Bouzouki Accompaniment

Bouzouki Accompaniment

Bouzoukis have been used in ITM for several decades, but by and large don’t seem to have been taken on board Scottish traditional music. As I am much more familiar with the latter, this question comes from ignorance and a desire to understand. As far as I can see (and hear), Bouzouki players in ITM don’t play melody like most of the other instruments, but neither do they play a chordal/rhythmic backing in the way that guitarists do. I can’t really figure out what they are doing. So can someone enlighten me - are there any general principles or patterns to Bouzouki accompaniment?

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To me the most tasteful bouzouki backing often uses partial chords, hammer-ons, and drones that take advantage of the instrument’s long sustain. They tend to be less opinionated about chordal structure than guitar. I don’t know if that qualifies as a set of principles but that’s how I would distill it. Alec Finn is instantly recognizable in this style, although he did his job with only three courses instead of the more usual four! All in all, bouzouki is definitely capable of a slightly different role from guitar in backing a melody line, and the best players take advantage of that.
Bouzouki in trad music in Scotland was covered here awhile ago https://thesession.org/discussions/45193
Cheers

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Not taken up by Scottish trad musicians? I’m fairly sure the Battlefields, Tannahills and Ossian have all used zouk/citterns in their performances and Julie Fowlis has certainly been using zouk in her various arrangements. As for the what Irish zouk players are doing, it can be vastly different - contrast Donal Lunny with the late Alec Finn. Both great players, but chalk and cheese.

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Good question, I still can’t work it out! 🙂

I’ve played the octave for a couple of years now but right from the beginning decided to play it like a very long necked mandolin, fingering and all, and straight melodies.
Then I used the capo to emulate a real mandolin/fiddle.
This was a deliberate decision because I wanted to get intimate with two or three hundred tunes before going further. It’s not an easy route because at the beginning you have to be determined to continue playing tunes at slow tempo, or only very simple fast tunes (or backing arpeggios?) if you want to play in a session.

From the little I know about it, I think these guys are learning the chords of each tune by heart and then improvising the melodies using double stop inversions up the neck. And then using staccato type rhythms to improvise the melodic phrases, as rhythms.
So I guess that’s doing exercises a bit like in Greek music, for example learning a harmonised double stop scale all the way up one string.
Anyone got examples?

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Check out Aaron Jones - I’ve seen him play with Alasdair McCulloch (he taught at Dunoon workshop and probably still would if not for covid) and for Siobhan Miller. Great player
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXJac59jWCs

Plenty of vids on youtube

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That’s great. The Ross Common Reel. AKA the Roscommon Reel I suppose. Citterns can be a bit too "stringy" for trad but in Aaron’s masterful hands the instrument fits right in. I’ve taken some lessons with him in the past year and his approach is a revelation.

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Anyone know what tuning Aaron Jones is using? I see he changed capo positions 3 times in that set without losing time or going out of tune, quite an achievement , and with 10 strings too……………

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Pretty sure he’s still using DADAD.

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DADAD - is that the MacDonald tuning?

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I thought the MacDonald tuning was EIEIO?

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Oh no, sorry, I was thinking of the Old MacDonald tuning.

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Well done! ;)

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There no secret, special ‘zouk way of backing. It’s using just the same principles that one would use on the guitar, piano, harp or wottafah. So you have to know the melody in your head or able to play it. You must be able to hear the cadences in that melody and knowing the key/ mode, apply appropriate harmony (chord) changes. This will inform the corresponding linking runs (in one or two or more voices) & bass lines. And you must understand chord substitution theory to a degree, spicing the harmony occasionally but at the same time sometimes using simplification and droning. The tuning you choose for your instrument is irrelevant: you still have to play the right notes!

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I think, just as an exercise I’m going to try and play maybe twenty of the tunes I know reasonably well on the octave -but I’ll play them on one string only, sort of thinking horizontally up the fretboard.
Maybe that’s one way to get into it.

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Atsunrise: I would suggest what you said but with each tune or rendition, try an play a simpler stripped down version of the tune. The ‘Vic Reeves doing the club singer’ versions. Then what you have are the bare bones of the tune, as if the melody itself is an ornamentation of those bones. Then you take it back up the same musical route from there, but maybe via a different pathway but arriving at the destination.

