Irish Music Accompaniment – How to Accompany Traditional Irish Music
Irish music accompaniment is, in my humble opinion an undervalued skill. It can make or break a music ensemble.
A good accompanist will enhance the playing of others, adding to the musicality of the performance, while a bad accompanist… Well, I’m sure we’ve all encountered one at one stage or another.
The overly loud bodhrán player. The four chord guitar wonder. The clueless keys player. These are just a few of the characters you don’t want to end up sitting beside at an Irish music session.
So how do you avoid becoming this dreaded musician, especially if you’re new to the world of traditional Irish music?
I’ve put together this handy guide to help you explore the basics of traditional Irish music accompaniment. While there’s no shortage of accompaniment instruments to choose from, I’ve focused on two of the most popular (and two I receive the most queries about) – the piano and the guitar.
Together we’ll explore the fundamentals of the each instrument and its unique playing style.
So if you want to learn the dos and don’ts of Irish music accompaniment, then let’s dive right in.
- What Makes a Good Accompanist?
- Irish Music Accompaniment: The Piano
- Irish Piano Players to Inspire
- Irish Music Accompaniment: The Guitar
- Irish Guitar Players to Learn From
- The Next Step to Becoming a Great Irish Music Accompanist
What Makes a Good Accompanist?
As I’ve already mentioned, a good accompanist will enhance the playing of others. How is this achieved?
There are four important factors that make a good accompanist:
- An understanding of harmony.
- A musical ear to identify harmonic changes in a tune.
- Knowing the melody and structure of a tune.
- The ability to listen to other musicians.
Understanding Musical Keys & Chord Progressions
Now I know what you might be thinking: isn’t traditional Irish music learned by ear? Yes, the melodies of Irish dance tunes have been passed down aurally from generation to generation. Irish music accompaniment however, like any other genre of music, requires an understanding of musical keys and chord progressions.
So if you don’t know your scales from your arpeggios it’s time to crack open a music theory book. Don’t worry, it’s really not as daunting as it seems. A deeper knowledge and understanding of the reasons behind why what you’re playing does or doesn’t sound good, will work wonders for your abilities, not just as an accompanist but for your overall musicality and musicianship too.
Once you understand the theory behind Irish music accompaniment, it’s time to start putting your newfound knowledge to good work. A difficult step initially can be getting used to recognising and identifying key signatures and tonalities of tunes.
One slight complication here is the use of modes in traditional Irish music. When it comes to tonality, musicians tend to simplify by referring to music as major (happy and bright) or minor (moody, tense or sad). These major and minor keys we refer to are actually just two types of modes – Ionian and Aeolian. In Western music theory, there are seven modes in total.
What is a mode? It’s very simple. A mode is a musical scale with characteristic melodic and harmonic traits and rules. Say for example you’re listening to a tune and you can’t quite figure out if it’s in D Major or G Major, chances are it could actually be in a mode called D Mixolydian.
The mixolydian mode features the iconic flattened seventh that has become associated with traditional Irish music and its signature sound. The Holly Bush is one such example of an Irish tune in a mixolydian mode. This popular reel is frequently played at Irish music sessions and is well worth knowing:
This is one of the reasons why Irish music accompanists can often favour the use of open chords. Open chords are chords that omit the third of the chord. The third dictates whether a chord is major or minor. Without the third the chord is neither major nor minor, and creates a more ambiguous sound. This ambiguous sound (not quite major, not quite minor) is often referred to as ‘modal’ by traditional musicians.
Now, some musicians could argue for days about what mode a tune is in, but don’t worry, even a vague understanding when it comes to modes is better than none at all and will greatly help you along the way!
Developing Your Musical Ear
What’s the trick to mastering playing any form of music? Listen, listen, listen.
The best way to develop your musical ear (which will really help you out when it comes to identifying modes, key signatures and tonality) is by listening to as much music as you can.
For accompanists it’s twice the workload as you need to listen not only to the musical accompaniment, but also to the tunes themselves.
Knowing the Tune
Irish music accompaniment is all about knowing the tune. Memorised chord progressions will only get you so far. Understanding the tune you are accompanying is vital.
It’s no coincidence that many of the greatest accompanists are also outstanding melody players. If you don’t know the melody and structure of a tune you won’t know how to harmonise it and you won’t be able to shape your playing to complement its melodic features.
No one wants to play with an accompanist who has learned just four chords and is going to play them regardless of which tune they’re accompanying. That’s the one of the biggest don’ts of accompanying traditional Irish music right there.
