The Greatest Irish Fiddle Player of Our Time
Updated: January 4, 2021
When people think of traditional Irish fiddle playing, they usually think of furious toe-tapping tunes played at a breakneck speed with fingers flying and bows bouncing off the strings. One Irish fiddle player is responsible for breaking the mould however, and inspiring countless generations in his wake.
Martin Hayes is regarded today as one of the greatest Irish fiddle players in existence. His unique playing style is recognised across the world. But how exactly has this musical legend innovated Irish fiddle playing?
Keep reading to learn about Hayes’ signature style. I’ll introduce you to some of his most iconic and innovative work and show you how you too can play like this master.
Take your playing to the next level with inspiration from the greatest Irish fiddle player of all time.
- Late Night Kitchen Sessions
- Child Prodigy
- Angering the Purists
- What Was the Cause of all the Fuss?
- Slow is Sometimes Better than Fast
- How to Play Like Martin Hayes
- Possibly the Best Trad Music Partnership Ever
- The Gloaming: A Worldwide Sensation
- Follow in Hayes’ Footsteps
Late Night Kitchen Sessions
Martin Hayes was born into a musical family in a small village in East Clare. Music sessions were commonplace in his household and he would often stay awake late into the night listening to the music coming from the kitchen. This immersion in Irish music and the tradition was the perfect breeding ground for his musical genius.
I grew up in a household filled with music in a locality with a rich musical heritage. My father PJ Hayes and my uncle Paddy Canny were both highly respected fiddle players in the world of Irish music. My father also led the Tulla Céilí Band for most of his adult life.
From the very beginning I loved this music and was eager to play. I got my first fiddle when I was seven and the slow process of imitation and absorption began in our kitchen with my Father as my teacher.
– Martin Hayes
Martin’s talent was recognised from a young age. At age 13, he won the All Ireland Fiddle Competition. This was but the first of many awards he was to receive throughout his life. Hayes was crowned an All Ireland Champion a grand total of six times – a huge achievement for any musician.
In 2000, he was awarded the prestigious Instrumentalist of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. He is also a recipient of both the coveted TG4 Gradam Ceoil award for Traditional Musician of the Year and RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Instrumentalist of the Year. In November 2019 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by National University of Ireland Galway in recognition of his contribution to the traditional arts.
While Martin Hayes is one of the most decorated traditional Irish fiddle players in the world, his music and playing style have not always received such high praise.
Angering the Purists
Today Martin Hayes’ soulful interpretations of traditional Irish tunes are recognised and celebrated the world over. This was not always the case however.
Hayes has faced criticism over the years, particularly in his early career, from Irish musicians who claimed his unique style is not representative of traditional Irish music. I for one have never agreed with this claim.
Hayes himself has always been well aware of this quiet judgment. Despite his successful music career, it wasn’t until he won the TG4 Gradam Ceoil in 2008 that he truly felt accepted by the tradition from which he came:
To me, it’s recognition from inside the world of the music itself, which I haven’t had in a long time. That vote of approval from the inner sanctum of the music is a very nice thing; it gives you a bit of strength going on.
– Martin Hayes
So what is it about his playing that so angered the gatekeepers of traditional Irish music?
What Was the Cause of all the Fuss?
Martin Hayes’ fiddle playing style is characterised by his unique laid back approach to the music. While he’s fully capable of playing tunes at a rip roaring pace (and occasionally does), more often than not, he chooses to drastically slow the tempo of the tunes he plays.
Why does he do this?
When you slow down a tune, you remove a lot of the rhythmic components on which traditional Irish music relies. Instead, the melody becomes the focus. This approach allowed the melody to shine through, taking pride of place. Suddenly, these simple melodies take on new shape and meaning:
While I can understand how it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, there’s no denying that Martin Hayes’ playing style comes from a place of great reverence for the music. His love for the tradition is evident in each note he plays. Never before has traditional Irish music been treated with such care.
Each note is carefully selected and played with the utmost sincerity. This is a man who respects his roots and wants to showcase the beauty of traditional Irish music:
In the learning process the dominant message always coming to me from my father and lots of the finest musicians of county Clare was their idea that music must first express feeling. In their opinion no amount of technical prowess could compensate for an absence of soulfulness.
I wasn’t content to simply imitate and reproduce, I needed to decipher the deeper musical aspirations of the older musicians. I needed to get to the heart of this music.
– Martin Hayes
Slow is Sometimes Better than Fast
Martin’s unique approach to Irish music has struck a chord with many.
In his music there is a sense of space and openness. The tunes he plays resonate differently than they would if played at a faster tempo. He allows the listener to engage with the melody, drawing them in with his haunting, soulful expression.
Hayes particularly excels at taking often overlooked tunes that people may dismiss as overly simplistic and giving them a new lease of life:
The melodies are sometimes deceptively simple but almost always beautiful and the rhythm is both understated and entrancing… My goal is to fully reveal the beauty and meaning of these tunes… My playing is focused on allowing the fullest expression of the melody.
