Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Mighty Augusta Ceili Band Repertory Page

Join the band!  Musician and ethnomusicologist Dan Neely is leading the Ceili Band mini-class for the 2nd year in a row at Augusta Irish/Celtic Week, July 21-26, 2013 in Elkins, WV.  This time around, Dan has created a repertory page where he is posting the audio and sheet music for some of the tunes they’ll be doing, such as Silver Spear, Cooley’s Reel, Swinging on a Gate, Jimmy Ward’s, Connachtman’s Rambles, Leitrim Fancy, Top of the Maol and more.

2012 Ceili Band class rehearsing in the Robbins Memorial Chapel.
Dan Neely on banjo.

The recordings feature slowed down, bare bones versions of the tunes, repeated once or twice to help you get the hang of them.  The ones I listened to were all unaccompanied mandolin.  I like to start with just the audio – playing by ear for a while – before glancing at the sheet music to see how far off I was or to help fill in the blanks.  You can stream the music on your computer or save the files as MP3’s.

Having attended Augusta Irish Week last summer, I can say that it is a grand time and a wonderful learning experience, offering a full week of total immersion in Celtic music.  This Ceili Band mini-course looks like a lot of fun too!  To register, click here to visit the official Augusta Irish/Celtic webpageDan will be adding more tunes to the repertory page periodically.  You can keep up with the updates and additions by liking the Augusta Irish Facebook page.

If you would like to listen to some ceili band music, Dan recommends the Tulla, Innisfree and Kilfenora ceili bands.  Or check out the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, the New York City group that Dan is the leader of.  The WSHSO plays traditional Irish music and recalls the Irish-American dance bands of the early twentieth century.  With the ceili band mini-class and a fair amount of listening under your fingers, soon you’ll be ready to play for dancers!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Go Guitars - Hand-Made Travel Guitars For Less Than $250

Luthier Sam Radding playing one of his Go Guitars
I’m not the first person to write about Go Guitars, but I feel compelled to mention these ultra-cool instruments.  Go Guitars are hand-crafted by Sam Radding in San Diego, CA.  The regular Go Guitar ($218.90) and the Go Grande model ($240.90) are designed to be travel guitars, but feel and play like much more expensive instruments.  The price is similar to (or even lower than) most mass-produced travel guitars, which is remarkable for a luthier-made instrument.  He also makes a parlor guitar – The Type II Parlor Guitar.

Sam uses solid woods for all of his guitars – Sitka Spruce for the top, Dark Walnut or Honduras Mahogany for the back and sides.  Rosewood is also available.  The necks are 24.5” and the neck/nut width is customizable – 1-11/16”, 1-3/4” or more.  Tuners are either open face, or you can upgrade to sealed minis for $18 more.  All steel string Go Guitars have fully adjustable truss rods.  Sam can also install a Fishman Matrix pickup or Baggs Element.  A custom fit Go “Puffy” Gig Bag is available for $45.  Go Guitars are available in left-handed. 

As someone who plays left-handed mandolin and tenor banjo in oldtime and Irish sessions, I’ve been wanting to learn a little bit more about guitar in general.  Guitar will probably never be my primary instrument, but I wouldn’t mind having one to expand my overall knowledge of music, do some flat-picking on and strum some campfire songs.  The smaller, unique size of the Go Guitar is appealing to me, as is the price point.  I also love the fact that these are hand-made instruments!  I would go with the 2-3/4” thick Grande model instead of the 2” regular depth – the extra air volume in the deeper Grande body gives it a larger sound.

Here’s a video of a Go Grande in action.

My wife has now ventured into guitar playing by recently getting a Luna Muse Safari 3/4 size travel guitar, priced at $160 at our local indie guitar and ukulele shop.  It's a decent starter guitar, but eventually she’d like to get a parlor guitar.  We were looking at vintage parlor guitars, but are now strongly considering Sam Radding’s Type II Parlor Guitar.  With an 8” upper bout, a 12” lower bout, 16” body length, 24.5” scale, customizable body depth and neck width, and 34.5” overall length, the Go parlor might be the best overall option for a smaller bodied guitar under $800. 
Go Parlor Guitar
I’ve seen nothing but positive reviews online.  The current build time for a Go Guitar is about 4-weeks, but Sam can sometimes make them faster than that under certain circumstances.  

