Thursday, February 26, 2015

Irish Music Backing Cheat Sheet

I found this Backing Cheat-Sheet, self-described as a "super-short, massive over-simplification version", on the Lawrence Irish Music Session site.  The Lawrence Irish Session takes place every Sunday afternoon at 5:30 upstairs at Henry's Coffee Shop in Lawrence, KS.  Here's the advice!

Backing Irish Traditional Music is not as simple as backing some other forms of Western music. Remember to play quietly while you are getting your bearings. There is nothing wrong with droning on the tonic note or laying out altogether on tunes you do not know well. Tunes generally go around a few times (i.e. repeat AABB patterns for example, so listen for a round and then try something quitely on the second go-round.)

Lawrence Irish Session
There is no set chord pattern and no way to predict what chord order will work for any given tune. The only thing you can be reasonably sure of is that the I chord will be used a lot and will probably end each iteration of the tune's structure.

Some tunes modulate to different keys so watch out!

Tunes in Major keys e.g. D major, G major : Base backing on normal I, IV, V chords

Tunes in Dorian Mode e.g. E Dorian : Base backing on I, VII, VI. I.e. For E Dorian, E, D, C

Tunes in Mixolydian Mode e.g. G Mixolydian : Base backing on I, VII, V. I.e. For G Mixolydian, G, F, C

If it sounds minor, it is more likely to be Dorian than Aeolian (i.e. normal Minor). Try the major form of the flat seventh note of the major scale for whatever your root/tonic is. I.e. for Dorian tunes with an A tonic, try G Major

If it sounds major but the V chord doesn't work, its probably because the tune is in Mixolydian

Take it easy on the 7th (dominant 7seventh chords like G7, A7 etc.). These are a lot less common in Irish music than they are in other forms of music you may be familiar with in the folk traditions.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tuning to Fixed-Pitch Instruments at the Session

If you are a stringed instrument player you might be accustomed to using a Snark or some other type of electric tuner to keep your strings in tune with one another. A funny thing happens when you rely on this device at an Irish session – you might not be in tune with the other instruments!
It’s not uncommon for a session to include fixed-pitch instruments such as concertina or accordion that cannot be re-tuned in the moment. If you’re lucky these fixed-pitch instruments are right on A440, but if they are a little sharp or a little flat you might have to tweak your strings to match.

This is why you’ll hear the concertina player sounding out his A note as people are tuning up. Players are supposed to use this as an opportunity to try and tune to the sound of that A. This is also why you’ll hear an experienced fiddler say to the accordion player “give me your A”. I suppose nothing can be done when both a concertina and accordion are present and they don’t match!

Even if you don’t have any fixed-pitch instruments at your session, the other musicians may attempt to tune to some proverbial “A” or to the sound of the loudest or most dominant instrument. At these times it is helpful to have your tuner handy so that you can offer a reference point to A440. Or just realize that – in a room full of folks who don't use electronic tuners – it’s not always you who is "out" of tune!
All of this can be difficult for the novice to pick up on. Even when you know what’s going on it can be difficult to tune by ear if you haven’t had much practice doing so. Just because you know what the accordion player's “A” sounds like doesn’t mean that you have the ear training to match that sound and, more importantly, to then also tune your G, D and E strings based on that A.

It might be a good idea to bring along a chromatic tuner that picks up ambient sound (not just the sound of your instrument) so that when the accordion player or concertina player is playing their A note that tuner will show whether it’s sharp, flat or right on the mark. That’s not the ideal method but it might help as a short-term solution.

I have a Casio keyboard at home which is pretty much at concert pitch so sometimes I’ll try and tune to that as practice.  If I start out flat it’s easier to hear when it gets up to pitch than when I start out sharp and am coming from the other direction.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

John Carty - Irish Tenor Banjo and Tenor Guitar

John Carty
London born John Carty is probably my favorite Irish traditional musician.  When I started getting into Irish music his new-at-the-time tenor banjo / tenor guitar CD I Will If I Can was one of the first albums I heard in this style and it made an instant positive impression.  His earlier banjo album with Brian McGrath The Cat That Ate the Candle is also a good one.

