Session Etiquette: Rhythm Instruments
by Shay Black
Shay Black was a founder of the Sunday Irish session at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, CA, and here he writes down some thoughts about rhythm instruments in tune sessions.
I am a guitar player and run an Irish session on a regular basis. It is an open session, which means open to anyone that wants to join in, provided they already know how to play Irish traditional music. There is an unsaid institutional knowledge in session etiquette, and I will attempt to give my take on it.
Irish music sessions are usually characterized by everybody playing lead, all the time. There actually is no traditional harmony, as Irish music does not have a history of rhythmic background structure per se, apart from some classical Carolan or harp tunes. Sean O Riada and Paddy Moloney from the Chieftains were initiators of harmonic settings to tunes, eventually developing into the music of great revivalist groups like The Bothy Band.
As rhythm players, we first need to be cognizant of the fact that very many Irish session players want NO rhythmic accompaniment. They can find it off-putting, intrusive, distracting, off-beat and often just plain wrong. When joining a new session, it is often a good idea to check in with the lead players to see if it is acceptable to join, and do not be miffed if the answer is no. However, if you are welcomed, there are a few common-sense rules to which you should adhere.
First off, know the tune. That last half-sentence is important. There is nothing worse than sitting beside someone who is a 'noodler'. Noodling is trying to keep up (and failing) because others are playing faster, not knowing the tune and guessing at it, or if you are playing a lead instrument, playing 'ad lib harmony'. Musicians love it if the guitar player plays 'lead', in that they are playing tunes like a mandolin or banjo player, i.e., keeping up and actually playing the notes of the tunes. Please, people, do not noodle. If you don't know a tune or can't keep up, don't play. It spoils it for everyone. Do not guess chords.
Secondly, if you join an open session, be aware if there is another rhythm player amongst the players. If this is a regular accepted session member, learn from him or her. It is polite to at least acknowledge them. As a guitarist, you are not like a fiddle or flute player joining in and playing the tune; you are hearing chordal structure behind the music and whatever you are playing, it should be virtually identical to what the usual accompanist is cranking out at that moment. Position yourself in the session so that you can watch their fingers, and maybe even ask if they are playing 'standard' tuning, dropped D or DADGAD. It matters and it will help you follow the chord structure, as played.
In my band (The Black Brothers) we have banjo and fiddle playing lead, and I play guitar backing, but we also have a piano and sometimes cello and we spend a long time working on backing chords that do not clash with each other, or the music.
Although you are usually playing chords, you are also adding 'beat' to the session. Try and develop your chordal rhythm. Do not be the 'dead hand', simply playing a three-chord chunka-chunka so that you are at least playing ...erm... something? Note other musicians' body language. Most are too polite to say that you might be spoiling the session for them, but if you see people squirming in their seat as soon as you join in, or they are looking uncomfortable, maybe you should back off in volume, or otherwise be more aware of your contribution. If you are not adding to the session, stop and have a break. Stand close by and listen to the others for awhile.
Note the bodhran players. Are they an integral part of the session, or are they sitting on the periphery just trying to keep up? If it is the former, listen to them. Your rhythm should be in sync with them. If it is the latter and the bodhran player is a learner, then watch the main musician or the person who starts the tune and follow their pace. Often they will tap their foot in rhythm. Follow that, and don't fly off into a fugue of rhythm and speed and chords that drowns or ignores everyone else. Less is more in this case. Listen to the work of Denis Cahill, who plays with Martin Hayes. He is slow and sensitive, yet fulfilling.
In the open session at The Starry Plough, how the music sounds can sometime depends on who walks in the door carrying a guitar. It can be a blessing or a curse. With any session, always check it out before you even take out an instrument. Record the session and listen to it at home. Work out who sits where and who is running the night. Introduce yourself, if it's appropriate. Note the tonal landscape that musicians, who are used to playing together, are trying to create. Newcomers can sometimes, in their enthusiasm, blithely guess at chords. Yes, the basic chords add rhythm to the music but when some musicians are playing different chordal harmonies than those usually played, it can be a clamorous unmusical clash. Listen to see if that is happening, or is it a balanced blend of instruments, with the tune soaring above everything. When it doesn't happen, other lead musicians get impatient. I do, and I will sometimes ask some players to play less stridently.