Friday, May 24, 2013

Band Abandonment – When A Loyal Fan Drops His Favorite Music Groups

There was a feature on NPR’s Morning Edition earlier this week about Show Abandonment – when viewers lose interest in popular TV programs when they start to go downhill.  For example, many people parted ways with NBC’s The Office at some point along the way.  When I heard the NPR piece it made me think of all the band abandonment, or better yet, musical genre abandonment, that I have done over the last few years.

The transition from being a non-music playing fan of jambands, indie rock, bluegrass and Americana, to a player and listener of traditional Irish jigs, reels and oldtime fiddle tunes, has changed my whole relationship with music.  For the first time in my life, I'm not searching for another band to listen to, at least not in the way I used to.  Instead of being a passive listener seeking entertainment - someone who is performed at - music is now something I can provide for myself.  I'm not dependent on others to provide music for me.  What I need from it and what I get from it is different now. 
When I revisit the classic albums that used to provide my musical enjoyment, such as Ween's The Mollusk, Dr. Dog's Easy Beat and My Morning Jacket's It Still Moves, it often feels like a eating a Big Mac when you're on a diet.  Whereas listening to some of the Irish session and oldtime jam field recordings I've made feels like I'm consuming a delicious, salad.  Musical nutrition.  Even within the world of trad and oldtime music, it's not always the "big name" performers/recording artists that I want to listen to.  It's the regular folks who get together with friends to play this music for the sake of the music, rather than for an audience.

All music is connected and listening to any music is good practice at some level.  When I exhaust my desire to hear another jig or fiddle tune, I tend to seek out additional roots music genres just outside my comfort zone - early jazz and ragtime, jug bands, Norwegian polkas, French Waltzes, contra dance tunes, Jamaican and Latin American folk music.  Occasionally it does trickle down to the organic music of The Grateful Dead, Phish and Medeski, Martin and Wood - I value these bands for their sense of improvisation and musical adventure - but I don't have to start there any more. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

DADGAD Guitar - Leaving Out the 3rd

Go Guitars Type II Parlor Guitar
Irish backup accompaniment - whether it's on guitar, bouzouki, or some other instrument - is a mystery to me.  Which is why I'm glad I play melody.  Although I do think it's good to have some idea of what the other instruments in the ensemble are doing.  This can help you play your own instrument better.

For this reason, I was searching online about DADGAD guitar last weekend.  All I really knew about DADGAD guitar was that it was an open tuning and that you often leave the third of the chord.  I know enough basic music theory to grasp what leaving out the 3rd means.  The 3rd is the note that makes a chord sound major or minor.  The notes in a D chord are D, F# and A, with F# being the 3rd.  When you leave out the 3rd it gives the chord a droning, power chord quality that suits Celtic music.

What I didn't know was what you replace this note with.  I found a page devoted to DADGAD guitar that suggests there is a formula.  Michael Eskin says that as a general rule, when in DADGAD he replaces the 3rd of the chord with either the root, the 5th, the 7th or 9th depending on what's easiest to play, what suits the melody, and/or what reinforces the tonal root of the tune.

For the D chord you would replace any F#’s in your typical chord shape with one of the following notes:  D, A, C or E.  (D is the root note, A is the 5 of the chord, and C or E are the 7 or 9 notes one whole step away on either side of D).  It doesn’t really matter if you are doubling up or tripling up the D or the A notes – that helps the root tone of the chord ring out.  If you can get by on just the notes D and A for your "D" chord - such as DDDAAD - those will work fine.

A Gmajor chord would typically use the notes G, B and D.  Using this same formula, when you need to make a G chord in the key of D you’ll remove the B note and replace it with either G, D or A.  Why A?  Because this G chord is being used in the role of the IV chord in the key of D, using an A note makes sense because the sound of the A will reinforce the D note to which the tune centers around and resolves to.  GDDGAD.

This might be an oversimplification, and there's a good chance I misinterpreted the instructions.  At the very least, I think I know know a little bit more than I did before.  I would like to hear what others thoughts are on this.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Traditional Irish Band Kind Stranger debuts this Friday at Beers and Banjos

Beers and Banjos is a great Richmond, VA music series.  Every Friday evening from 6 to 8pm The Camel features a roots-music act free of charge – bluegrass, folk, oldtime, Western Swing, Americana…or in the case of this Friday, Irish music!  Did I mention it’s always free?!  Talk about a happy hour.  Usually there's a banjo present, but it’s not a requirement.

