A few guidelines for playing in Irish sessions for newcomers. The Irish drum and playing guitar, part 1.
So you’ve heard an Irish session and you think it soundls like great fun. It is. You will probably want to sit in and bring out the old guitar or maybe you figure that drumming stuff doesn’t look that hard so you might buy a bodhran and join in. Here’s some advice:
Irish drum (bodhran, from the Gaelic meaning “to deafen”): My advice — forget the drum. It is not as easy as it looks. If you get one, take some lessons so you know what the rhythms are. Buy an instructional CD, go to a workshop at some place like Catskills Irish Week, or at least get someone to show you how to do it. There are established techniques. You will be very unwelcome if you just start banging along.
1a. Remember there is a general “one-drum-at-a-time” rule. So if someone else is drumming, perhaps the regular drummer, you should sit out. You will probably end up doing this a lot. So why drum at all?
Guitar – part I: Your right hand is very important!
Guitars can be great with Irish music, but it is a very different style than you use for folk or bluegrass. Irish dance tunes emphasize the downbeats. Most other American folk and country styles have strong backbeats. um- CHUCK, um-CHUCK. Rule 1: Don’t ever do this in an Irish session.
Following rule 1 will change your strumming style. Don’t forget that jigs are in 6/8 and reels in 4/4. Jigs at full speed may sound like there are two beats (there are) like two sets of triplets, but that doesn’t mean you do two strums (up and down) per beat. This will sound like garbage and worse, it will make you tend to speed up, a big NO-NO.
The jig rhythm has six beats so you should be able to play six strums per measure:
with 1 2 3 / 4 5 6 the usual strum is D U D / D U D, where D is a down and U is an up stroke. Note that the strong beats, 1 and 4 have down strokes (stronger) and there are two downs in a row at 3 & 4. This is not easy! It can sound choppy and you will be tempted to forget about is and just do down – up, down – up on beats 1 and 3, then 4 and 6. ker-plunk, ker-plunk. Rule 2: Please don’t.
That being said, I admit that when I play with the Ithaca session or perform with Traonach, they go so fast that I have worked out a pattern that is D U D / U D U, but I have found a way to do a very strong upstroke on beat 4. I do the alternate up and down because it is smoother for me at top speed that DUD DUD. But in any slower occasion I will slip back to DUD DUD. Also, I am playing bouzouki which has much less strumming and more picking. And I still have six motions, not four! (This applies to drummers, too. There is nothing more annoying than a drummer going ker-plunk, ker-plunk to a jig).
Finesse: the length of the six beats are not equal. You make the 1 and 4 a little longer and steal some time from the 2 and 5. This makes a swingy rhythm that sounds like this:
5 6 - 1 / 2 3 - 4, like a horse trotting sound — ta-da-dump , ta-da-dump, (where does the lone ranger or William Tell take his garbage? ta-da-dump , ta-da-dump, ta-da-dump dump dump).
Notice that I have not said anything about chords! That is because most new guitar players are so worried about getting the “right” chords (there are none!) that they don’t worry about their RIGHT hand, which they must.
When not to play: There is a general rule of one accompanist at a time, like the one-drummer rule. So if there is someone already playing a guitar, you should probably sit out unless you can play something complementary — like the melody, a bass line, a countermelody, or something that sounds like a bouzouki (drones). But two people strumming different chords is not acceptable.
When not to play, #2: If you do not know the tune, do not be plunking along trying to figure out what chords to play. Sit off to the side where no one can hear you and play as quietly as you can. You will not help if you are doing something strange (out loud) that does not fit. Some tunes are predictable, some are not. There will be no chord charts to help you at a real session. You can, however, ask someone to write out the chords they use (mine change at each repeat, so I would be little help) but you should probably buy them a few beers for doing that. You can ask and write down the names of the tunes and get a book like O’Neil’s to check on the possible chords at home later.
If I encounter a tune that I do not know, I generally sit out for one whole A part and the first repeat of the B part before I try anything. 24 - 32 bars! Get a feel for the tune and where it is going before you just try random chords. By sitting out you can make the next repeat more dramatic and build intensity, generally a good thing.
Sorry if most of this sounds negative, like a list of Don’t’s. But there can be a lot of frustration and ill feelings in a session if you don’t fit, and Irish sessioneers are notoriously picky about how the music should sound. Please email me at email@example.com if you’d like more info or have any questions at all about what I’ve said here.
Next blog: Guitar part II. Chords and 10 other things you can do.
FORUM thread for Ithaca Irish Session - always check with venue if traveling a distance.