Celticsprite’s Blog

>California Coast Music Camp: Songwriting & Guitar Fingerpicking Lessons by Danny Carnahan
May 13, 2011, 4:41 pm
Filed under: Reviews on Celtic Tunes by Danny Carnahan


California Coast Music Camp has already scheduled it’s dates and rates for the 2011 Edition.
My partner reviewer and celtic musician Danny Carnahan will be giving once again two classes on it’s first week: from July 10th thru July 16th

Danny Carnahan has been recording Celtic and his own original songs for over 30 years, playing octave mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and singing. He performs most often with the popular septet Wake the Dead. He has taught performance and songwriting in community colleges and at music camps for 25 years, writes for music magazines, and has published a book of Irish Songs for Guitar and two musical murder mysteries.

  • Songwriting (all levels)

Whether you’ve never written a thing or have a hundred songs under your belt, this class will help kick-start creativity and open up new ways to find your songs and wrestle them into singable shape. We will write and collaborate every day, exploring the joys of lyrics, melody, form, and how to put them all together. Try your hand at the world’s most gratifying and noncompetitive art form.

  • Guitar Fingerpicking (level 2)

Fingerpick without fear! If you have fingers you can fingerpick. We’ll learn some of the most popular and sneakily powerful picking patterns that will set you up for a lifetime of fun. Learn how fingerpicking can help you change chords more cleanly. Build confidence in all the most useful keys. Learn new tunes and possibly new ways to play your favorites. This is all about pickin’ and grinnin’. . . bring your own grin.

Explanation of class levels

PDF of 2011 brochure

Classes and teachers are subject to change.




>Mick Fitzgerald: "An Appreciation" by Danny Carnahan
April 1, 2011, 5:34 pm
Filed under: Reviews on Celtic Tunes by Danny Carnahan


This article was previously published on Danny Carnahan‘s Official Website and posted under his kind permission. All rights reserved by the author.

If anyone ever asked me to name the person most responsible for whatever success I have enjoyed in my musical career, I would have to name Mick Fitzgerald.

I first encountered Mick in 1978 during an extended visit to Ireland, performing onstage at Slattery’s Bar with his band Tipsy Sailor. Mick was singing and playing guitar and bodhran, Kieran Halpin singing and playing guitar, Johnny Keenan playing whistle, and Fiaich O’Brun playing bouzouki. In that instant I knew that I wanted to be doing exactly what they were doing. I decided to befriend them and within 24 hours Mick, Kieran, Robin and I were sitting around at Kieran’s sister’s flat, drinking Guinness and singing.
In one afternoon, having known me for only a few hours, Mick dumped over 20 original songs onto my tape recorder. Two original Mick songs and five other Tipsy Sailor arrangements, brazenly cribbed, became much of the early Caswell Carnahan repertoire and a large part of our first album. Mick’s tremendous songwriting talent, combined with the energy and confidence of his performances with Kieran and crew showed me what was possible to do with Celtic music but that had never been done yet out in California. Critics called Caswell Carnahan a ground-breaking band in the Celtic explosion of the ‘80s, but that was only because they had never heard the real thing in Dublin.

Over the years, I have recorded six of Mick’s songs on four different albums: “Rathdrum Fair,” “Breton Air,” “Brightened in the Morning,” “All Our Trades Have Gone,” “Summer Nights,” and “The Black Dodder.” Another great Mick song, “The Only Stranger,” is set for inclusion on my next album, whenever that happens. I happily proselytize Mick’s songs to other performers wherever I go, encouraging them to arrange, perform, and record them. My favorite Mick cover to date is the lovely June Tabor’s smoldering take on “All Our Trades Are Gone,” on her 1992 CD “Angel Tiger” (Green Linnet GLCD 3074).

Mick’s own discography is sparse, to say the least. until recently the only LP I had featuring Mick was the 1983 Wild Geese album “In Full Flight” (German release on Joke Records JLP215). The Wild Geese lineup at that time included guitarist/singer Manus Lunny and fiddler/banjo whiz Gerry O’Connor, two tremendously talented musicians whose careers took off in the ‘90s. It’s a very spotty record, running from gorgeous to embarrassing, but worth a listen if you can find it.