A new band called Kind Stranger is making its debut at Beers and Banjos this Friday, May 24, 2013.  The group consists of some of the top Irish traditional musicians in our local area.  How do I know this?  Because I’m fortunate enough to get to sit in with most of them every 2nd and 4th Wednesday evening at an informal Irish session at Rosie Connolly’s pub in the Bottom.  Sessions are different than gigs though.  In a performance setting with nothing to hold them back these these cream-of-the-crop players should really be able to shine.
Kind Stranger image from Facebook. Doesn't resemble anyone in the band.
I’m still not exactly sure what Kind Stranger will sound like.  The only description given on the Facebook event page is ‘traditional Irish Music and a few originals’.  I do know that most, if not all, of the band members have a musical life beyond Irish trad, so there could be quite an eclectic mix in store.  We’ll find out on Friday I suppose.

Kind Stranger consists of:
Andy Cleveland - Fiddle
Jeff Brown - Banjo (and Beer!)
Glenn Sutor - Bouzouki, Bodhran, and Vocals
Sean Sutor - Button Accordion, Whistle and Vocals
Paul Willson - Guitar and Vocals

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Jerry Garcia Video on Improvisation

I had heard about about a BBC documentary on improvisation from the 1980's that featured an interview with Jerry Garcia.  It took a bit of searching to track the video down, so I am linking it to it here for future reference.

The documentary is called Derek Bailey: On the Edge and Garcia is featured in part 4 of 5.  I watched a little bit of some of the other segments and it looks like an interesting film as a whole.

The part with Garcia starts at about a minute and 45 seconds into the clip and runs for about 10 minutes.

Derek Bailey: On the Edge (Part 4) from Andy Wilson on Vimeo.

In related content, here's a link to a well researched New Yorker article by Nick Paumgarten on the recorded legacy of the Grateful Dead.  Breaking from the norm a bit on this Sunday morning.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Some More Recordings with the Olympus LS-14

Most evenings Laura and I will spend at least an hour playing some tunes and practicing together.  On 4/30/13 and 5/1/13 I recorded those practice sessions using my Olympus LS-14 digital recorder.  I placed the recorder on the coffee table in front of us, in between our two instruments, and recorded live with no overdubs or editing of any kind.  Here are some excerpts from those recordings.

Shoes and Stockings - an oldtime tune in G that I heard on some Alan Jabbour and Bertram Levy recordings.  It's also played at the Cary St. Cafe Oldtime jam. Currently one of my favorite tunes. I play tenor banjo and Laura plays baritone uke.

I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave - a great Irish jig in D (as if there aren't enough of those).  Mick Moloney plays tenor banjo on it on the CD Live at Mona's.  I'm playing tenor banjo and Laura is playing bodhran.

Saturday Night Breakdown - a ragtimey oldtime tune in C (aren't all fiddle tunes in C sorta ragtimey?) that I got out of the All-In-One-Jam book from Celestial Mountain Music.  I play tenor guitar and Laura is playing her concert scale uke since this is in the key of C.

Paddy Has Gone to France - a short Irish reel from Brian Connolly's book "Play Tunes on the Irish Tenor Banjo".  I managed to get in a few triplets!  Speed this one up to 140% and it almost sounds like we know what we're doing. Laura on bodhran, and me on tenor banjo.

Grasshopper Sitting on a Sweet Potato Vine - a hypnotic oldtime tune in the key of D, with a subtle change in the B-part as it switches from D to A.  This take is sort of a merger of the Portland Play Along Selection version and Steve Kaufman's arrangement.  More people need to play this one. I'm on tenor guitar and Laura plays baritone ukulele.

The Eavesdropper - Irish jig in G. This also comes from that Brian Connolly tutor. I like to pair this jig with I Buried My Wife.  This recording was actually made on 4/16/13. I'm playing tenor banjo and Laura is playing bodhran.

Home with the Girls in the Morning - dark oldtime tune in Dminor.  Recorded 5/1/13.  I heard this tune being played at the Cary St. Cafe oldtime jam and then looked it up and learned it.  Laura is playing concert scale ukulele since this is in Dminor, and I'm playing tenor guitar.

Humours of Tullycrine - Irish hornpipe/march in Aminor from County Clare. Heard this tune on a Cillian and Nial Vallely CD and had to learn it. Found a slightly different arrangement on Mel Bay's Mandolin Sessions by Michael Gregory. I play tenor banjo and Laura plays baritone uke.  Recorded 4/30/13.