So listen to as many recordings as possible. Listen to accompanists you love. Listen to accompanists you don’t love. Try to figure out what it is that draws you to one style over another, and then you can begin to replicate it.
Irish Music Accompaniment: The Piano
The piano first featured as an Irish accompaniment instrument in recordings of traditional Irish music from the 1920’s onwards. While it was likely adopted into the tradition much earlier, the piano’s role has changed significantly over time.
Despite the existence of many highly acclaimed traditional Irish piano players, a truly Irish piano playing style is yet to emerge. As a result however, there’s a wide selection of exciting Irish piano playing styles to excite and inspire.
Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin is usually the first name that comes to mind when you think of Irish piano playing. This world renowned virtuoso created his own unique and instantly recognisable piano playing style.
A fusion of classical and Irish folk, Mícheál’s piano playing showcased his virtuosic melody playing. While there’s no denying his musical genius, Mícheál’s piano playing style is not however a helpful example of Irish piano accompaniment. While the piano can and does feature as a melody instrument in the world of traditional Irish music, it’s far more commonly used to accompany dance tunes.
Most Irish piano players today are highly skilled musicians who can move effortlessly from one style to another, taking on the role of either melody player or accompanist with ease. Have a listen to the brilliant Tadhg Ó Meachair – a student of the great Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin himself – in action, for a true masterclass in Irish piano playing:
Irish Céilí Bands
It was through Irish céilí bands that vamping – the name commonly given to traditional Irish piano accompaniment – first gained popularity.
As you can imagine, when playing for dances, timing and rhythm is of the utmost importance. As a result, the piano (as it so frequently does in ensemble playing and other genres of music such as jazz) became part of the rhythm section of the band. Its role was not melodic, but to be a driving force behind the band, keeping time and adding harmonic context with a pulsing bass line.
This highly rhythmic, chordal style of piano accompaniment has become widespread today in traditional Irish music. But how does it work?
What Is Vamping?
In its most basic form, vamping simply involves playing triads (three note chords) in the right hand, with a single bass note in the left hand. The left hand typically plays on the beat, while the right hand plays chords on the off beat.
The left hand typically features a sort of walking bass line, based on ascending and descending major scales. See the diagram below for a brief example of a simple reel accompaniment pattern in D major:
The astute amongst you might notice that there’s not much happening either melodically or harmonically in the right hand, and you’d be right. That step comes later. This is merely a simplified example of vamping in its most basic form.
Many Irish dance tunes are grounded in the tonic (no that’s not a drinking metaphor – the tonic is the first note of the scale, or ‘doh’ as it’s commonly known). Due to the relatively simple repetitive melodies, you’ll find the tonic chord of I (or doh, whichever you’d prefer to call it – in this case a D major chord) will usually harmonise quite a lot of the tune.
Now, this will vary from tune to tune, and melody to melody of course. Nonetheless, the above is a great starting point for any beginner piano player looking to get to grips with the basics of vamping.
If you want to simplify it even further you could substitute the chords in the right hand for an open D5 chord like so, allowing you to focus on rhythm and left hand movement:
Of course, the above may contain a few brief clashing notes here and there, but as an introductory exercise, it’s incredibly helpful. To choose the best chords to accompany a tune, you’ll need to recognise its key signature, know the melody and identify the harmonic changes. This will come with practice.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can look at inversions (re-voicing and turning chords on their head) and extended chords (chords with extra notes), as well as introducing some rhythmic interest such as syncopation. Don’t be afraid to start slow though.
Remember, traditional Irish music is highly rhythmic in nature, that’s why it’s so important to focus on developing the correct playing technique. For piano accompaniment this means strong rhythmic movement with no heaviness in the right hand. With plenty of practice, and even more listening, you’ll be well on your way in no time!
Modern Irish Piano Accompaniment
In the early days of céilí bands, the rhythm took precedence. Steady piano playing with no syncopation was most desired. In other words, everything was played on the beat giving that ‘oom-pah’ feel. Bridie Lafferty of the Castle Céilí Band and Kitty Lenane of the Kilfenora Céilí Band are two early piano players who embodied the essence of traditional Irish vamping.
Over time however, as Irish music ensembles evolved, the role of the piano player began to expand. Like many musicians, piano players began to incorporate elements of other musical genres into their playing such as chromaticism (semitone movement/adding notes and chords from outside the key), syncopation (playing on the off beat), extended chords (chords with lots of extra notes), and alternate harmony (replacing obvious chord choices with more interesting chords).