Happily, in 2003 Mick released his first solo CD, “Light Sleeper” (Mogg Records, distributed by Claddagh). Backed by a spare trio and several guests including fiddler Maurice Lennon, Mick includes a couple of early classics like “Rathdrum Fair” as well as new songs like “Ballad of Capel Street” that rival his best work. Click here to order a CD from Claddagh. U.S. distribution is still pending.

Mick still lives in Dublin and continues to write songs and sing in the clubs. In about 2002 he landed a bit part in an Irish movie called “How Harry Became a Tree,” starring Colm Meany and Adrian Dunbar. If it ever finds US distribution, look for Mick as one of the exceedingly seedy-looking musicians. As he says: “Damn typecasting!” Mick is increasingly active in the theatre these days and you can find out more about his recent roles on his new website.

If you are interested in performing or recording any of Mick’s songs or would like more information about Mick, please feel free to mail me to : dannycarnahan@earthlink.net

>"Triplets, Anyone? " by Danny Carnahan
March 1, 2011, 4:41 pm
Filed under: Reviews on Celtic Tunes by Danny Carnahan

>This article was previously published on Mandolin Magazine by Danny Carnahan and posted under his kind permission. All rights reserved by the author.

You may listen to a cute version of the tune on the album “Pilgirm’s Road” by the contemporary Celtic folk band “Aisling” from central Ohio, USA.

[Click here for Pg. 1 and here for Pg. 2 of printable notation for “Spirit of the House”]

In one of my first columns, in a fit of honesty, I admitted that Celtic-style picked triplets are so hard to play clearly that I usually avoid them. I occasionally find this fact embarrasing two decades into my performing and teaching career. I cover my technical shortcoming with sneaky little pull-off and pick combinations that seem to do the job. But the crisp triple-pick ornaments? I remain in awe of the players who make them look and sound easy.

So I thought this time I’d try to deconstruct these triplets in a way that you determined and nimble-knuckled students of the genre might find helpful. As an exercise, I chose a nifty dark and rolling reel called “Spirit of the House,” which was written by Missouri fiddler Becky Pringle. It’s chock full of triplet opportunities as we’ll see shortly. But first a little about the mando whiz who first taught me the tune.

Gerald Trimble, an astonishingly gifted double-course player from Kansas City, was one of the Celtic players I first tried to cop triplets from. Now retired from the Celtic scene, he used to play a gigantic custom-made 10-string John Monteleone cittern with string guages roughly the same as a set of medium-guage guitar strings. And yet, Gerald could play distinct triplets on any course pretty much anywhere in a tune. He used a thick, rounded pick and would sort of pinch it between thumb and index finger when digging into a triplet.

I first got to spend some quality time with Gerald during a summer some years ago in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe attracted musicians from all over and we’d play in the pubs and restaurants and friends’ apartments and on park benches around the clock. I don’t remember getting much sleep that summer. I’d sit with my face not a foot from Gerald’s right hand and watch his muscles articulate and I never could figure out what he was doing that I wasn’t doing. He was very patient with me.

Theoretically, I came away with the idea that economy of motion was crucial. One doesn’t want to flail the wrist around when ornamenting fast Celtic jigs and reels. In fact, Gerald seemed to use almost no wrist articulation when digging into a triplet. He’d pinch the pick in toward his palm ever so slightly just as he went for the first down stroke. It was beautiful.

So gearing down to dead slow, I’ve tried to master the triplet strokes. Clearly it’s more common to start a triplet on a down stroke. Of course, this means that the note following the triplet will, often as not, want to be an up stroke, which can present emphasis problems. But, like most musical problems, there is more than one solution.

“Spirit of the House” starts off in A-modal, then moves to D-modal for the B part, staying there to the bitter end, till you start up again and launch back into A-modal on the next time through. Very satisfying indeed. And though the synchopated style notated here encourages a generally swingy back-beat for this tune, be sure when you get to the B part to nail the one beats in the first, third, and fifth bars good and hard.

I’ve written the A part out here without the usual repeat so I can indicate two different ways to pick the triplets. The first eight bars I’ll indicate the separate strokes used by Gerald Trimble and the second eight bars I’ll indicate the way I play them using hammer-ons and pull-offs. Follow your bliss. Likely as not, you’ll come up with a third path that will get the job done.