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Thanks, bogman, you just made my day.

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Cheered me up too! After a few verses of Old McDonald, try the Ee Ba Goom song fro the film Inbreds. Great folk group in that one. It’ll change your perception of Paddy the vet from Emmerdale for evermore.

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The usual tuning for bouzoukis and octave mandolins in traditional Irish music is low-string-to-high GDAD. Of course there are exceptions, and many self-taught players who have switched from fiddle, banjo, or mandolin simply transfer over their repertoire and keep the familiar GDAE tuning to play melody. But the more common role is for bouzoukis to provide accompaniment and lift up the melody with supporting rhythm and chordal harmony.

As Yhaalhouse said, it’s pretty much the same approach to backing that you’d take with any other instrument. Unless you’re in a band with a specific arrangement, or playing solo, you take a back seat role, support the tune with a right-hand strumming pulse broken up with rhythmic variations to add interest, employ the D-tuned high string to provide a ringing, shimmering drone, and create melodic progressions that deliver the bare bones melody, counter melodies and harmonies. That’s a lot of options to play with, but overall it’s important to keep it simple and operate with the less is more mindset. An analogy that helped me, coming from a rock and roll background, is to think of it as being the bass player.

I’ve been playing Irish fiddle for about 20 years, and octave mandolin for about 5 years. I’ve had the good fortune to take in-person, one-on-one lessons for extended periods of time from some very talented and well-known bouzouki players. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make me a fantastic player (man, I wish) but it does allow me to speak with some familiarity with the topic. Other people’s experiences will certainly be different.

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Like guitar backers in ITM they are now way overplaying everything to death. 2 chords per measure, jazz tension notes, competing with and diluting the melody. They need to back off and provide a foundation for the melody to soar. ( and I’m a backer). Bouzouki players of late have discovered that the Alec Finn hammer ons work, so they are overdoing those to death as well.
I’m all for a living changing tradition, but this branch the backers are exploring is a dead end.
2 cents. Stop competing with the melody unless you’re going to flatpick.
T

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"…2 chords per measure, jazz tension notes, competing with and diluting the melody."

It depends on your tradition. In Shetland they would probably say that two chords per measure provides a solid rhythmic foundation for the melody without all those off-putting off-beat rhythmic stresses and jazz tension notes (accidentals?) help make better sense of the melody by allowing for harmonically stronger progressions rather than some of the harmonically weak progressions commonly heard elsewhere.

As I say, it depends on your tradition.

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"Bouzouki players of late have discovered that the Alec Finn hammer ons work, ". You mean it’s taken them 40 plus years to figure that out ?

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Getting back to the first post, the CBOM (another irritating acronym 🙂 )instruments used to be quite popular in the seventies and eighties with Scottish bands but have seem to have gone out of fashion of late.

As Christy said, the "Battlefields, Tannahills and Ossian" all used them as did other popular bands such as Ceolbeg, The Easy Club and even Deaf Shepherd in the nineties. Not all bouzoukis, of course, but also instruments such as citterns, octave mandolins and so on.

I think one of the reasons they went out of favour in sessions that the sound doesn’t "carry" so well in a session when playing melody as higher register instruments such as fiddle, flute and even the better mandolins.
As has been mentioned, they are more often used as accompanying instruments. However, in sessions, a bouzouki or cittern etc is also expected to fall into the "One instrument/player at a time" category as far as accompaniment goes. So, there is usually less opportunity to play them especially if there’s already a guitar there.

I’m not sure why they don’t get used as much in bands as they used to be. It may have a lot to do with the increased popularity of the fiddle in recent years along with other melody instruments and fashions change, of course.

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"Like guitar backers in ITM they are now way overplaying everything to death. 2 chords per measure, jazz tension notes, competing with and diluting the melody. They need to back off and provide a foundation for the melody to soar. ( and I’m a backer). Bouzouki players of late have discovered that the Alec Finn hammer ons work, so they are overdoing those to death as well.
I’m all for a living changing tradition, but this branch the backers are exploring is a dead end.
2 cents. Stop competing with the melody unless you’re going to flatpick."

Please never touch an instrument or a keyboard again.