Smaller ensembles also meant that piano accompaniment could focus less on a rhythmic role, and incorporate more melodic elements. Today, modern Irish piano vamping is a true artform that varies stylistically from player to player. Musical interpretation, hand technique and choice of chord progressions all combine to create distinctive personal styles.
Irish Piano Players to Inspire
There really is no shortage of Irish piano players to look to for inspiration, each with their own unique playing style. I’ve whittled down a potentially endless list to recommend some of my personal favourites below.
In addition to being a renowned fiddle player and one of the most prolific living Irish tune composers in existence, Charlie Lennon is also a skilled piano player. His understated playing style is an example of the older more traditional style – with some slight differences however.
Never heavy handed, Charlie Lennon offers a light touch that is highly rhythmic, yet distinctly delicate. Here he is playing a selection of hornpipes with legendary Irish button accordion player Joe Burke and Anne Conroy:
Another highly rhythmic player with his own unique playing style, Carl Hession is a true legend of the keys. A trained classical pianist who specialised in keyboard improvisation, Carl’s piano playing is a little more robust, featuring tasteful use of seventh chords and chromatic movement. His percussive, rhythmic swing is instantly identifiable.
Hear him in action below accompanying the great Frankie Gavin. Listen out around 2:15 for some examples of Carl’s use of chromaticism – it’s particularly evident in his left hand bass notes:
Another stalwart ambassador of the Irish piano, Brian McGrath has played with the best of the best. You might recognise him from his years with Dervish and Four Men and a Dog – to name but a few of his musical achievements.
Brian’s tasteful piano accompaniment embodies all the elements of traditional vamping with a few modern twists thrown in. Highly rhythmic, his piano playing succeeds in driving the music without dominating. Listen to him in action below, accompanying the mighty Frankie Gavin and Noel Hill:
Ryan Molloy is a paragon of modern Irish piano playing. His rich, innovative piano playing is highly melodic, borrowing stylistic elements from other genres. This is particularly evident in his choice of harmony and chords.
While many modern players borrow blindly from other genres, applying stylistic elements with varied success, Ryan delivers nuanced performances informed by his deep understanding of traditional Irish music. It’s no wonder he’s in such demand as an accompanist.
Here he is exhibiting his virtuosic range, accompanying Irish fiddle players Fergal Scahill and Sarah McHale:
Irish Music Accompaniment: The Guitar
Much like the piano, there is no one, uniform style of Irish guitar playing. Unlike the piano however, it is typically used far less for melody playing. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. A notable exception is the late great Arty McGlynn, who effortlessly wrapped his fingers around many an Irish dance tune. Here he is, accompanied by the legendary Paul Brady. An unusual duet there’s no denying, but it works:
The guitar was first used in traditional Irish music accompaniment in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that it began to gain popularity.
Influenced by the great North American folk revival of the ’60s, the guitar became popular for accompanying ballads and other Irish folk songs. New sophisticated playing styles emerged, led by musicians such as Dónal Lunny, Paul Brady and Mick Moloney:
By the 1970’s the guitar had become much more widespread in the accompanying of traditional Irish dance tunes. A new standard of Irish guitar playing had been set.
The playing style that emerged favoured rhythmic, syncopated strumming, played using a plectrum on steel strings. This created a bright, resonant yet percussive sound:
Guitar Tuning – Standard Tuning vs DADGAD
The highly melodic nature of traditional Irish music requires a flexible approach to musical accompaniment.
Some guitar players find that chords formed using standard tuning – EADGBE – impose a harmonic rigidity that is unsuited to the nature of Irish folk melodies. In search of more appropriate guitar voicings, many Irish guitar players have turned to alternate tunings.
The most popular alternate tuning used today in Irish music is DADGAD.
What is DADGAD?
DADGAD is a form of alternating tuning where the guitar strings are tuned to the notes D, A, D, G, A and D respectively. Many Irish guitar players prefer the sound of chords played with this tuning due to their more open, modal nature.
As I’ve already mentioned, open chords are chords that omit the third. It’s this third note of the chord that dictates whether the sound it creates is major (happy) or minor (moody/sad). These open chords (with the third omitted) are neither major nor minor and create that ambiguous modal sound we talked about earlier. This gives more freedom to the tonality of the tune.
As a result, DADGAD tuning allows players to accompany Irish music without dictating the sound according to the rules of a major or minor key. It instead creates a freer, more open sound, shaped by the melody of the tune itself.
Which Irish Guitar Tuning is Best?
I’m often asked by guitar players which tuning is best for playing the Irish guitar and accompanying traditional Irish music. Unfortunately this is not a question I can give a definitive response to as the answer is highly subjective. There are benefits to both styles of playing.