Last year I was fortunate to get to see John give a small house-concert style performance with the esteemed fiddler Kevin Burke.  John is also an outstanding fiddler, but it is his banjo (and tenor guitar) playing that I like best.

Here's a video of John Carty playing his 1949 (?) Martin (?) tenor guitar with accompaniment from the great Arty McGlynn.  He seems to choose more wistful pieces for the tenor guitar.

Here's a video of John Carty playing his Ome open back tenor banjo with his daughter Maggie who is also a tasteful banjoist.  They go into the old-time tune Waiting for the Federals (AKA Seneca Squaredance), which is pretty cool.

Lastly, here's a lively video of John in a session-like setting with Irish accordion player Paddy Melia. 

John's tenor banjo playing seems to be more supportive and less over the top than most Irish tenor banjo players, while still proving to be continually inventive.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

101 Irish Tunes with Sheet Music, Chords and Audio - Tenor Banjo and Guitar

Australian Tony O'Rourke of the Irish Guitar Podcast has come out with a collection of 101 Irish Tunes complete with sheet music transcriptions, chords and mp3 audio files.  Played on Irish tenor banjo with guitar backup (in standard EADGBE guitar tuning).  Reel, Hornpipes, Jigs, Polkas, and O'Carolan tunes.  My Ireland - Volume I is available for download for the very reasonable cost of just $16.

Tony's instrument of choice is the tenor banjo, but he is also an excellent guitarist familiar with accompanying Irish music, and he plays both instruments here.  The speed is slow enough for playing along but still fast enough to sound like music, which is perfect for its intended purpose as a learning tool.  Each tune is played twice through and ornamentation is kept to a minimum so that the melody is clear.
Tony O'Rourke - photo by Sean Kenan
Most collections of Irish music choose to omit chords for various right or wrong reasons. On his decision to include chords, Tony says in the liner notes, "I believe that this will be of benefit to my fellow guitar pickers and am convinced it will not make the guitar accompaniment of Irish music any worse!"

Here is an audio sample from the book of the jig The Cat that ate the Candle.  You can download a free sample of the book (PDF, 840k) which contains the table of contents and a few pages of sheet music.  The full list of the 101 tunes is below.  

Banshee, The
Bellharbor Reel
Bird In The Bush
Blacksmith’s Anvil
Boil The Breakfast Early
Boys of Ballysodare
Boys Of Portaferry
Broken Pledge, The
Bucks Of Oranmore
Christmas Eve
Coalminer’s Reel (A)
Coalminer’s Reel (G)
Cottage In The Grove
Crosses Of Annagh
Derry Craig Wood
Devaney’s Goat
Dillon Browne’s
Dunmore Lasses
Earl’s Chair
Far From Home
Farewell To Erin
Father Kelly’s
Fermanagh Reevey’s
Glass Of Beer
Glen Allen
Graf Spee
Green Fields Of America
Humors Of Ballyconnell
Humors Of Lissadell
Humors Of Tulla
Ironing Board, The
Jackie Coleman’s
John Brennan’s
John Dwyer’s
Julia Delaney’s
Kilty Town
Lady Anne Montgomery
Lisdoonvarna Reel
Longford Collector
Lucy Campbell
Maid Behind The Bar
Merry Blacksmith
Miller’s Daughter
Miss McCloud’s
Miss Monaghan
Moving Clouds
My Love Is In America
Nigel Davey’s
Nine Points Of Roguery
Otter’s Holt
Over The Bog Road
Plough And The Stars
Reel Of Rio
Sailor’s Bonnet
Salamanca, The
Sally Gardens
Shaskeen, The
Speed The Plough
Star Of Munster
Tarbolton Reel
Teetotaller’s Reel
Tim Maloney's
Wise Maid

Boys Of Bluehill
Cuckoo’s Nest
Fairies’ Hornpipe
Flowing Tide
Harvest Home
Home Ruler, The
Kitty’s Wedding
Off To California
Rights Of Man

