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The Joy of Walking Bar Chords

    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.

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