I’m learning fiddle. I’m very lucky in that Dáithí Sproule (DADGAD guru, guitarist for Altan) is local. He has taught a bunch of local guitarists so our guitar backing at sessions is very good and is highly influenced by his approach. BTW Dáithí is a very good fiddle player (he also teaches fiddle) and so knows "all the tunes"

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Re. Steve Wilson’s posting above.
1. ‘Arty McGlynn, Dáithí Sproule, and Mick Moloney’: No idea who they are. I’ve not knowingly played with them at any session.
2. The pseudo- mysterious DADGAD is a way of hiding away from actually learning proper guitar. Everyone knows Keef uses a five string open G tuning but no-one else does!
3. No need to identify what type a tune it is, just play in the groove set up by the melody players. It will be different every time its played: variation in tempo, amount of swing et cetera.
4. What tunes are unsuitable for guitar (or any other sort of) accompaniment?
5. Try playing every sort of music in the world and adapt to Trad Irish. It doesn’t exist in some sort of musical vacuum! Jazz substitution theory is entirely appropriate once the basic harmonic landscape has been established.
6. No need for lessons, camps or festivals to learn! Go to as many different local sessions in the week and slowly experiment/ absorb.
6. Never get starstruck.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

People say learn the tune, but knowing how to play a tune has little relevance to backing said tune and can even get in the way! Whet you need to do is learn the chord pattern for the tune . Do this for 20-50 common session tunes first . Play them with a tune player. Name tune, check chord pattern( good source) that will go a long way To help pick them up by ear in the future . Get the fiddlers fake book. It has good chords .

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Not sure how learning the tune can get in the way, Will.
Yes, you can get safe chords out of the Fake Book but I would contend that you’re not going to get very far if you can’t hear the changes. I would say better to play by ear than by rote.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

If one can hear the cadences in a tune, then one can hear where the ‘chord’ changes are.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Will, please expand on why you say that learning a tune get in the way of backing it?

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Mmh. Cadences.
I thought I knew what cadences were: must be something different these days.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Rare coincidence here. Played at a house session last night and a guitarist showed up who I’d never met before. He didn’t know many of the melodies but he did know the fretboard, the chord shapes in multiple positions, was familiar with the idiom enough, and he was a great listener. That’s what let him make tasteful backing choices that added a lot to the night. Knowing the instrument intimately and listening, really listening, made him "the guy" and not "that guy".

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

@michael, i didnt say “will” i said “can”. By this i mean to back successfully requires the ability to react instantly with no thought process . So what you hear comes out in what you play.
I take for granted the familiarity with the genre and how the chords and keys and typical changes work . So key and mode should be automatic ( hopefully!) listen study listen play
But actually being able to pkay a tunes melody doesnt , in my experience Help much, to be familiar with it obviously does, to know it in your head , and its name hopefully. To know what key (s)and its pattern and how many parts does ,etc but ultimately backing fluently is about listening.


“ knowing a tune” as a melodic entity , how to play the melody can interfere in the free flow of listen- play , the mind awakes and thinks ‘ oh i know that tune ‘ oops … trip up , when really as a backer you need to just listen . To play by feel .

ultimately irs irrelevant because most tunes we will back we wont know melodically even if we know 1000 tunes there will be sessions where you know none of them !!
Learn 20-40 chord patterns. For classical standards . Its a start . If i say lets play the cliffs of moher , know its a three part jig in Am . You dont need to be able to play it . Its nice to be able to , but its not essential .

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Em. That’s a bit incoherent.

1. If you say, "Shall we play the Cliffs of Moher?" and I say "Yes", I know the tune.
2. If you say, "Shall we play the Cliffs of Moher?" and I say "No", I don’t know the tune.

Either way you start.
1. If I know the tune I play a set of chords I’ve tried before and fit the tune. I remember its not in Am.
2. If I don’t know the tune I might figure out chords after listening a bit.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

I understand the way in which knowing the tune can in the way of backing it, if you haven’t done much backing or listening to backing. You might putting in too many changes every time you think the melody outlines a chord. Like if you looked at the melody on paper and you saw BG AF#, you’d say “ok I’ll play G-D.” But the rhythm may not lend itself to that quick a chord change. It may not sound good.