For those guitar players who already play with standard tuning, there is no obligation to relearn using a new system. Denis Cahill for example – one of the world’s finest guitarists in traditional Irish music – has developed his own unique style in standard playing:
If you prefer the modal sound of instruments such as the bouzouki however, then DADGAD may be the tuning for you.
Irish Guitar Players to Learn From
As with the piano, there’s no shortage of traditional Irish guitar players to look to for inspiration.
You probably noticed Arty’s was the first name that popped up when I started to discuss Irish guitar playing. The two go hand in hand. Arty McGlynn was one of the finest Irish guitar players to have ever graced the world of traditional Irish music. A master guitarist, his legacy is unrivalled.
Planxty, De Dannan, Four Men and a Dog, Van Morrison, Liam O’Flynn, Nollaig Casey – Arty performed with the best of the best and was hugely in demand as an accompanist. With his strong, rhythmic, syncopated strumming (note the use of plectrum on steel strings) and melodic playing, Arty truly set the standard for Irish guitar playing. Here he is accompanying the great Gerry Banjo O’Connor:
Those of you who subscribe to my monthly Irish music newsletter will already know that Steve Cooney was the recipient of the RTÉ Folk Awards Lifetime Achievement in 2020. The Australian-born musician’s influence on the world of Irish guitar playing has been monumental:
‘Before Cooney, string accompanists (guitarists and bouzouki players) strummed along with jigs and reels providing depth and chordal colour, but rarely any driving or eruptive power. Cooney changed that forever.
He introduced backbeat and an entire vernacular of triplets, skirls, rallies, stop-starts and dizzying runs of impossible chords which no one else has yet figured out how to do. His influence on Irish trad guitar is akin to Hendrix’s on rock: he raised the bar and the rest of the world is still catching up.’ – Mike Scott
If you’re not familiar with Steve’s playing, but it sounds similar to that of other musicians, that will be because he has inspired generations of guitar players. Many Irish guitar players strive to emulate his influential playing style.
Have a listen to his phenomenal playing in action alongside Irish fiddle virtuoso Liz Carroll. The energy is palpable:
Jim Murray is another of Ireland’s leading guitar players. He has performed with so many big names it’s hard to keep track, though you can frequently find him accompanying the inimitable Sharon Shannon.
Jim embodies all the best elements of modern Irish guitar accompaniment. His playing is rhythmic and percussive yet highly melodic. It’s clear that Jim’s talent as a melody player informs his accompaniment skills – he intimately understands the music he is accompanying. This is easily identifiable in his performance below with none other than renowned flute and whistle player Michael McGoldrick:
Longtime musical partner to Martin Hayes (possibly the greatest Irish fiddle player in existence), Chicago-born Dennis Cahill is probably one of the best known names in the world of traditional Irish guitar playing today.
To say Dennis knows his way around a guitar is an understatement. His playing in a masterclass in subtlety.
‘Dennis Cahill is a subtle guitar master. With Cahill you get delicate support. It’s a rhythm that keeps the tune in; that accents and colors but never overtakes. It’s brilliant restraint that serves the music and perfectly suits his partner.’ – NPR
Cahill’s playing is laced with elements of jazz guitar, but never so much that it feels too far removed from the traditional dance tunes he accompanies. Listen to his performance below with the iconic Martin Hayes – two masters of the tradition whose playing perfectly complements each other:
The Next Step to Becoming a Great Irish Music Accompanist
If you’re feeling inspired and you’re looking for a little more direction, now might be a good time to check out some of the great Irish music accompaniment tutors I have in stock in my online store:
The Foinn Seisiúin series of books and CDs is a great starting point for anyone looking to brush up on their Irish session tunes before turning your hand to accompaniment.
Geraldine Cotter’s Seinn an Piano is a beginner tutorial for those looking to learn to play the Irish piano. It mostly covers solo melody playing, but it does contain a very useful section relating to accompaniment which gives a comprehensive list of chord progression in various keys.
I also stock The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book by Sarah McQuaid which will teach you all about accompanying Irish music using this open tuning system.
Finally, for those bouzouki players amongst you, there’s the incredibly handy guide, Chords for Irish Bouzouki.
Sadly I don’t stock pianos (there just wouldn’t be room in my already overflowing workshop!) but I do have a great range of exceptional acoustic guitars – specially selected with Irish music in mind and perfect for accompanying traditional Irish music.
So what are you waiting for? Start brushing up on your accompaniment skills now and I’ll save you a seat at the next session.
Go n-éirí leat!