Friday, May 17, 2013

An Traidisiun Beo and Southern Summits - My Go-To Irish and Oldtime Albums

If I could only listen to one album of Irish traditional music and one album of Southern Appalachian oldtime music, to use as sources for learning to play in each style, the choices would have to be Angelina Carberry's An Traidisiun Beo and Alan Jabbour's and Ken Perlman's Southern Summits.

For me, nothing better defines trad music than the sweet sounds of An Traidisiun Beo, the 2005 album of Irish tenor banjo music by Angelina Carberry.  Not too technical, not too fast; just straightforward interpretations of jigs, reels and hornpipes.  On about half the tracks Angelina's banjo melodies are matched with accordion - either played by her husband Martin Quinn or her father Peter Carberry.  On the remaining tunes her lead playing is backed by the subtle guitar or piano of John Blake or the equally subtle bodhran playing of Martin Quinn.  It's on these arrangements - with her easy-going, bouncy plucking front and center - that Angelina really shines.  Many of the unwritten, informal rules of Irish tenor banjo are contained within this album's 27 tunes; a lifetime of learning within its 51 minute playing time.

Alternatively, for Southern Appalachian music the best thing I've heard so far is Southern Summits by fiddler Alan Jabbour and clawhammer banjoist Ken Perlman.  It too was recorded in 2005.  Instead of fiddle leading and banjo seconding, on this album the two instruments are working as equals - in sync and intertwined.  Perlman's melodic clawhammer style may be innovative, but when played alongside Jabbour's stately fiddling it sounds like it was that way all along.  As usual, Jabbour draws heavily on tunes learned from his mentor Henry Reed, but also brings in some from fiddlers Taylor Kimble, Edden Hammons, Vaughn Marley and more.  Since I don't play fiddle or clawhammer banjo, or tune my tenor banjo to anything other than GDAE, it's not as easy to directly hone in on the lead melody as it's played here, but because the two instruments fit so well together, an outline can begin to be drawn by listening to both.

I like how each of these recordings stay true to their respective genres without trying to modernize the music in any way.  In Angelina's case she's more concerned with well-paced, tasteful playing than an inundation of flashy notes.  For Jabbour and Perlman, they sound like a couple friends playing music in a parlor rather than the driving, string band music you hear reverberating around festival campgrounds.  There's something to be said for old school nuance and integrity.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Converting YouTube Videos to MP3 Files

As a traditional musician, it's helpful to record the jams and sessions you attend in the hopes of capturing tunes you might want to learn. These are the folks you're going to be ultimately playing the tunes with, so you might as well learn their versions.

However, you don't really have to do that because chances are you can find multiple videos on YouTube of a similar enough arrangement.  Problem is, these recordings might be too fast, too slow, or have unnecessary fluff before or after the recording you want to listen to.  So what I do is use a site like or
to convert the video to an MP3 file.

Then I use an easy to use free software called mp3DirectCut to trim the selection to just the audio that I need to hear.  Finally, I put the recording on my tablet or smart phone, or send it to my email, so that I can open it in the Amazing Slow Downer or in AudioStretch - both of which are apps that allow you to slow down or speed up a track without changing the pitch.

Now that YouTube video with a bunch of talking before the audio, or a medley of tunes with the one you want to hear in the middle, or a setting that was too slow or too fast, can be trimmed to the part you need and either sped up or slowed down.  You lose the visual component, but it opens up a whole world of Clifftop Festival video field recordings, Irish session videos, how-to videos and more for a headphones jam.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Origins of the Six Water Grog Symbol and Name

Icelandic Road Sign - Lagarfljót worm
The symbol you see being used on this blog is taken from a road sign I came across during a trip to Iceland in May 2008.  The signs were placed around Lagarfljót lake  to indicate good viewing points for the Lagarfljótsormur, a 300 foot long worm monster that lives at the bottom of the lake.  Sightings date back to the 1300's and people are still claiming to catch glimpses of the elusive cryptid to this day.  It's kind of like Iceland's Loch Ness Monster.  

I didn't happen to see the Lagarfljót worm on the day were were there, but I did make note of the cool design on the road sign.  (If you like hiking, there's a challenging and scary path leading from the lake to a lovely waterfall).  I have adopted that design as my personal logo - if that's OK with Iceland - and even had it inlayed onto the headstock of my new Romero tenor banjo!  I'm also considering getting this symbol as a tattoo!