Tl;dr Don’t over analyze the tune. Use your ear.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

So my top tip is buy the fiddlers fake book and sit with a fiddler who will play the tunes and you play the chords from that book (without the substitution in brackets )
Each tune is a standard with its own unique formula , there are general areas , hence the absolute necessity of familiarity with those areas, types , keys, modes ,rhythms. And how they typically interact.
So you practice with the fiddler typical sets so literally you write out the three chord patterns with the three names . so as you progress your ear attunes So that when you hear the changes, D to G or vice versa say You dont flail about 😎
to catch
That key shift within the flow of the music is a big part of the backers job …..


Its all about playing by ear .
But to train the ear requires learning standards . To pick up a jig by ear , requires familiarity with playing jigs , ie the more you do the better you get and the easier it gets .

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Hmmm. although my advice was quite different re learning to play melodies of tunes i can see Will’s point about being "too familiar" with a tune and what "should" be played and that getting in way of spontaneous reactions which ultimately ARE essential in doing this backing art.

I do know however that my backing of tunes improved a lot after learning to play melody of many because i felt i had a more complete understanding of the metre of each tune. This was reflected in my rhythmic choices more than chord selection.

I should also mention that I think good backers who also play tunes very often bring their rhythmic skills and sensitivities to their melody playing with excellent results 🙂

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

I’m mostly a mandolin player but I do “trot out” the guitar from time to time. No point being shy — I play on every tune, even if I have to guess on the chords. If you know the main key you can just play one chord through the whole tune and no one will be any the wiser. You can also anticipate the rhythms sometimes… begod, sometimes guitar players know where the tune is going before the melody players do!

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

"If you know the main key you can just play one chord through the whole tune and no one will be any the wiser"…. You must be joking!

Posted by .

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

>"You can also anticipate the rhythms sometimes…"

🙂

Posted by .

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Blimey! Even I know 3 chords in several keys and where/when to put them!

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

"but I do “trot out” the guitar from time to time. No point being shy — I play on every tune, even if I have to guess on the chords."

@bannermansgaff, I’m right there with you. I normally play tenor banjo and octave mandolin. But sometimes I’ll trot out the Jew’s harp and just play a steady "boing, boing, boing…" I find it doesn’t matter what the key or even the tune, it just works. And "boing, boing, boing" works with any rhythm - even anticipated rhythms.

I know the Jew’s harp was not originally a traditional instrument of Ireland. But I think those who look askance at it are stuck in the past; i.e., not down with where history is now, as opposed to where history was then.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Cliffs of Moher has three parts?

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Hi ross faisin

So who was, who is, ‘the guy’, as opposed to ‘that guy’?

All the best
Brian x

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

As a tune player I prefer accompanying guitarists to play on the off beat, in a swing style, definitely not chomp chomp chomp on the beat, as so many do, particularly in English music sessions. Playing on the beat accompaniment pounds the tunes right into the ground.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

@cheeky, yes its a 2 part tune as a backer it has three parts with the rundown at the end comprising a ’part’ .

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

I see.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Ah!
Rundown? Cadence? Extra parts?
Who knew?

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Nigel Sture: "As a tune player I prefer accompanying guitarists to play on the off beat, in a swing style, definitely not chomp chomp chomp on the beat, as so many do, particularly in English music sessions. Playing on the beat accompaniment pounds the tunes right into the ground."

I assume you refer to the Morris-influenced style with insistent, exaggerated downbeat, which, I agree, does not serve Irish music well. But neither is the offbeat ‘boom-chuck’ style to everyone’s taste. I like it on swingy hornpipes but prefer a more fluid strumming or crosspicking style on reels. This only demonstrates, however, that there is no single correct approach to backing.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Tips I’d offer, if asked … (1) Use fingerpicking - not just strumming: picking can add texture and is less likely to overwhelm a tune. (2) Create spaces: the accompaniment doesn’t have to underpin every single beat. (3) With, for example, a guitar, don’t assume all six strings have to played all the time: understated melodic lines, 2- or 3-note chords, bass runs all add variety and interest. (4) Be careful of chords with a third at the bottom: use only when deliberately chosen for a purpose - they can sound ugly. Above all, and as mentioned above, (5) Listen. If the tune is unfamiliar, let it go through once or twice before adding accompaniment: it will mean the backing will be less accident-prone, and will make a more significant contribution when it comes in. And another thing … (6) Keep an eye on the player leading the tune: observe their tempo and rhythm, and take any signals they give about playing or otherwise.

