After playing backup guitar in sessions for quite a number of years, about a year ago I thought I’d start learning to play some of the popular session tunes at session speed. I had a number of reasons for doing this with the most prominent being a) to gain a better understanding of playing traditional Irish music and b) to find new sources of inspiration to improve and add to my guitar playing techniques. I have worked from the printed music and CD recordings of the Comhaltas Foinn Seisiún series, principally in order to start with wide spread versions of the tunes. However, I have tried to develop my playing from what I hear rather than just the printed music.

 

Rather than give pages detailing how I’ve got on and what I’ve learnt, I’m interested to open a conversation with others to learn how they approach the playing of session tunes. Perhaps I ought to just add that I play the tunes in standard tuning and use a plectrum.

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I play mostly backup to the fiddlers, whistlers and dulcimer players. Once in a while when I do want to play the melody on a tune I will hunt up sheet music for it. I learned to read music when I was about 7 years old and I read it as naturally as I read English. Please don't tell me that I should learn it by ear. I'm not going to. Why should I struggle? If I can't find standard notation music, I don't learn it. There is no penalty involved. 

I have also read music since very young so, for myself, I find it the best way to start getting to grips with a session tune. Once I have got the tune started though, I develop it by listening to and playing along with session recordings (apart from using any opportunity to play the tune with other musicians). Apart from a few years when I played classical guitar, I've mainly played guitar by ear. One thing I have found with playing Irish session tunes, with others, is that I have to listen in a different way, compared to playing accompaniment. Fairly obvious really, but it wasn't something that happened naturally to start with as I had to break that automatic conversion within the head of  the tune into chord progressions!

Well stated, sir. Plus 1 to everything you have said.

Paul Dengate said:

I have also read music since very young so, for myself, I find it the best way to start getting to grips with a session tune. Once I have got the tune started though, I develop it by listening to and playing along with session recordings (apart from using any opportunity to play the tune with other musicians). Apart from a few years when I played classical guitar, I've mainly played guitar by ear. One thing I have found with playing Irish session tunes, with others, is that I have to listen in a different way, compared to playing accompaniment. Fairly obvious really, but it wasn't something that happened naturally to start with as I had to break that automatic conversion within the head of  the tune into chord progressions!

By way of illustration, I have just put together this recording to review my progress so far. There’s nothing special about the arrangement, just straight through the tunes, Sligo Maid and Silver Spear, twice each. My most obvious problem is to keep the flow going when playing phrases with triplets in; I don’t yet manage it 100% at full speed. If I was putting together performance pieces I would simplify things a little and/or reduce the speed, but for the moment I want to get to grips with a technique and style that will allow me to play tunes in sessions at a reasonable pace. I will carry on working at it!

http://soundcloud.com/paul-dengate/sligo-maid-silver-spear-mix/s-LqITX

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