Blackthorn Stick
Cat That Ate The Candle
Eavesdropper, The
Frost Is All Over, The
Geese In The Bog
Health To The Ladies O'Carolan Pieces
Irish Washerwoman
Jackson’s Morning Brush
Joy Of My Life, The
Merrily Kiss The Quaker’s Wife
Rakes Of Kildare
Rollicking Boys Of Tandragee
Ships In Full Sail
Strike The Gay Harp
Tobin’s Favourite
Tom Billy’s Jig
Tripping Up The Stairs

Denis Murphy’s
Johnny I Do Miss You

O'Carolan Pieces
O’Carolan’s Concerto
O’Carolan’s Draught
Planxty Irwin
Sídh Beag Sídh Mór

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Irish Tenor Banjo Sound Comparison - Paramount vs. Romero

Today I borrowed a 1920's Paramount Style B 19-fret, 22.75", arch top resonator banjo.  I'm used to 17-fret, 21" short scale tenor banjos, but the longer (standard) scale length of the Paramount was an easy adjustment.  Until today, this Paramount had never been set up in the "Irish" GDAE tuning.  It really pops!  The owner who is only temporarily letting me play it as a lefty in this tuning says it sounds like a totally different banjo.  He also says it is NOT FOR SALE!  He's had it for several decades and during that time has refurbished it twice.

I made a recording comparing the sound of the Paramount to my 2013 custom made Jason Romero banjo.  The Romero is an open back 17-fret, 21" short scale with a Belle Rose tone ring (Jason's own design).  Jason mostly makes clawhammer banjos and banjo ukes, but does also make the occasional tenor banjo on request. Mine is a work of art and I was impressed by the way it held its own against the vintage instrument.

The tune is supposed to be Egan's Polka.  To give a full range of the sound, I played it in both a higher and lower octave on each banjo. The Paramount is 1st and the Romero 2nd. 

Whaddaya think!!??

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Irish Music Does Not Require An Audience

Upon previewing an online excerpt from the book Focus: Irish Traditional Music by Sean Williams, a sentence reverberated with me.  In describing an Irish session, it reads, "Players face each other, not the audience if there is one, because Irish music does not require an audience".  I think this is precisely why I find Irish traditional music so compelling.

On the page before that, she (Sean Williams) wrote, "Irish music is not so much band music as it is a solo instrumental tradition that sometimes includes playing in groups for the good times and camaraderie".  I agree with that as well.

In scrolling through some of the other paragraphs and pages visible in the preview, I can see additional statements that make the think that this might be a book worth reading.  Such as (page 148), "The march, unlike reels or jigs, is not determined so much by its time signature as by its intention."

I think I will have to get this book!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

CGDA and CGDG tunings - Humours of Tullycrine

My wife ordered one of those Ibanez Artwood tenor guitars with the goal of playing it in the more Irish-friendly "bouzouki" tuning of GDAD.  Previously she had been playing a Blueridge BR-40T tenor guitar in DGBE tuning.

The Ibanez arrived today and came out of the box tuned CGDA. It will need some new strings and a professional setup for the GDAD tuning, but as an experiment she dropped the CGDA down to CGDG to mimic the intervals of GDAD in the same way a mandola mimics the intervals of a mandolin.  Since I have a Sawchyn Beavertail mandola in CGDA we decided to try playing the Irish hornpipe/march Humours of Tullycrine together.

Normally this tune requires the chords Aminor, G and Eminor.  It took Laura only a few minutes to learn what those chord shapes would be if she were tuned GDAD.  Of course, in CGDG those same chord shapes instead came out as Dminor, C and Aminor.

I played the melody on mandola with the fingerings I know from mandolin/tenor banjo, so what you hear is in Ddorian instead of Adorian. (I suppose she could have capo'd at 7th fret and I could have played mandolin but this was more fun!).  It all synced up. I think it sounds pretty good for a semi-cheap Made in China guitar that just came out of the box, in a strange open tuning, moments after I said, "Got those chords? I'm hitting the record button".  This is the first and only take!  There may be some slight speeding up on my part. :(

I'll give a follow up on the Ibanez tenor guitar after it's been setup by John at Fan Guitar and Ukulele.  Our initial impression is that it's a pretty OK sounding guitar, definitely a good travel guitar, but not quite as nice as the Bluerdige BR-40T.  Hopefully this tuning lends a bit of authenticity to our Celtic sound. If only I would start playing more triplets!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Single Jig Hag at the Churn on Baritone Ukulele

I hadn't played the Irish jig Hag At the Churn in quite some time, but it came back to me tonight. I did glance at the music to clear up some fuzzy parts. After playing it a few times on tenor banjo I got out the baritone uke to see if I could find those same notes on that rarely played instrument and there they were!