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Zac’s a monster player on both guitar and zouk (as well as box and flute), you can hear John Doyle’s influence in his guitar backing style. What was the point of posting that video? Great playing from both.

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Damn! I forgot to list Old Blind Dogs, that Aaron Jones vid should have reminded me.

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Cheers, Michael. It is great playing by Stephen & Zac. I posted it rather spontaneously because it came to my mind after reading Tijn Berends’ comment. It’s a reference to the 1st reel.

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Thanks to everybody who has replied, but I am still rather mystified. I realise that citterns have been used in STM, e.g. by Alistair Russell in the Battlefield band and Kentigern (two citterns in the line up at one point). But these players play melody or chordal backing, and in the first video above the cittern player is essentially providing the same sort of accompaniment as a guitarist using DADGAD tuning. All this strikes me as a different thing to what I perceive typical Irish bouzouki players to be doing. Or is it just that the lighter timbre of the bouzouki gives a different impression of the sounds compared with the cittern? At the risk of annoying bouzouki players, I must admit that much bouzouki playing seems neither here (i.e. the melody) nor there (i.e. chordal backing), but I will be happy to be proved wrong …

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"I must admit that much bouzouki playing seems neither here (i.e. the melody) nor there (i.e. chordal backing), but I will be happy to be proved wrong …"
It doesn’t matter what you call it, that’s just labels. What matters is whether or not it works.
https://youtu.be/iqWMn6RnWCA

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I think bouzouki accompaniment sounds best when it emphasises drones. Which is what the instrument does best. The approach to instrument is (or should be) different to a guitar, otherwise, what’s the point?Counterpoint runs an octave below the melody can add a bassline, which is sometimes useful, but it musn’t detract or distract from the tune. Talking of which, I also loathe the tendency to use ambiguous or overly complex chord structures for that reason. While I appreciate Zac Leger’s skill in that last video his choices annoy me!

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that’s Eamonn Doorley in Kenny’s vid, an Irish zouk player who spends a lot of time playing Scottish music with Julie Fowlis [his wife]. Sounds to me he’s doing what most zouk players do, anyway what I try to do when accompanying, using chords but playing arpeggios of single notes rather than strumming all 8 strings at once. If its a tune I know well from playing it on the mando I will often play the melody for a couple of bars before returning to backing. Any other zouk players do this?

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"Any other zouk players do this?"

Every zouk/mando player I know do this, also on guitar. A little strumming, a little melody, a little "counterpoint", whatever it takes to support the melody but still remain in the background. Or, whatever it takes to remain in the background but still support the melody.

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Just do whatever Derek Bell would have done with a bouzouki (if he had one!).

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Hung it on his wall?

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johndsamuels: Excellent! Haha!

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I am far from an accomplished bouzouki player, but regarding the original post there are many ways to accompany a tune. General rules for accompaniment for the bouzouki have not been developed and probably won’t be. I’ve taken lessons from players that clearly came from a guitar background and their bouzouki playing reflects that with a lot of strumming chords. I’ve also taken lessons from players where it’s all arpeggios and counter melodies with no chords at all. In a broad sense I’ve come to categorize an individual’s bouzouki accompaniment style as either more guitar-like or more mandolin-like, but you might hear both styles used in the same tune. It’s not a lot different than what Paul Brady sometimes does on the guitar. Then you get into the differences between accompanying on a record vs in a session, which are certainly concerns.

One of the first lessons I took the advice was if you’re backing a tune three times through then accompany it a different way each time. That gets you to think about what you’re doing and what the tune is doing, become more creative and less predictable. I don’t always do that - if I like the way it sounds I might play it the same all three times.

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When I was arranging the bulk of our performance repertoire, I used several different criteria for instrumental voice backing (drone, rhythm, style, primary/secondary melodic voice, contrapunctal/harmony voice and so on. Ultimately though, it came down to the overall balance between the instruments and the effect we were trying to achieve. There were tunes the boyzouki added a lot too, and tunes it didn’t. Audience reaction was also a factor, and contributed heavily to instrument voice changes over time.

Not a traditional approach compared to other commentators, but nevertheless, it was how I approached it. No doubt due, in part to my heavy Classical background/influence.