Inlay on Romero banjo
The term Six Water Grog means rum (grog) that has been heavily diluted with water (one part rum, six parts water).  Back in the day, six-water-grog was given to people who were pretty low down the totem pole, as punishment.  I'm using it as a reference to my fairly diluted approach to traditional music.  I come to these traditions as an ignorant outsider or "adult learner" with no formal schooling in music, molding Irish and Appalachian tunes into a blended repertory as it suits my interests.  But, it is fun to experiment like that.

I guess there's no real tie-in between the symbol and the phrase.  Still, they do seem to go well together.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

What is a Barndance?

Beyond the jigs and reels, there are lots of other types of Irish traditional tunes worth discovering, including the hornpipe, slip jig, slide, polka, march, fling, mazurka and air.  One type of dotted rhythm that has been catching my ear is the barndance, but besides just knowing it when I hear it, I couldn't quite figure out what makes a barndance a barndance so I went looking for more information.  The details below come from the Irish Traditional Music Archive.
The barndance is in origin both a musical form and an accompanying social ballroom dance which became popular in England and north America in the late nineteenth century.  Early barndance music was composed by professionals or consisted of existing melodies adapted to suit the new fashion.  It's usually in 2/4 or 4/4 time and strongly marked in rhythm, with an emphatic ending to each section.  Barndances are likely to have come into Ireland through commercial sheet music and the activities of professional dance teachers.  In time they were danced and played traditionally, mixed in during a night’s dancing with older forms.  
Lucy Farr - composer of Lucy Farr's Barndance
While barndance melodies begin to appear in collections of Irish traditional music in the late 1920s, they had earlier and more influentially begun to be issued from the early 1920's on 78rpm commercial discs recorded by Irish immigrant musicians in New York and other American centers of Irish settlement.  The recordings influenced local repertory in Ireland as they began to be heard widely there from the 1920's.  
I'll also add that barn dances are almost always in major keys.  To really get a handle on the distinctive, turn of the century character of a barndance tune, you need to listen to some.  Thankfully, the Irish Traditional Music Archive has created a playlist of 18 sound recordings of barn dances, taken from 78's of the 1920's  to 1940's.  Turn it up!  Or take a look at this video of Gerdie Commane playing Kilnamona Barndance.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Do Fiddlers Have It Easy?

I was wondering if it was easier or harder to play one of the quintessential instruments in a traditional music genre, such as fiddle or clawhammer banjo in oldtime Appalachian mountain music, and fiddle or flute in Irish traditional music?

It’s gotta be easier, right?  I mean, you’re always going to be around other people playing the same instrument as you, using the same tuning and/or playing in a similar style.  Plus there are lots of source recordings featuring your instrument that you can listen to.  You learn by osmosis as part of the tradition.

Or is it harder in some ways?  Because of the high benchmark set by the legendary players of that instrument, can the search for “authenticity” become overwhelming?  Are you constantly reminded that you are playing it wrong or that you’ll never be as good as the masters?

I encounter a bit of both with tenor banjo.  Since the glory days of 'Banjo' Barney McKenna, all the way up to the Howley brothers in We Banjo 3, the tenor banjo has become one of the standard instruments in Irish traditional music; Angelina Carberry being my favorite.  If I was to pursue playing my tenor banjo in this style, there’s already an informal blueprint laid out for me by simply listening to and emulating others that use the same instrument to play that style of music.

Barney McKenna
On the other hand, when I play tenor banjo at an oldtime jam I’m always the only one there doing so.  There is no precedent.  There are no recordings of people playing Indian Ate the Woodchuck, Little Billy Wilson or Possum On A Rail with a GDAE tuned tenor banjo, that I know of.  To make that connection with the tradition requires a bit more stretch on my part.  Although this can be kind of liberating – the way you do it is the “correct” way by default because there is nothing to compare yourself to.

The whole reason I chose tenor banjo in the first place was to have a unique instrument that was “right for me”.  I didn’t want to be just another mandolin or guitar player, knowing that I could never be as good as my heroes on those instruments.  With tenor banjo I had no pre-conceived notions other than I figured it would be more fun because I would be the only one doing it.  What I’ve learned though is that it helps to have someone else to learn off of who plays the same instrument.  If I’m at an Irish session and there’s another tenor banjo player there it makes it much easier to find the notes.

Oddly, oldtime music is no more foreign to me as a tenor banjo player than Irish traditional music is.  As an outsider and relative newcomer to both genres, each is a mysterious world that I have yet to fully learn.  Because I started playing both styles simultaneously – literally learning the jig Lilting Banshee right alongside the hoedown June Apple – I don’t see it as two distinct styles but as one complete "whole" that gets funneled or channeled through my instrument of choice, which just so happens to be the 4-string tenor banjo. 

