Advice for guitarists in an Irish Session part II.

Chords and at least 12 other things you can do …

OK, now that we’ve got you to stop going ker plunk, ker plunk (Please read part I!), we can talk about the left hand. Most of us started learning guitar by learning a few simple chords. Nothing wrong with that. However, to accompany Irish music there are a lot of other things you can do and should try. In his terrific book on accompanying Irish music, (Prof) Chris Smith lists about 15! That is a good book to have if you are serious about improvisational accompaniment.

First, the basics. The simplest things to do are what I call the two and three chord tricks. For a major key, these are the I – IV – V chords that we all know and love (in the key of D they are D, G and A, for example). You should be able to hear where they fit or at least not clash with the melody. There is another mode common to Irish and Scottish music called Mixolydian (you can impress your friends with that one. I wanted it on a vanity license plate but it does not fit). This has a flatted seventh, and is the common key you hear with bagpipe tunes. In the key of D mix, the chords are D and C MAJOR (think Old Joe Clark, G and A chords). Then there are those minor modal keys, same as mountain modal in American music (Cluck, old hen). So for the key of D minor-modal, we use D minor and C major. Use the root minor chord and the flat seventh MAJOR.

Variations: minor/major substitutions. Common chord additions and substitutions for the major key involve the minor third (Heart and Soul on kid piano – I VIminor, IV, V). So now we can add a B minor chord and substitute it for the D chord sometimes. The II minor can substitute for the IV chord. So now we have added an E minor instead of G for the key of D. I also use a I, VIm, IIm, V progression a lot. Remember the year 1625. Something important probably happened then. Then there is the common walk up, I, II minor, III minor, IV, V. Fits in a lot of places. For the minor-modal, you can also substitute the VI major where the I chord goes, but do not overdo it, or it will become a musical cliché. You can also walk down. There is a part of Julia Delaney where I go D minor, C, B-flat (there is your VI major chord), A then G minor (in the B part). And I walk back up. I would be happy to show you this any time. Chord substitutions is a big topic and you will have to trust your ear for what sounds OK.  More later, stay tuned. [ See also chord substitutions for contra dance accompaniment ]

Other stuff you can do. Here is the fun part, where it gets interesting.

1. You do not need the third note of the scale. A lot of this music will sound fine with just the first and fifth note of the chord. It’s not like Ragtime where the thirds and flat sevens are real important to the chords. This gives it an open modal sound that fits this genre. DADAD for the D chord for example. No F#.

2. You can play other notes in the bass. So-called slash chords are great. So for the second appearance of a G chord, you play B/G which means put a B in the bass instead of a G. This will work nicely if you are doing the boom-chuck approach (see below).

3. High drones. Drones are the notes of the key usually, the tonic or root or first note of the scale. So the note D for D major, minor modal or mixolydian. There is a reason why bagpipes sound they way they do, and it is very much a matter of having those pipes droning along on the same note. For high drones, these notes are in the treble. You WILL NOT play all the strings, maybe just one, two or three. This is where your right hand becomes very important, because you are not playing either the chords or melody. You are now immersed in the essential primitive rhythm of the dance music. If you don’t know what to do with the right hand, listen to a syncopated drummer like Scott Whitham. Or just follow the rhythm of the melody line to be safe. Be creative!

4. Low drones. This is the same action but on just your bass string or the lowest two.

5. “Home and away.” Pick the root note and just one other. Move back and forth. This is a great exercise to get you out of strumming chords.

6. Running bass lines – just like a bass player.

7. Counter melody – just like a bass player only up higher. Don’t forget you can hammer-on, too.

8. Running dyads or triads – moving lines of two or three strings. I do this a lot walking up and down. A moving mini-chord. Try to pick the individual strings instead of strumming.

9. Moving dyads or triads against drones. This is a lot easier if you are in an open tuning. My tuning (DGdad) allows me to move on the middle three strings while I leave the two D’s on the outside untouched. Often I move on the G and A strings and leave all three D’s untouched. Very bouzouk-ish. Once again, picking is better than strumming.

10. Play the melody. If you listen to Gail Blake she is very good at this on the second repeat. If you put this in the middle repeat, you can build up to some power chords for the final repeat, assuming the usual session progression of three repeats of any tune. For example, I like this mix: high drones on the first time through, then melody, then moving dyads and/or power chords for the final repeat. Switching to the melody for a time can be especially effective if you are playing in a small group where only a few melody players are present.

11. Pick noise. Yup. Dampen the strings and scratch away! You will need to get your right hand to do something interesting. You are using your strings like a drum. Not too loud, please.

12. Silence. You do not have to play all the time. On some tunes I sit out on the second repeat and come back in droning at the end, then blast away for the third repeat of the tune. Great dramatic effect!

So drone away. Try droning on one note though one entire repeat. You will get some strange looks, but what you do next will release the incredible stress that has built up and command attention. Drones can also include the fifth note of the scale (so D and A for the D chord). Drones will sound better if you double up a note on two strings. So I drone on the fifth fret of my A string, and leave the high D open. That gives four strings ringing the same note (or almost, the “chorus” effect). When I play the A string on fret 5 and the G string on fret 7, I’ve got 10 D notes! Remember I am tuned DGdad. So now we have Ddddd., in three octaves. Very powerful.

Obviously, playing moving lines against drone strings is easier if you are in an open tuning like DADGAD. Some people like drop-D or even double drop D (both E strings down a whole tone). There is nothing wrong with traditional Spanish tuning (EADGBE), and there are a lot of good Irish guitarists who use regular tuning. But you can have a lot of fun and the idea of moving against the drones, and this is simply easier in an open or semi open tuning like DADGAD. To those who are too shy to try it, I will let you in on a secret: Your brain can learn all those new chords and in fact you (yes YOU!) can play in lots of different tunings. It is not hard! Do not underestimate yourself.

Another note on rhythm: I talked a lot about jigs in the last blog article but not much about reels. The simplest and dullest thing to do is down-up down-up. Guitarists like John Doyle do this effectively because it is very crisp, never sloppy. It tends to sound like a sewing machine to me but if you keep it crisp and never behind the beat it will do. Other guitarists like Paul DeGrae are fond of the boom-chuck approach, where you play a specific bass note followed by some part of the rest of the chord. This of course can lead to purposeful picking of specific strings, which should be your long term goal. Lose that strum!

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