You’ll notice that in order to articulate three notes in the G-course triplets in the Repeat A section (first and fifth bars), I had to hammer-on a different note from the one played in the first A part. It goes by so quickly, though, that it serves more of a rhythmic than a melodic purpose. I’m able, however, to play identical-shaped ascending and descending triplets in the fourth and eighth bars with the help of hammer-ons and pull-offs.

In each case here, my trick is to pick the first note of the triplet with a down-stroke, then either hammer-on or pull-off the second note, then pick the third note with an up-stroke while simultaneously either pulling off or hammering on, depending on whether it’s ascending or descending. This double-whammy, emphasizing with both right and left hands on the third note of the triplet, gives it a little extra something that keeps it sparkling.

“Spirit of the House” is an underappreciated gem of a tune. It’s a killer session tune that medleys just as nicely into another dark A-modal reel or something in a bright D-major. And when you play it, send warm thoughts to Becky Pringle and Gerald Trimble and the rest of the fine musicians who helped make Kansas City a rich if unlikely hotbed of Celtic revival throughout this last generation.

[Click here for Pg. 1 and here for Pg. 2 of printable notation for “Spirit of the House”]

>"A Sweet Song For Spring" – The Rambler from Clare – by Danny Carnahan
February 17, 2011, 7:18 pm
Filed under: Reviews on Celtic Tunes by Danny Carnahan


This article was previously published on Mandolin Magazine by Danny Carnahan and posted under his kind permission. All rights reserved by the author.
You may find a cute version of this song on the album “Two for The Road” by Danny Carnahan & Robin Petrie.

[Click here for Pg. 1 and here for Pg. 2 of printable notation for “Rambler From Clare”]

A Sweet Song for Spring

Sitting and plunking on my octave mandolin recently on a gray Sunday afternoon, I found myself playing a song I hadn’t played in years, its sweet Irish melancholy just welling up perfectly to capture the mood of the day. “The Rambler From Clare” is a song I first learned in my early days in Dublin, when everything was new and exciting and I just couldn’t learn songs fast enough. I heard Kieran Halpin sing it, accompanying himself on guitar at the now-legendary Slattery’s Bar, and instantly fell in love with it.

Now, I’m a great believer in using the mando for more than just picking tunes or chording along in sessions. Mandolins, octave mandolins, mandolas, and all the Celtic variants from bouzoukis to citterns to blarges, are also ideal for accompanying songs. The chord voicings and inversions are very different from those you get with a guitar, however you choose to tune it. And whether you chord with 3 or 4 courses or arpeggiate, you find lovely open string suspensions with mandos that somehow fit Irish songs perfectly.

This being said, Celtic mandos are entirely underutilised for song settings, in my humble opinion. There are, of course, a few double-course giants in the field of Celtic song. If you’re looking for both repertoire and inspiration, you can’t beat “Rock & More Roses” by Pat Kilbride, or nearly anything by Brian McNeill. But there’s always room for more and I’m still waiting for the mando-Hendrix of the next generation to make him- or herself known.

I recently included a guitar transcription of “The Rambler From Clare” in my book, “Irish Songs For Guitar,” published by Hal Leonard. But as nice as it sounds with simple guitar accompaniment, I find the song comes to life in a different way when played on mando. There’s a rolling quality to the rhythm that draws the story out with exceptional ease, clarity, and emotion. When you work out the transcription here, be sure to keep your tempo nice and easy. After all, you’re telling a story of a young man’s resistance to authority and the power of Irish family ties in times of trouble.

For those scholars among you who like to research song lyrics, you’ll find a definitive version of this song in Colm O Lochlainn’s 1965 collection, “More Irish Street Ballads.” In the published version, there are several more verses than are commonly sung in the pubs today. I keep the story short, entirely omitting the love interest, Sally Magee, and concentrating on the more cinematic plot points of boy-gets-arrested, boy-gets-sprung-from-jail, and boy-escapes-to-Australia.
As for the techniques I use to play this song, I try to keep things very simple, indeed. I often use my thumb to cover both G and D courses when brushing the full A-modal chord, but not all the time. I’ve indicated in the notation which places I bar both courses, and which places I only bar the G course, stopping the D course with my index finger.