I try to share chords with other rhythm players. If I think someone is struggling, or makes it clear to me that they are checking what I am doing, I will sometimes strategically place myself in a place where they can see my fingers. Often I will back off on a set of tunes completely, put my instrument down, and give another guitarist full rein to play their own chords without my interference, and build their own musical backing. For me, it is mind-opening and welcome to hear a innovative chordal backing of a tune with new chords that that I have not heard before. Experienced rhythm players can actually bounce chords off each other once they are familiar with each other's style, by playing on the half-beat, or in other ways filling in gaps. Some sessions, like Jack's (below), prefer to have one designated guitar player and bodhran player. It's good practice to check theses things out in advance.
With bodhrans, just because one is great doesn't mean two is more great. I have heard sessions where there are excellent tune players, but all one can hear is an amorphous white noise because of the multi-bodhrans thumping away. Bodhrans are instruments that, played well, are succinct and rhythmically pleasing. They are best played under the music, giving it crisplift and pace, not drowning it with thuda-thuda noise.
There is an interesting booklet called Field Guide to the Irish Music Session by Barry Foy. (ed. See below) While often written tongue-in-cheek, and even fiddlers and concertina players come in for some slagging from Barry, it's basically good advice. Another knowledgable source on the subject comes from the Plough and Stars website, and this was put together by the illustrious Jack Gilder. (ed. Click Here to read the complete article by Jack Gilder)
He says: "Bodhran, guitar, bouzouki and piano players would benefit greatly by approaching seisiuns (Irish music sessions) very cautiously. These instruments have been given a bad name by insensitive hackers. Many people have the misconception that these instruments are the easiest to play. What they fail to realize is that the effect of these instruments on a seisiun is profound. The rhythm and tonal landscape of the music is what everyone is riding on, and if you're playing an instrument that is the essence of this then you need to be spot on or you'll throw everyone off. You might think you sound great when you're at home playing with your CDs but keep in mind that the CDs can't hear you. The understanding of how to 'back up' Irish traditional music isn't anything that comes overnight. If you're interested in these instruments the best thing to do is find folks that do know how to play them well, then listen and watch. Also, two guitars or bodhrans in a seisiun are too many. If you are an experienced player on these instruments try taking turns rather than playing over each other. Do your part to protect the integrity of instruments that are actually fine contributors to the music.”
In my own session in Berkeley I have sometimes been accused of suffering fools too gladly. My line is that we are all on a continuous learning curve, and people need a place to play. At an open session sometimes impatient musicians can vote with their feet if they don't want to play alongside a noodler, or a thumping bodhran, or insensitive guitarist. People are very sensitive around the issue of talent and musicianship, and with whom they want to put in their time and effort. I try to walk a line of fostering a good session, while encouraging developing musicians. I personally prefer critical tolerance of learners, and I recognize that beginners sometimes can't hear that what they are doing doesn't quite add to the final product. I know this can be very subjective, but I believe the rule of thumb could be new players striving to play softer when in a learning situation, using less pick or plectrum, and as ever, try to learn from more experienced musicians. Over time skills improve and this adds to the session.
Consider also joining slow sessions, or work with other tune learners so that there is familiarity in playing some of the standard tunes. In many sessions across the world, here have been tears and harsh words and walk-outs and flame email wars. But don't be disheartened: we have been playing an open Irish music session in The Starry Plough on a Sunday night for over twenty years and, most times, it's exciting and really great fun. Of course, the occasional song adds to the bright mix.
Once you become really enthused, think about starting your own session with friends, and this becomes a cross-fertilization of talent. We can't have too much Irish music, and diversity in styles, leadership, levels of accomplishment, and types of instruments are very welcome in the genre. Remember to be sensitive about how you are playing, be realistic about your own talent, and be prepared lay down your instrument sometimes during the night to give others a chance to shine.