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Get Yer Irish On

The huge difference between the way a guitar player needs to support Irish fiddle tunes versus American fiddle tunes.

I'm a fiddle player. Not many people know it, and even fewer have heard it. I don't suck—far from it, if I may be so immodest. I had rotator cuff issues in my right shoulder for years that made playing incredibly painful, so it's not for lack of love that I didn't keep my chops up. But after some therapy and a solid year going to a gym to rebuild the strength in my shoulders, I picked up a fiddle and noticed that it didn't hurt after two minutes. I played 10 minutes and it still didn't hurt. Then I played 30. No pain. Hot diggity, I'm a fiddle player again!

This column finds me digging back into my favorite fiddle tunes, most of which happen to be Irish tunes. And so, PG Nation, the topic of this month's ramble is the huge difference between the way a guitar player needs to support Irish fiddle tunes versus American fiddle tunes. As a guitar-playing fiddle player, it's frustrating as hell to play Irish tunes with guitar players who don't get it. Luckily, it's kind of fascinating to break it down.

Viva la Difference!
There's nothing cooler than a really hot bluegrass rhythm player, with that big, fat string on the bottom that cuts through like garroting wire. Oh, yes, I do love that. And behind tunes like “Billy in the Low Ground,” “Bill Cheatham,” and “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” that kind of player literally rules. That rapid-fire “boom-ching, boom-ching” thing is like a 400hp engine: You either bring it and keep up or they will run you over and squash you like a bug. It's pretty awesome to work with that kind of guitar player.

The acoustic guitar in a bluegrass band is the equivalent of a drum kit, and the guitar player and bass player lock in together much like the bass player and drummer in a rock band. They may not even know they do it, but in the best bands, they do—like a machine.

In an Irish band, however, the guitar player is the equivalent of a bodhran player—yes, still a drummer, but there's no kick drum, so the drive in Irish music comes from a very different place. If you listen to a really good bodhran player, you'll hear the same kind of rolls and gracings that you hear from the fiddle player—downbeats get pushed like crazy, and it's the backbeat that drives it. American fiddle tunes are all about the 1 and the 3, but Irish tunes are all over the 2 and the 4, and there is no boom-ching at all.

So what do you do instead of boom-ching? You just play chords, man. You play chords like Martin Taylor—all over the place with as many substitutions as you can think of. What's really tricky is, in a lot of Irish tunes there's no real clear major/minor feel—they are crazy modal things—so you have to find your 5-chords. And you have to start thinking of two chords at once for every change, because if you are in G, you could decide to play a round or two out of Em instead, and if the tune seems to go to a C chord, it might sound better if you played an Am, and it's every bit as likely that the tune will call for an F instead of a Dmaj, in a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon style twist of melodic madness. And don't ever, ever, ever play a dominant chord, because the fiddle player will poke your eye out with the bow immediately, and you don't even want to know what the piper is capable of...

Let's Get Jiggy With It
And then there are the jigs, and the slip jigs, and the slides. A jig is in 6:8 time, and the groove goes like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6. A slip jig is a little more complicated, in 9:8 with a groove like this: 123 456 789 123 456 789. A slide is lightning fast and in 12:8 with the stresses on 4 and 10: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12. See how the stress is never on the downbeat? It's all about the backbeat, no matter what time signature a tune is in.

There are two ways to approach playing guitar behind a jig. One way is the pretty, melodic, cross-pickin' sort of thing that is almost like a counterpoint in chords. The other way is to just strum the chords, generally like so: 1 3 456 1 3 456 —dunh-da dadada dunh-da dadada dunh-da dadada dunh-da dadada.

That being said, it's not that easy. Here's how I might play rhythm behind a jig:

1 3456 123456
1 3456 1  3  6
123456 123456
1 3456   3456

Now remember how I said the stress in a jig was going to be on the 4? And notice how I'm never stressing the 4? “Ah ha,” you say, so that's what gives Irish music it's rolling-tumbling feel. Besides, the fiddle player is hitting all those 4s with a little extra roll or a tug on the bow, so the guitar player doesn't have to. We are free to express our funky selves.

Hornpipes, Polkas, and Gavottes
Hornpipes are tricky to play guitar behind, and honestly, I'm not a huge fan of them. In 2:4 time, there's not a lot of leeway for bringin' on the funk, so they bore me. But, when I have to play behind a hornpipe, I try to complement whatever the instrumentalist is doing, whether it's counterpointing the melody, or straight-ahead strumming. The melody line in a hornpipe is what is called “dotted and cut,” which means that most of the time there's a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth, dotted eighth, sixteenth, yadda yadda yawn. It has a jerky, slightly militaristic feel to it, but it's not exactly Sousa, either. There aren't all that many hornpipes that people bother playing, thank goodness.

Polkas are the closest thing resembling bluegrass out there. They're fast, in 2:4 again, but bouncy instead of jerky. They're far, far less ornamented, and usually played pretty darn straight. Think “Roll Out the Barrel” with a few more notes. Polkas are a blast to play—rowdy, simple and obnoxiously catchy. Not a lot of boom-ching going on here, either, but it can work until the right arm wears out.

Gavottes are a Breton phenomenon that leaks over into the Eire-verse once in a while. In 4:4, they're hauntingly pretty, a little repetitive, and usually sort of dark and swirlingly modal. They are unforgettable after hearing them once or twice. You probably won't run into many of them, but if you do, pretty counterpoint and funky grooving will make you a fiddler’s best friend.

Required Listening
One of the very best Irish guitar players was the late-great Micheal O'Domhnaill, part of the engine that drove the incredible Bothy Band, who tragically passed away in 2005. He made two records with fiddler Kevin Burke, Promenade and Portland, that are master classes in how to back up a fiddle tune. Bonus: He does most of it in standard tuning, so those unfamiliar with D–A–D–G–A–D can more easily hear what's going on. Irish tunes are usually played in sets, three or four tunes one after another, and a single set can wind through two or three different keys (or more), so the guitar player has to think about the best way to get all that done. O'Domhnaill frequently put a capo at the second fret, and played the tunes in G out of the F-position and the tunes in D out of C, so he could play the tunes in A from G for a bigger sound.

What's up with all those modalities, anyway?
Celtic music is old. So old that they only had a few notes and a drum to work with in the earliest times—early flutes were between five notes and one octave for the most part, and nobody really bothered with sharps and flats and all that nonsense. So when you have limited notes to work with, you end up writing out of necessity in what we now call modes. . Once they figured out how to make a flute and a bagpipe that could be “over-blown” to reach a second, and sometimes even part of a third octave, things opened up. By that time, the modality had been etched onto the Celtic soul forever, making the music gorgeous, challenging and addicting.

So get yer Irish up and yer groove on. There's a céilidh at my house tonight...

Gayla Drake Paul is a guitarist, songwriter and writer, working as a soloist and with the Gayla Drake Paul Trio. Her CD, How Can I Keep From Singing, is in the Ten Essential CDs for Acoustic Guitarists at Her new CD, Trio Plus Three: The Luckiest Woman, can be purchased at