The only really odd fingering is the B-modal chord in the phrases between the verses. I bar the bottom two courses on the 4th fret with my thumb and the top two courses on the 2nd fret with my index finger. This may be cruel and unusual for those of you with very long scale lengths, though regular mandolins might present easier ways to hit the notes. My fingerings are 25-year-old artifacts dating back to my first flailings on my octave mandolin, borrowing chops as necessary from guitar and with little or no conscious acknowledgement of mandolin fingerings. So good luck finding a comfy way to play it. And when in doubt, leave strings open and brush those suspensions with deliberate gusto.

My arrangement of this song is simple. I toggle between two instrumental passages linking the verses, without adding extra bars or vamps or anything. You can play either or both and mix and match as you like. To finish the song, I simply indulge in a slight ritard and end it on the last sung syllable. “The Rambler From Clare” could provide a welcome emotional shift in any pub session, or just a quiet respite from the frantic jigs and reels and a chance to get yourself another pint.

[Click here for Pg. 1 and here for Pg. 2 of printable notation for “Rambler From Clare”]

“The Rambler from Clare

— lyrics from Colm O’Loughlin’s “More Irish Street Ballads.”

The first of my courtships that was ever made known
I straight made my way to the County Tyrone
And there among the fair maids, they used me well there
And they called me the stranger and the Rambler from Clare

Twas then I enlisted in the town of Fermoy
But with so many masters I could not comply
I deserted next morning, the truth I declare
And for Limerick town started the Rambler from Clare

When like a deserter my case to bewail
I was captured and taken to the town of Rathkeale
Then off to headquarters I had to repair
And in the black hole lay the Rambler from Clare

I took off my hat and I made a low bow
In hopes that the colonel would pardon me now
The pardon he gave me was hard and severe
Twas, Bind him, confine him for ninety-nine years

My poor, innocent mother got a woeful surprise
And my loving brother, his shouts reached the skies
Brave boys, said my father, Your arms now prepare
And bring me my darlin’, the Rambler from Clare

It was then they assembled in a harmonious band
With their guns on their shoulders they were ten thousand strong
The firing began with the boys in the rear
And they broke the jail doors and took the Rambler from Clare

Now I’ve got the title of a United Man
I cannot go home to my own native land
So off to America I now must repair
And leave all my friends in the sweet County Clare

>Suggested Albums for folk band versions of "Thomas the Rhymer" and "Tam Lin"

>FairyLore concerning the Otherworld have always nurtured the folk music ballads, and the characters of Tam Lin and Thomas Rhymer are not excluded.

In the case of Tam Lin I gladly recommend versions from Fairport Convention‘s “Liege and Lief“, featuring the vocals of Sandy Denny w/ arrangement of “Tam Lin” by Dave Swarbrick, and from Steeleye Span’s “Tonight’s the Night,” featuring a rocking version by Maddy Prior.

Regarding “Thomas The Rhymer” I recomend once again the work of Steeleye Span – they have recorded two different versions for the “Now We Are Six album“, and Re-recorded (differently) for “Present–The Very Best of Steeleye Span” album.

There is a cute rendering of this ballad under the name of “True Thomas” by my friend Danny Carnahan on his solo album w/Robin Petrie “Journeys of the Heart“.

Hereby a quotation of his booklet liner notes and own version for the lyrics:

” I wrote this song around a very old Child ballad based on the 13th century legend of Thomas Rymer of Ercildoun. Thomas was said to have visited the land of Faery and returned with the gift of prophesy and a tongue that could not lie. Most recent versions of the ballad leave off at the point where Thomas is taken to the other world, but one 14th century version in Middle English recounts what happened afterwards and how Thomas returned to earth. I based my lyrics on this older story.”

