Guitar Question

Guitar Question

I’ve read a lot about guitars and backing here and there on the session.

My understanding is only one guitarist at a time plays, do almost all sessions have a guitarist?

If there are two (or more) does one of them just sit out and listen? Or is it okay to play melody (even if it’s going to be drowned out)?

Do most people consider sessions with a guitarist better, assuming they’re decent and know the tunes?

Thanks for yer thoughts.

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Re: Guitar Question

Rhythm and harmony backing is certainly not essential for a good session. Opinions differ on whether it helps; so much depends of course on the competence and style of the musicians.

In general, it is unhelpful to have more than one guitar/bouzouki, mainly because the players are almost bound to clash harmonically. Likewise more than one percussion instrument is likely to muddy and muddle the sound. A variety of instruments playing melody, on the other hand, tends to enhance the sound as long as they are playing similar enough versions, as they are all playing in unison - but again this depends on how well they listen to each other.

When there are more than one bouzouki/guitar, some of the people present may get annoyed if two or more are playing at the same time and it becomes a distraction, just as they would if someone (particularly with a loud or shrill instrument) is playing poorly. So there is often pressure to keep quiet. But in my guitar accompanying days I often seemed to get away with quiet accompaniment. Perhaps everyone else was just too polite and nice to complain to me.

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I have now searched for "guitar" and read through some massive threads, so some of these questions fall into well-worn territory that’s fraught with peril! Feel free to ignore these questions.

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Re: Guitar Question

Re. This bit of your question:
“Or is it okay to play melody (even if it’s going to be drowned out)?”

Im no expert on this, but at our sessions there are often more than one guitar/bouzouki player and in that situation one accompanies and the rest play melody/pick the tune.
Everyone seems fine with this (but not my area!)

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I started off trying to play tunes on guitar at sessions. It was useless. You can’t even hear yourself, let alone anyone else hearing you. It’s really hard to get a handle on if you’re playing the tune the way you want to (although of course that work can be done late he’ll at home if you’re recording everything), and forget it if you get asked to start a set. That’s why I ended up on banjo.

As for number of guitars playing rhythm: it depends on the size of the group. I wouldn’t want more than one guitar and one bouzouki (assuming the bouzouki player isn’t playing like a guitarist) for a group of 6-10 or so. However our session that just started up over the summer has been big: 20-30 people or more, mostly melody players. Three or four guitars hasn’t been a problem, although they’re not hammering away in cacophony.

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Do you really need a guitar at a session? It depends on the session. Would a guitar add anything to some of the classic solo or duet albums., such as the classic Traditional Music Of Ireland, Vol. 1 By Sean Ryan & P.J. Moloney (https://thesession.org/recordings/2845) or Comb Your Hair And Curl It, By Catherine McEvoy, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, and Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh? A guitar on these albums would change the nature of the tunes and make them sound more like session or ceili music - rather than the lovely, sensitive music these players offer.

In the Se Mo Laoch documentary on Paddy Keenan, on RTE 4, PK talks about the difference between playing (I paraphrase here) within the confines of strict rhythm or playing with more freedom, to one’s own mood. Kevin Burke, for instance, on "Kevin Burke In Concert," as compared to his playing with The Bothy Band. Would a guitar add anything to the track "Roll In The Barrel / In The Tap Room / The Earl’s Chair" on "… In Concert?"

Martin Hayes would be an example of a more flowing "mood" approach, with a less exact, strict rhythm. His long-time accompanist, Dennis Cahill, knows that the show is about Martin and not about Dennis and he is appropriately sensitive. Most session guitar players whack away heedlessly, which is one reason why we try to keep our sessions small and don’t generally welcome guitars and bodhrans. The assumption in the original post — "assuming they’re decent and know the tunes" — is too often unrealized.

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With the people that I play with most regularly, the accompanists also play other instruments, and will often switch off who is accompanying. But there are certainly times where there are more than one of them accompanying at a time, and then you’ll see them both paying attention to each other quite closely. What seems to work best is playing in different styles, where one may be strumming and the other is doing more delicate contrapuntal stuff. If they’re both doing either of those styles, it will tend to clash, but no so much when they’re playing differently. But the real key is how closely they’re paying attention to each other, instead of being off in their own little worlds…

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It depends on the purpose. If your main objective is to create the most pure or most beautiful ITM, then zero or one guitar is best. If the session is about socializing and encouraging as many people as possible to take part in ITM, then by all means, everyone should join in. There is no maximum.

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"Do most people consider sessions with a guitarist better.."

I think it depends on the dynamic of the particular session and the tastes and expectations of the participants. Some people like the addition of guitar accompaniment and some other people don’t, irrespective of the skill level of a potential guitarist.
One place where the addition of a guitar is often desirable is in a session in a very noisy bar where the percussive rhythm can help keeping the melody players together.

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And it does help if any guitarists all play the same set of chords, even though they may be a bit basic 3-4-chord trick, rather than having a whole variety of esoteric and clashing chords! (Most of our pub sessions used to include a preponderance of guitarists, though a much broader range of instruments since we’ve been forced to use Zoom - but then you can’t hear them if they remember to mute!!)

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I’ve followed a path similar to Arthur Figgis - started with guitar (finger-style melody with modest accompaniment), but couldn’t hear myself in a session. Switched to banjo (mandolin also works well in small sessions) and never looked back.

The downside issue with guitar/bouzouki players in sessions is the huge variation among players. A good player can add much beauty to the music - this is a player who knows the tune. Some more thoughtless participants play even though they don’t know the tune, by making stuff up - this way leads to ruin for the tune.

