JMI review

The JMI – The Journal of Music In Ireland, Nov/Dec 2000

‘Guitaracism’ and other stories

The publication of a new book by Frank Kilkelly on guitar accompaniment to traditional music provides an opportunity for Cavan singer and guitarist Joe Brennan to untangle his thoughts on the subject.

I could not attempt to calculate the number of times questions concerning the ability to accompany traditional Irish tunes on the guitar (and my lack thereof) have been hurled in my general direction, nor to approximate the infinite variety of occasionally socially-reprehensible replies I have offered to these inquiries.  Such requests, although each distinctly coloured by the motivations of the individual making them, may fundamentally be categorised into two main parties.

The central tenet around which our first party of requests revolves may be seen as a sort of ‘guitaracism’, and the questions are usually formulated in such a way as to present the a priori truth that guitars should be kept in their cases – far, far, far from wherever a traditional session might potentially occur – and that all guitarists should be re-educated as bee-keepers!  It appears that neither a limited musical knowledge nor a celebratory appreciation of the Irish tradition are sufficient to shield them against the painful logic of such immovable criticism.

The simple fact remains, however, that guitars have become an integral part of a majority of Irish music sessions both here and abroad.  Simply peruse the traditional CDs available and you will find guitarists not only backing leading melody players (e.g. Daithí Sproule with Liz Carroll, Paul Brady with Matt Molloy and Tommy Peoples) but also influencing the direction of recordings by becoming producers (e.g. Arty McGlynn on Alan Kelly’s Mosaic).  Harping on about the illegitimacy of the guitar as a traditional instrument (by the way, it may not be a traditional instrument yet, but for centuries the entire tradition was rooted solely in the playing of the clairseach, coincidentally also a steel stringed instrument.  Shall we attempt to repair the ravages of progression since then?) may deter a few impressionable youths from taking up the instrument, and may even direct a few more towards more definitional traditional endeavors, but it is inconceivable that the ever-increasing flood of traditional backers is likely to dry up soon.

Whatever opinion you hold on the matter, it would seem short-sighted to adopt an ostrich position and hope that guitarists will all just go away.  More pragmatic an approach may be an attempt to organise a rather raggle-taggle and all-embracing group of guitar styles, from the incomparable flat-picking of McGlynn to the percussive inspiration of Steve Cooney’s rhythm to the intense and intricate accompaniment of Dennis Cahill, into a recognisable genre known as the Irish traditional guitar style; the birth, perhaps, of a new traditional instrument. In the same manner as a violin remains a non-traditional instrument until it is played in a particular style (I know, the ‘violin’ is only a classical misnomer for a ‘fiddle’), perhaps a similar acceptance, based on the style of playing, could be introduced to the realm of guitar backing?


The second category of popular request are posed by:

(a) Persons who have neither seen nor heard traditional music before and, awe-struck, latch on to the guitar as the only instrument they recognise.  The universality of the guitar evidently contains the implicit assumption that ‘anyone can play it’ and queries at this level usually involve the length of time you’ve been playing the instrument, whether there are economically (both fiscally and with regard to the length of time it takes to become proficient) available classes, and frequent allusions as to the matter of public record that anyone is welcome to join in at an Irish music session.

God between us and all harm, as I tend to do at the moment of interrogation (other than protesting my inability to speak English, and yes, you would be amazed at how often that works) I am going to choose to ignore this particular population of posers (as in ‘of questions’).

(b) Persons who have either found or been given guitars and with the aid of three magical chords can ‘make a decent stab at’ every popular song from 1960 to the present day.

Although this in itself is neither menacing nor disturbing, it is this group who display most potential to be the bane of those who are attempting to justify the place of the guitar in Irish music.  Members of this group may have an unfathomable desire to be part of the session, but such a desire can neither be equated with, nor be substituted for, dedicated practice and a close knowledge of the melody.  It is unfortunate that it is within such a group that Frank Kilkelly’s book is both most needed and most likely to be ignored.

(c) Persons for whom the music that have heard has meant something and who have a genuine interest in learning more about the tunes in general and the  guitarist’s role behind the melody in particular.  Often, the class of questions posed by this group are couched in the rhetoric of their own musical abilities, and are sometimes based on an intricate knowledge of a different musical tradition or indeed in an existing competence in Irish music that hitherto had but a limited interest in the role of the guitar.  Questions that inherently involve such as level of musical interest and authenticity are, almost by definition and without exception, completely outside the scope of an immediate and temporally limited explanation and hence it is with great relief that this book has supplied a text to which minds inquiring as to the nature of backing Irish melodies can be directed.

There are several facets of Kilkelly’s tutoring method that are both pragmatically innovative and sufficiently detailed to keep even the dedicated scholar busy for some considerable time.  While beginning with an informative overview of the role of guitar in Irish music, including profiles of leading players and a guide to choosing equipment, Kilkelly also spells out some of the prime directives to be internalised before one’s talent should be released on an unsuspecting public and an even less forgiving community of melody players.  Emphasis is heaped upon acquiring an in-depth familiarity with any tune before attempting to back it, upon the importance of the constant and correct use of ears at sessions, and upon the necessity for a consistent and organised practice schedule.

Armed with these commandments, the scholar is now prepared to embark on an adventure into the heart of traditional backing on guitar.  The rest of the book concentrates on the backing of actual tunes, and it must be said that the accompanying CD is invaluable for this (although book and CD are available separately).  An impressive array of melody instrumentalists provide the wide selection of session tunes, but, moreover, the manner in which these tunes are presented and related to the text is refreshingly clear and impressively informative.  The tunes are recorded both with a variety of backing styles (from the percussive drive behind ‘Flogging reel’ to the distinctly mellow touch used with ‘Julia Delaney’s to the piano-esque plucking on ‘Cooley’s’) and later without guitar to allow the development of the learner’s own ability.  Moreover each tune is backed in one of the four main tunings used in traditional guitar backing so that from the very beginning the scholar has an opportunity to approach accompaniment in the tuning of their choice while gaining and understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the other tunings available.

The text relative to the tunes is concise and straightforward and generally offers both a basic accompaniment technique for the first time around in the tune while progressing to a more advanced rhythm and use of chords the second time.

I like Frank Kilkelly’s book.  I had a few criticisms, but, generally, I have to admit that should I mention such petty foibles I would both be accused, and be guilty of splitting hairs.  This is a book that offers the reader an opportunity to become knowledgeable in a range of rhythmic styles, all of which are directed at accompanying traditional Irish/Celtic melodies (except for one brief foray into Samba rhythm) while instilling in the reader a real sense of the etiquette necessary to successfully integrate such knowledge into traditional Irish sessioning.  Furthermore, although the manner in which this information is conveyed is contrivedly easy to understand and his attention to ignoring irrelevancies is laudable, Frank Kilkelly has managed to include such a quantity of information as to render his publication all but inaccessible except to those for whom traditional guitar backing is not merely a whim, but an avid interest (cf. persons in group (a) and (b) above need not apply).

This is not a ‘Learn Irish Guitar Quickly’ Opportunity, it may however be a chance to ‘Learn Irish Guitar Properly’, and as such may have a great potential to act as a unifying root in what may eventually, maybe around AD2490, become an accepted style of playing traditional Irish guitar. (Back to reviews)