True Thomas

(from “Journeys of the Heart”)

Thomas lay upon the grassy banks
And beheld a lady gay
Come riding o’er so brisk and bold
All on the ferny brae

And her skirt was of the silk so green
And her cloak the velvet fine
And at each toss her horse’s mane
Rang fifty bells and nine

And Thomas did salute her,
Bowing down upon his knee
And he’s said, ‘Well met, enchanting one,
You’re the flow’r of this country’

And as he’s gazed upon her
Oh, so blind with love was he
That he has kissed her ruby lips
All ‘neath the Eildon Tree

‘Oh, now you’ve kissed me, Thomas
You must ride away with me
To serve my will for seven years
Whate’er your chance may be’

And she’s mounted up her snow-white steed
And pulled Thomas up behind
And aye, each time her bridle rang
They flew swift as the wind

And on they road and farther on
Till they spied a garden green
And she’s said, ‘Light down, dear Thomas
For we near my fair country

And take this bread and wine
And lay your head down on my knee
For when your fill you’ve eaten
I will show you fairlies three

See the narrow road to Paradise
How it winds through thorn and tree
The broad road leads to the gates of Hell
Though fair it seems to be

But see you not yon farther road
Winding round the lily lea
That is the road to my fair land
Whence you must go with me

But hold your tongue, dear Thomas
And answer only unto me
For should you speak unto another
Your own home you ne’er will see’

When Thomas came into the hall
Oh, a well-bred man was he
They asked him questions one and all
But not one word spoke he

It’s of woven clouds she’s made the roof
And of flowered vines the walls
And jewels did shower down as rain
That night among them all

And each day brought Thomas wonders
Never seen be mortal eye
And each night brought Thomas wonders
As next the lady he did lie

But she’s rose and said, ‘Dear Thomas,
Now it’s time you were away.
For seven years have passed and gone
Though it seems but seven days’

‘If it’s seven years, my lady,
Since my face on earth was seen,
Pray give to me some token
That I may prove where I have been’

And it’s on they rode and farther on
To the Huntley Banks rode she
And she set him down upon the ground
Beside the Eildon Tree

‘As you’d have a token , Thomas,
A rare token shall it be,
For the gift I give you, Thomas,
Is a tongue that cannot lie’

But he’s cried, ‘I pray you, lady,
And give not this gift to me,
For how may I counsel prince or lord
Or court a fair lady?’

‘Be careful in your silence
As you’re careful what you say,
May your truth outlive them all,’ she said
As she turned and rode away

© 1984 Danny Carnahan/Post-Trad Music

"Adding Bagpipe Spice to a Mando Reel" By Danny Carnahan
January 12, 2011, 4:52 pm
Filed under: Reviews on Celtic Tunes by Danny Carnahan
This article was previously published on Mandolin Magazine by Danny Carnahan and posted under his kind permission. All rights reserved by the author.

[Click here for printable notation for “Timour the Tartar”] Listen to a nice rendering of this tune also known as “Peter Street”, on “The Celtic Harp” album by The Chieftains.

It’s been a good while since I’ve talked about Celtic ornaments in this space, so I thought I’d trot out a favorite Scottish fiddle tune that sports a particularly nice ornament requiring both hands to accomplish.

As you probably know, the whole purpose of Celtic ornamentation on the mandolin and mando family instruments is to make the mando sound as much as possible like other instruments that are already part of the Celtic tradition. Hence, mandos try to emulate fiddles, which in turn try to emulate the bagpipes and on back to the bagpipes emulating the human voice singing in a mysterious, ancient language. And each new instrument adds something different and idiosynchratic, making the music that much more fun to play.

So here’s a great, rollicking 19th century Scottish reel called “Timour the Tartar.” My setting is mongrelized from many sessions all over Scotland and years of questionable memory, but it still bears close resemblance to the version played and recorded by the great fiddler J. Scott Skinner in about 1910. Skinner, a flamboyant Highlander, was one of the true characters in the history of Celtic music. He performed right up to his death in 1927 at the age of 83 and published something like 600 original tunes. Some of his tunes were showpieces that would have done Paganini proud, and he loved playing in weird and difficult keys. But plenty of Skinner’s tunes are playable by us normal folks and common in the sessions to this day.

