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Irish session tunes do not require accompaniment. Unlike pop and rock music where rhythm guitars, drums and bass etc are used to lay down the groove or pulse of the tune, these tunes are quite capable of standing on their own with the melody instruments providing the pulse or lilt of the music.
The introduction of the guitar and bouzouki is a relatively recent addition to the music. While there are many groups performing on stage with these instruments as part of the lineup they rely on a PA system to balance sound levels. The same instrumentation will probably not work in a purely acoustic setting in a session. A guitar and/or bouzouki playing all strings loudly will dominate a single fiddle in a session and that’s not good.
That said, accompaniment that supports the melody can add value to the session. The accompanist needs to understand the melodic structure of the tunes and choose appropriate chords, but must allow the melody players to dictate the rhythm. Many of the tunes have variations which allow for different note choices. For example, some tunes may have ‘C’ notes in one iteration and ‘C#’ notes next time round. A guitar or bouzouki player who misses this and plays the “wrong” chord at this point will make people unhappy.
The standard right hand rhythm patterns that work with folk songs or pop music aren’t appropriate for session tunes. Experienced backers will seldom play all of the strings at once. Tasteful partial chords and counterpoint often fit well. Frequently there is an over emphasis on getting the “right chords” but getting a good right-hand technique is equally, if not more important.
If you don’t know a tune, sit it out. The melody players won’t be offended. It is embarrassing to play backing for a tune in ‘G’ only to have a melody player mention that the tune was in ‘D’ when it is finished. Experienced session players can sometimes pick up tunes on the fly during a session. This is true of melody and backing players. If you’ve heard lots of these tunes then you begin to see patterns emerge but there are plenty of tunes around that have key changes and twists that can get you into trouble.
It’s a good plan to listen to the tunes you want to play using the slow down and loop options on this site. Listen to them without your instrument until you can lilt (or hum) them before working out what chords are appropriate. Imagine trying to accompany a song if you didn’t know the melody. If you find chord options written out, try them but be willing to be sceptical and try other things. Also, work on your right-hand technique.
Listen to recordings. If you listen to tunes with accompaniment you will often find that the backing will change between repetitions of the tune. When you listen to tunes with backing, pay particular attention to what the backing player is doing.
Some Do’s and Don’ts
- Do learn each tune before you attempt to provide backing. Playing along with a tune using the wrong chords is distracting to the other players.
- Do look around the session as you are playing to ensure you are aware of how your backing is being received.
- Don’t play loud. When in doubt, play more softly.
- Do take turns if there are multiple backing instruments in a session. Only one at a time.
- Don’t play loud enough to be heard by others if you aren’t sure of the chords.
- Don’t use a rhythm that forces the melody players into following your accompaniment. You are following them, but not dragging them back either.
- Don’t feel obliged to play with every tune. Solo pieces, and in particular slow airs, should not be accompanied (unless requested).
Remember, good backing is difficult to learn. It is at least as difficult as learning the tunes for the melody players.