We Are Going For A Walk Now: A Play-By-Ear Musical Analogy

Take the sentence "We are going for a walk now”.  If someone said that to me I would have no problem understanding it.  Now imagine "We are going for a walk now” as a musical phrase.  My aural skills are much more rudimentary when it comes to music, so chances are that I wouldn’t have completely understood the meaning of that musical sentence and would struggle with playing a similar phrase that conveys the same meaning. 

Even if I was able to figure out how to play something close to "We are going for a walk now”, I would not be able to control whether I played it with a Southern accent or an Irish accent, or no accent at all. I’m not even sure I’d even be able to tell if the person who said it to me was Irish or American. I also may not notice a change in emphasis like "We are going for a walk? Now???".  And I definitely wouldn't be able to automatically add a variation like "You and I will be taking a stroll at this time".

But at least I'm starting to recognize that playing by ear is more than just regurgitating the sentence "We are going for a walk now", and more than even knowing the meaning of that sentence.  It's also about guessing where a person might be from based on his accent, being able to tell whether he is happy or angry, and knowing whether he is asking a question or making a statement (and probably much more than that too).  The same listening skills that allow me to pick up on all this when someone is speaking gives me hope that I can also apply them to music.

Learning Traditional Music As An Adult

Piggybacking on my post the other day inspired by an article on the ways the Irish learn music, I’ve also found a study on How Adult Learners Learn Celtic Traditional Music, by Janice Waldron.  This paper is written in a more academic fashion, but basically the study was based on interviews and observations of ten adult learners at the 2005 Goderich CelticCollege (GCC) summer camp in Goderich, Ontario, Canada.  GCC provides musical instruction on various instruments and types of Celtic music for adult learners.
The ten participants were asked to describe (a) the circumstances under which they began to play, (b) their early musical experiences, (c) how they learn traditional music, (d) their comfort with notation, and (e) their comfort with playing by ear.  This got me to thinking about how I relate to those questions.

I didn't learn an instrument in school, or play one growing up, or have musical siblings or parents.  When I decided all of a sudden at age 32 that I wanted to get a tenor banjo, I was starting completely from scratch.  I was able to find two professional musicians giving lessons on GDAE tuned banjo within a 30-50 minute drive from where I lived - one an expert on Irish music and the other an expert on American oldtime.  Both played and understood 4-string banjo well enough to teach it from the perspective of their respective styles.
I took about a dozen lessons off and on with each teacher over that first year or two, but because I was so new to playing any kind of music or instrument (and ignorant of traditional music), a lot of it went over my head.  Instead of really learning the way the teachers would have liked me to, I taught myself how to read mandolin tablature, which also works for tenor banjo, and learned enough about standard notation to be able to convert it to tab.  When I started going to jams I would get the names of the tunes being played and spent many hours creating tablature arrangements from various written sources, until I had a tab version that was playable and sounded like it matched. I would then go back to the session and play along by reading the tab.

With no previous classical music or sight-reading experience, reading tab was a skill I also had to learn from scratch, but it came very easy to me.  Meanwhile, playing by ear was this big mysterious concept I couldn't grasp - completely random and frustrating.  I was uncomfortable with even attempting to play any tune without having the tablature.  I may have missed an opportunity to play by ear from the start, but I was afraid that if I just played by ear I'd be so frustrated that I'd give up playing altogether, especially when you can instantly churn out a tune by looking at the tab. But, without the tab I couldn't play anything.
What I'm trying to do now is focus on the listening skills required to play a tune and not the sight-reading skills.  I'll take a recording - usually one I recorded at a session, converted to mp3 off YouTube, or got from a play along CD - and slow it down (or speed it up) using the Amazing Slowdowner app.  I may refer to notation to give me an outline of the tune, but when playing along I try not to look at the music.  I'll also use a call and response method to learn tunes.  I'll record myself playing it phrase by phrase, pausing between each phrase long enough so that I can play it back live while listening to the recording later when not looking at the tab.

For an adult trying to learn traditional music, it comes down to three important things: learning your instrument, learning the characteristics of the musical genre, and learning by ear/aural skills (learning how to listen).  As I develop, I hope to be able to interpret tunes in a way that allows for influences across Irish and Appalachian traditions to merge into one musical voice.