I play “Timour the Tartar” with a very regular right hand pattern, hitting each of the four beats of each bar with a down stroke, coming up on the off-beats and either hitting the eighth-note that’s there or clearing the string in silence as the quarter note rings. This pattern is crucial for picking up the third note of each three-note ornament. Happily, for the left hand, the whole tune fits comfortably into first position, although the longer-necked mando players will have to stretch the pinky to the sixth fret on the D string.
The trick to mastering this little ornament (which actually harkens back past the fiddle to the bagpipes) is to match the intensity of the second note pulloff and the picked third note. You want all three notes in each triplet to be of equal intensity. This will take a little practice. The left hand position, also, will be slightly different for the ornaments ending on the open A string and those ending on the barred second fret of the D string, due to the pinky stretch.

Jumping straight from the C# to the A or the G# to the E is what endows these ornaments with their particular bagpipe spiciness. You can, of course, play any of these triplets as descending runs (C#-B-A or G#-F#-E) and certainly that’s the way many fiddlers play this tune. Either version certainly maintains the essential shape of the tune and, in fact, both versions can be played simultaneously in a session and won’t sound too muddy together. But I find the version notated here to be cleaner and perkier on my octave mandolin, so give it a try and see if you don’t agree.

Lastly, keep in mind is that this tune is not designed to be played too fast. As one old collection puts it, “Play this one in the Scottish manner, that is, at not too great a speed.” The ornaments are plenty satisfying at an easy tempo.

Looking at this tune from another angle entirely, it occurs to me that there’s an amusing structural trick you can try on “Timour the Tartar,” as well as many other tunes. This is a trick that I sometimes call “time compression” or “jumping the gun,” and which I’ve used many times over the years. It works on any tune with a melody that both starts and ends on the tonic note, so right away you have several thousand to choose from.

In the case of “Timour the Tartar,” it only works in the first 8-bar part of tune, between the first time through and the repeat. You hack the eighth bar in half, so it’s only two beats long. Then the A that used to be on the third beat of the eighth bar becomes the first beat of the first bar. You’ve just sling-shot yourself into the repeat of the tune, skipping two beats. Why? Because it’s fun and rock and roll and totally unexpected. It’s a trick that gets people who are only half paying attention to sit up and say, “Wha’ hoppen?” In fact, I like dropping beats exactly once a night, just so the audience is listening that much more closely and is left at the end of the show wondering if they only imagined it.

Time compression should be used sparingly, and for its amusing shock value. Of course, you can’t indulge in time compression just any old time. In a session, unless everybody has agreed to do it, skipping two beats anywhere will only get you into hot water. And if you’re playing for dancers, you’d better play the tune straight or incur the wrath of the poor dancers who suddenly don’t know where they are. But in a band setting, or simply playing for yourself, it’s fun to find these little Celtic moments when you can rocket forward to the next downbeat with power and surprise.

[Click here for printable notation for “Timour the Tartar”]

"The Joy of Walking Bar Chords" by Danny Carnahan
December 14, 2010, 2:27 pm
Filed under: Reviews on Celtic Tunes by Danny Carnahan

This article was previously published on Mandolin Magazine by Danny Carnahan and posted under his kind permission. All rights reserved by the author.

[Click here for Pg. 1 and here for Pg. 2 of printable notation for “The Boys of Ballinafad”]

When I’m chording along with Celtic tunes on my octave mandolin, I’m often struck by how different my instinctive collection of basic chords is from those which are found comfortable and sensible by mandolin players. True, I came to the octave mandolin cold, learning it from scratch and without much technical instruction. There really wasn’t any consistent Irish bouzouki style in 1978 and the few hotshot masters of the evolving style (Alec Finn, Donal Lunny, and Johnny Moynihan, for example) all had their own unique signature sounds.

Possibly Alec Finn, of the Galway-based band De Danann, had the most impact on me in those first tentative days of poking around on my new toy and trying to find a way to play it. Finn played a real Greek bouzouki with De Danann, cross-tuning it and playing wonderfully open, drony, suspended chords under the melodic work of Frankie Gavin. One aspect of Finn’s chords I loved from the get-go was his free use of open strings as he slid up and down the neck on the other courses, implying chords more than actually playing them.