The great genius of Irish music is therefore contained within the melody itself.
– Martin Hayes
One of my favourite tracks comes from Martin’s self titled debut album. Britches is his take on one of the best known Irish polkas in existence, The Britches Full of Stitches. Here, Hayes applies his signature touch, slowing the tune right down and exploring the melody and all it has to offer.
What emerges is a beautiful almost melancholy melody. The tune loses its polka feel, taking on a different persona entirely. It doesn’t lose any of its life or vitality however. Why not have a listen for yourself and see what your opinion is?
How to Play Like Martin Hayes
As you’ve probably noticed by now, Martin Hayes uses an awful lot of elongated sliding notes in his playing. These emphasised notes are also usually flattened slightly, sitting just below where the note should be pitched. This creates a vaguely minor tonality, adding an edgy quality to the tune. This stylistic feature has become synonymous with Martin’s playing.
Another distinctive aspect of Martin’s playing that is simple to emulate is the space he creates in tunes. He simply plays fewer notes. He lengthens the important structural notes within a melodic phrase and allows them to ring out. His melodies are never busy and he never overcrowds his playing with too many embellishments.
To truly learn how to emulate Martin’s iconic style however, why not learn from the master himself?
Learn a Tune by Playing Along with Hayes
Allow Hayes to teach you a tune on the fiddle as he takes you step by step through the traditional teaching method his own father taught him.
Possibly the Best Trad Music Partnership Ever
While it’s tough to choose a favourite (each of his albums is a gem), Martin’s 1997 collaboration with American guitarist Dennis Cahill definitely holds a special place in my heart.
Aptly titled, The Lonesome Touch might just be the best description I’ve ever heard for Martin’s own playing style. This album is a brilliant collaboration between two master musicians. I would argue it’s one of the best matched duets to ever exist.
Hayes’ and Cahill’s playing styles and sense of musicality perfectly complement one another. Like Hayes, Dennis Cahill plays just the right amount of notes. Nothing is ever too much. The care and focus with which he plays is evident throughout the album.
The Lonesome Touch offers twelve stunning tracks, each excelling in its own way. As on Martin’s solo albums, entire tracks are devoted to just one tune, rather than arranging them into selections (as is the norm).
The Kerfunken Jig is one such tune given this magical treatment. Played at half the speed one would expect to hear it performed at a session, this once ordinary jig is transformed. It takes on new life and a completely different energy. The tune is repeated with slight melodic variations and embellishments each time. Nothing complicated, yet the tune really sings:
Not all of Haye’s playing is quite so subdued however. This album also contains one of favourite renditions of the iconic reel, The Bucks of Oranmore. While still played at a slightly slower pace than usual, this version certainly isn’t lacking in drive or energy.
In this track you can hear that Hayes is not only a master of melody but also of his instrument. His performance, accompanied by Cahill’s flawless rhythmic guitar backing, is technically brilliant. A true lesson in virtuoso fiddle playing!
The Gloaming: A Worldwide Sensation
Once one knows the true essence of this music it is possible to absorb influences from almost anywhere and not alter the fundamental message of the tune… My collaborations with musicians of all backgrounds begins with the melody, with its universal appeal, its joy…
– Martin Hayes
Martin Hayes has collaborated with some of the greatest musicians in the world. His partnership with the outstanding Dennis Cahill was so powerful however that they decided to add a little more fire to the mix.
In 2011, Hayes formed the iconic ensemble, The Gloaming. In addition to Hayes and Cahill its members include sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionárd, fiddle player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and pianist Thomas Bartlett. This all star lineup is a veritable who’s who of some of the greatest musicians not only in the world of traditional Irish music, but further afield.
While differing in so many ways, the members of The Gloaming all share a common thread in their exquisite musicality and their expressive approach to the music. The music they create together is haunting and tender. They extract the hidden beauty of each tune and song they perform. Their signature melancholy undertones succeed in bringing the listener on an emotional journey.
In 2014, the group won the Meteor Choice Music Prize for Irish Album of the Year. The innovative ensemble have continued to go from strength to strength, gaining further accolades along the way.
The iconic track Samhradh Samhradh is probably their most celebrated and it’s not difficult to hear why. This traditional Irish folk song is a celebration of the summer months. In The Gloaming’s hands however, it takes on a pensive, reflective mood. It perfectly evokes a sense of longing for the lost season and all that has gone with it. A true masterpiece:
Follow in Hayes’ Footsteps
If you’re not already a fiddle player and you’re feeling inspired by the magical fiddle playing of this legend, you might consider giving it a go yourself. It’s never too late to take up a new instrument and start learning traditional Irish music. Our Irish Fiddle Store has a wide range of fiddles and violins to suit all levels.
If you’re looking to take your playing to the next level, perhaps a new fiddle might be just what you need. The McNeela Maestro Violin will help transform you into a musical virtuoso in no time.
For more inspiration from some of the greatest fiddle players of our time, why not check out my blog post: Modern Day Traditional Irish Music Legends – Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.
[Featured image: Martin Hayes]