Of course I’d echo advice above about listening to accomplished other players, having complete facility with your instrument, exercising restraint if there’s another backing instrument in the session, practising often, and being generally nice.

Posted by .

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Brian,"the guy" is just a local guy named Dylan with a good ear and a bit more than 3 chords and a capo.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

"I assume you refer to the Morris-influenced style with insistent, exaggerated downbeat"

Some very odd things get written on thesession.org

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

My approach currently is to record sessions or tunes with phone nearest my octave mandolin or guitar while I play softly on tunes I don’t know well, dropping back to looking for root notes or bass runs or melody when my brain doesn’t sync on backing, and up the volume if and when it clicks. And I ask for feedback on session etiquette, volume, they vary session to session.
I can then listen and learn, both how bad I suck and how to do it better, chord choice, rhythm, blending, even in the car without playing. And even with no practice I can learn or improve tunes, with actual practice better yet.
I also make up playlists on Spotify of a particular tune or type or mode with a variety of artists so I can hear the individual variations and not get stuck on rote memory, and listen on my 4 hour weekly car rides until I can hum along (or harmonica/tin whistle along)
After some emersion I have a better vocabulary to draw from at sessions, but some of it comes from getting to know the nuances of the locals, like set choices, rythme choices and ornamentation.
I have gotten away from dots and chords for now, preferring to train my ears before my fingers, but am doing lessons on instrument skills, like shape choices in GDAD.
I find value in learning melody on a few tunes on whistle, harmonica, mando but so far comes from different brain area and takes more practice.
Find YOUR best learning style by trying them all.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Avoid MORTEIN at all costs! It kills flies in seconds.

Best advice

DON’T learn on the fly.
Listen
Listen
LISTEN SOME MORE

Absorb
Absorb
ABSORB

Ask
Ask
ASK

Oh, and

DON’T mess up the music

You’ll be half way there then

All the best
Brian x

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Many people have touched on the notion that providing a solid rhythm is crucial but I haven’t seen anyone really articulate what that means. I’m not a guitar player, so take this with a boulder of salt, but to me what sets apart great backers from the rest is being able to drive the 1 and also creating space. Firstly, Irish reels want to drive the 1, as opposed to a back-beat 2/4 feel you commonly find in bluegrass and old-timey music. When a backer employs a boom-chuckka-boom feel to an Irish reel it zaps the energy right out of it - at least to my ears. Secondly, create some space in your playing. The melody is already quite busy and backers who strum away straight through the tune create clutter rather than feel. A pause here and there creates beautiful tension and space for the melody to pass through. A great backer to me creates a subtly changing landscape for the tunes to journey across.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

Ben Miller and Anita MacDonald play amazing Cape Breton and Scottish traditional music on border pipes and fiddle. They often perform with guitarist Zakk Cormier, and I saw them recently in concert. I was incredibly impressed with Zakk’s backup. He gets it just right. Tasteful, understated and supportive. At times you even think he’s not there until you focus back on him and understand he is very, very much there.

If Ben, Anita and Zakk come your way, check them out.

Re: best tips for guitarist learning tunes on the fly at a session

"I really want to be able to sit in on a trad session"

This is how it always starts, but don’t expect that to happen very soon. Every good backer I know entered the session scene watching the good backers and maybe asking them questions or getting instruction. They would do this for a long time before they ever put the guitar in their hands. There’s a lot you need to get familiar with that sets the trad tonal landscape apart from others. If there are no good backers where you are the internet provides ample resources you can tap.

Guitar players don’t have to know all the tunes, but they need to be familiar with enough to recognize the patterns. What good backers seem to develop is uncanny intuition about where tunes are going. This only happens after you have a complete understanding of the environment. The only way you get that is with experience and practice.

Be very careful though because backers have a lot of power and can really be an asset to the session or destroy it. Be the asset and not the asshole. Good luck!