Borrowing left-hand positions from guitar, I came up with some pretty odd fingerings, like the 2-2-0-5 A chord using my thumb to bar the bottom two courses and pinky finger on the high E string. I don’t actually recommend or teach this chord, though I still find myself using it when it suits me. But the chord, or family of chords, that I want to talk about this time started with another A chord that I’ve found more useful than any other chord on the instrument.

Irish tunes are rarely wholly major or minor. In sessions, when I was building repertoire and not always sure where a tune might be going, I tried to stay away from the 3rd scale step, letting the shape of the tune dictate just how major or minor or happy or moody it wanted to be, without my chord choices getting in the way. So my first, idiot-proof A chord was, of course, 2-2-0-0. Sometimes I’d finger it with thumb and second finger, sometimes with second and third fingers. Since it’s just two A’s and two E’s, it’s about as plain and unproblematic as a chord can be.

It was also boring after a while. So as I got cockier and the tunes started sounding familiar, I added a 3rd step, playing A-major as 2-2-4-5, first finger barring the bottom two strings, then ring and pinky fingers covering the top. Again, this got boring, as it’s so flat-footed in its happy majorness. Lifting the pinky and making sure my index finger didn’t kill the high E string, I got a less sweet and much more practical A chord. And then I discovered that I could walk up and down the neck with it and things got more fun in a hurry.

Every scale step from the first through the sixth is chordable with one of two slight variants of the same chord. [insert notation example here.]

I finger both variants the same, using my index finger to cover the bottom two courses and my ring finger on the third course. I find that this gives smoother transitions between the major and minor chords than you get by switching fingers. The high E string stays open and free for all the chords, and that’s part of the joy.

There are countless tunes in A that lend themselves to being chorded with this happy little chordal family. I’ll give you one here that you might not know. This tune, “The Boys of Ballinafad”, is #195 in the O’Neill’s collection “1001 Gems, the Dance Music of Ireland”. For some reason, it’s not widely played in the sessions yet (though I’m hoping to change that). I found it one day while looking for a particular tune to fill a hole in a song arrangement. I love the assymmetric emphasis in the first part, with the strong beat halfway through the second bar, but the echoing phrase unexpectedly jumping the gun and giving twin strong beats for both halves of the sixth bar. This one rocks, folks.

But the second part is the one you can have particular chordal fun with. There are many ways to chord this tune, but I’ve provided one option that shows how easy it is to slide from the major 1-chord to the major 4-chord, and then down through the minor 3-chord and minor 2-chord. Remember that this is just one of many ways to go with this tune. But let it be a jumping-off point for you to try applying these chords to other tunes, whether jig or reel or hornpipe.

For notation this issue, I’ve tried something new, with parallel tab lines to indicate both the melody and the way I pick the chords. You’ll notice that I often suggest hitting an open string while switching from one chord to another. This is both a concession to physics and a joyful reminder that drones are built into the very fabric of Celtic music. You’ll need the space of one eighth-note to get to the next chord and it’s more important to hit the first beat of the new chord than the last beat of the previous one.

And again, remember you can mix things up rhythmically and should try to play the tune at least a little differently every time through. The chord fingerings should work for pretty much any longer scale mando family instrument, though I can’t vouch for you stalwart players of regular mandolins. But heck, give it a whack anyway. And the tune sounds great whichever octave you play it in.

[Click here for Pg. 1 and here for Pg. 2 of printable notation for “The Boys of Ballinafad”]

A Quote from Celtic Sprite: You may find a nice rendering of this tune on Danny Carnahan’s album “Buckdancer’s Coice” with his band “Wake the Dead”

Maureen Brennan: Celtic harp
Cindy Browne: acoustic bass
Danny Carnahan: vocals, octave mandolin, fiddle
Kevin Carr:uilleann pipes, whistle, fiddle
Sylvia Herold: vocals, guitar
Paul Kotapish: vocals, mandolin, bouzouki, guitar, National Steel guitar
Joe Craven: percussion
Brian Rice: percussion

Produced by Danny Carnahan and Paul Kotapish

Visit www.wakethedead.org for more information on the band and links to band members’ other recordings and creative projects.

Released March 2004 on Redwing Music (RWMCD 5413).
For more info on Redwing’s fine line of CDs, visit www.redwingmusic.com