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Re: Guitar Question

When there’s no guitar, I feel a deep loss in the drive and fullness of the sound. It also helps keep everyone together.

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One good guitarist who knows the melody of the tune,and chord structure, is enough in any Irish session.

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Just been listening to loads of Irish cds with different guitar backers, hats off to Paul Brady, Arty McGlynn, John Blake, very hard to fault.

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Forgot to mention John Doyle and Dennis Cahill.

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Goose,

These are recordings, of course, and their "performances" there and in concert would differ to what would be normally expected in your average session.

Undoubtably, the guitarists you mentioned would be very adaptle to any situation and WOULD fit in very well in any session. However, I think the secret is to know *when*, *how much* etc to play at any particular session.
These guys certainly would but not all guitarists seem to know when it’s appropriate to play or not. Even some of the more able ones who may be extremely proficient in other genres. It all comes with experience of visiting sessions and learning what is expected with "our kind of music".

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That’s exactly what all those guys did, attend Irish Seisiúns and learned and perfected their skills.

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I agree that they did. 😉

That’s why I know they would be *adaptable* even although I said "adaptle"….. 🙂

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There is a great deal of time that even an experienced guitarist who is new to ITM will need to invest "offline," i.e. studying, woodshedding, and listening at home, in addition to attending sessions. It doesn’t happen by accident.

*edited to add Oxford comma. I’m a stickler.

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Re: Guitar Question

Wanted to add, neither does it happen spontaneously…you can’t fake it, at least, in a manner that is convincing to the knowledgeable.

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Re: Guitar Question

Chords and rhythm, tastefully applied. Listen to the others devotedly, and be creative with both. It will require some vocabulary on the fretboard but the guitar is pretty straight forward in that regard. If McCoy Tyner or Bob Weir could play Irish music? they’d probably make great backers.

What I mean is that Irish session music is a good exercise in chord voicing, and meditating with the mantra, “ less is more,” or, “listen more, play less.” Maybe just, “listen.” The rest tends to fall in line behind that.

I try to follow the rhythm and play within it, but I don’t try to create it because it’s already there. A lot of people, players that earn detractors, tend to do the opposite, and if you’ve heard it then you know what I’m talking about.

There’s a tempo and a beat, just like we learned as children. I had a teacher tell me, cut the tempo in half and hear the rhythm’s heartbeat — don’t lose that part. A lot of people with a guitar sit down with a dreadnought and start sawing away ‘rackety-rackety-tackety’ with huge, six-stringed chord down by the nut, probably because they can’t hear anything else they’re doing above the din of the pub.

More often than not, the times when I’ve enjoyed playing guitar at a session, I’ve played quietly and essentially for my own edification. Occasionally someone, and usually the person right next to me because no one else can hear, says, “Hey that’s great!” or some such. I’m okay with that. Learn as much and you can put it toward a recording, where the isolation rewards a guitarist amply, at least as much as the session does drown it out.

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The sessions here often have at least 2 guitars playing simultaneously. The melody players seem to be ok with it. But it never really sounds right to me, unless both guitarists are playing the same progression to the tune and are in sync. It often sucks the musicality out of the session when the guitarists all insist on playing at once.

Chord trick …..
Sometimes, despite what I just said, I want to play in addition to another guitarist. So I have a trick that keeps things sounding cleaner and less cluttered. Most of the guitarists here use lower positions on the guitar for backing. So I just capo up 4 or 5 frets and play the same progression in whatever key that is. (If they are playing in G, you can capo 5 and play in the ‘D’ position. Same chords but different inversions) If you do it right, it doesn’t clutter up the music and sounds good to my ears.

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I’ve not played in many sessions, I was performance oriented from the start, so I’ve no advice or experience related to sessions. Performing, we usually had two guitarists for most of the music. Since I was the principle arranger, to keep from having to heavy of a rhythm section, I’d "voice" the two guitars. One guitar would play in the original key, the second would be capoed, to play above the 1st. So a song in the key of A would be played by one guitar in A, the second guitar would be capoed at the 5th fret, but I’d play the tune as if the key was E. For most of the music we performed this worked really well, and the rhythm section was fuller sounding, but didn’t overpower the principle voices (usually two violins). The effect achieved a third harmony voice under the 1st and 2nd violins.

The couple of times I played in a session, I tried this for a few tunes. I heard compliments and no complaints for the effect it achieved. Being Classically trained, I’m not a strummer. I’m used to playing the melody and the accompanying bass and tenor voices under the melody.

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The previous two posts remind me of the idea of "Nashville tuning" for guitar, an old trick for arranging more than one guitar in a recording session. You take one guitar and replace the lower three strings with the thinner octave string that would be used on a 12-string guitar, pitched an octave up. Sometimes all four lower strings would be replaced, but I think the lower three was more common.

The guitar player can then use typical chord shapes in first position and you get instant chord inversions that blend nicely with a standard tuned guitar. It was used back in the day on many recordings of Country bands with two guitars to keep them separated, because not every player had the skills to play inversions up the neck.

I don’t know how well this idea or the capo trick would work in an actual ITM session. The two guitarists would have to be choosing the same chords and be in good rhythm sync, which doesn’t always happen. And of course for Nashville tuning you have to dedicate a guitar to that tuning that can’t be played normally. I used to own enough acoustic guitars that I could keep one in that tuning just for fun, but eventually sold most of them off when I moved to mandolin and then flute.