Hag At the Churn is one of the few tunes I've played so far that feels good under the fingers in the DGBE tuning.  Since I couldn't believe that I was playing it quite effortlessly on the baritone uke, I had to make a recording.  Here it is with the music below.

The music/tab comes from Don Julin's Mandolin for Dummies book.  I'm basically playing those exact notes on the baritone uke, as far as I can tell.  Very basic, but what a cool sounding single jig!

Irish Session CDs and Recordings

Even if I wasn't trying to learn how to be a participant, I still think my preferred way to experience Irish music would be in the session setting. It seems as though this traditional music is best understood not on a stage but by a loose assortment of musicians gathered around a table in the corner of a pub for some tunes and a few pints.

I only know of a handful of officially released Irish session recordings.  The first one that comes to mind is Maiden Voyage, recorded in 1991 at Pepper’s Bar in Feakle in the Eastern part of County Clare.  It features Tommy Peoples: fiddle, Kevin Crawford: concert flute, Joe Bane: tin whistle, and several others.  Maiden Voyage is well captured from deep in the heart of East Clare.

Another session recording I have which I like a lot is The Sanctuary Sessions, from Cruises Pub in Ennis, County Clare.  It was recorded in May 1994 and features many of the musicians who played regularly at Cruises at that time, with some overlap of names from the Maiden Voyage CD. The tunes on The Sanctuary Sessions often sound familiar to me even if I don’t always recognize the titles. The crowd is really receptive on this one!

One of the better known session recordings is Live At Mona’s, recorded over a period of several weeks in spring/fall 2003 at a now defunct Monday night session in the lower east side of Manhattan.  Out of all the session recordings, Live At Mona’s probably best captures the magic that can be created in that unscripted environment.  Musicians include Patrick Ourceau, Eamon O’Leary, Mick Moloney, Cillian Vallely and Brian Holleran.

Late in the Night is a live recording by Christy Barry (flute, whistle, spoons), Conor McCarthy (accordion) and Cyril O’Donoghue (bouzouki, guitar) from O’connors Bar in Doolin in the Western part of County Clare.  It was recorded in 2002 during the height of the Celtic Tiger, of which the small town of Doolin felt a major impact – being marketed as an epicenter of traditional music just down the road from the popular Cliffs of Moher tourist attraction.  Even if this was more of a gig rather than a session, Late in the Night is still a prime example of lively Clare session tunes.  The sparse instrumentation allows for an appreciation of Cyril O’Donoghue’s exceptional guitar/bouzouki backup.

Another live traditional music album I am fond of is The best of Andrew Mac Namara and The Lahawns, which is a compilation culled from recordings made at Winkles Hotel in Kinvara - just north of Clare in South Galway - in 1995 and Lena's Bar in Feakle in 2001.  Of all the releases on this list, this Lahawns album probably has the highest percentage of common tunes on it, so it's a great source for those looking to hear some of the standards, including Tatter Jack Walsh, the Boys of Bluehill, Lark in the Morning, Cooley's Reel, Rakish Paddy, Castle Kelly and Humours of Tulla.  This album has a boisterous, ceili-band feel

Lastly, I'd like to include a CD called Live at the Burren Centre, Kilfenora, recorded during a 2009 lunch-time performance by Kevin Griffin, Eoin O'Neill and Quentin Cooper. Although this was part of a concert series, Eoin and Quentin are long-time veterans of the Ennis session scene and Kevin Griffin plays in the pubs around Doolin, so the tunes come directly from the session repertoire and retain that loose, unrehearsed feel.

I see that there is also a CD called Music at Matt Molloy's.  I do not have that one yet.  If you know of any Irish session recordings that I've omitted please leave a comment or send me a message.  I'd love to hear more!