This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 1999 issue

Last time I introduced you to some ways to pick out an Irish jig using a peppy little tune in A, “The Rambler,” as an example.  The right hand picking pattern for 6/8 jig time, DOWN up down DOWN up down, is central to mastering the unique jiggy drive and preventing the tune from galumphing like a misbehaving horse.

This time I want to give some tips on accompanying “The Rambler” on mandolins or larger double-course instruments like my octave mandolin.  These tips, of course, are transferable to any jig in any key.

When I sit down in a session to accompany someone else’s jigs I remember two beginning truths: (1) Less is more, and (2) The drone is the Celtic musician’s friend.  I will often drone through a tune for the first full melodic cycle, just hitting the tonic with a gentle but insistent DOWN up down DOWN up down.  If I don’t know the tune, it gives me a chance to figure out the tune’s shape, and whether the implied chordal possibilities are happy (arguing for 1-4-5 chords) or darker (arguing for a flatted 7 somewhere for dramatic effect).  If I do know the tune, it’s still a nice way to build an ensemble arrangement politely while I work out what to do next.

 So what do I mean by drone, exactly?  In “The Rambler,” I can quickly hear that the tune is in a happy A, since both the first and second parts resolve to an A at the end.  So I run up to the 7th fret on the D course and set up a unison A drone rhythm on both D and A courses [see Example 1].  I can quietly percolate under the melody all the way through the tune, regardless of the implied chord changes, and regardless of what others in the session might be doing.  Always remember that drones have been part of Celtic music for a thousand years, and drones can be below, above, or woven into a melody.  Part of what makes bagpipes so haunting is the way melodies pull away from the drones and then resolve back into harmonies or unisons.  This same powerful tension and release can be achieved by droning on the mando.

 So here I am, droning away under “The Rambler.”  What next?  First I remind myself that less is more in Irish jig and reel accompaniment.  I don’t want to jump in and wail away at all four courses, necessarily.  It’ll just tire me out and leave nowhere for the ensemble arrangement to go dynamically.  So I think in terms of two or three courses at a time, moving up and down the range of the instrument.  One favorite maneuver I use a lot is to start sliding up and down the D course, where I already have a finger on the 7th fret, giving me a strong unison A.  By the time I’ve heard the tune through once, I figure I could probably use just A, D, and E chords and keep it interesting and appropriate.  So just using the notes on the D course, I could play the open D, the E on the 2nd fret, and the A on the 7th to follow the root positions of the chord changes.

 Maybe a little more interesting is to imply chords with other voicings.  Example 2 shows one of many ideas for accompanying the first part of “The Rambler” using just the two middle courses.  I stay on the A until following the melody down to the F#.  Then, rather than tracking the melody on down a whole-step, I slide right back up to the unison A.  I stay there until the eighth bar, when I sneak down to the G# for half a bar, resolving immediately to the A.  Even though the 7th scale step is never used in the melody, the G# implies a strong E major 5 chord, which fits perfectly with the happy drive of the tune.

After this, I might build the second part of the tune by adding a sparkly open top course in my right hand picking pattern while moving from the 7th to the 12th frets on the D course [see Example 3].  Notice how the DOWN up down DOWN up down picking pattern is crucial to making this arpeggio sing without losing the forward jig drive.

 Session tunes are always played at least a couple times through.  I love sessions in which the players mess with the tunes four or five times before moving on into the medley, giving people a chance to experiment with different shadings, chord voicings, and even passing around the melodic spotlight.  In your accompanist role, you can easily drone through a tune for starters, slowly break out of the drone by adding skeletal chordal motion on a second course, then play 3- or 4-course chords through the big finish.

 Example 4 shows a slightly more balls-out driving accompaniment you can go into after the ideas in Examples 2 and 3.  Moving from the mando’s high register to the low register totally changes the character of your accompanying drive and can be incredibly satisfying for everybody involved.  Use the accompaniment in Example 4 for a gutsy groove in the first part of the tune. Then switch to the higher voicing in Example 3 to give high contrast to the second part of the tune. Then mix and match as the spirit moves you.

 It’s not uncommon in sessions to medley together an A major tune and an A minor or modal tune.  If the session launches into the next tune and you can’t immediately intuit whether it’s major, minor, or modal, simply stick to the unison A until likely chordal candidates reveal themselves.  Minor and modal tunes give you a chance to pull against your own drone with a flatted 7th added to your picking drive.  Take the 3-course picking pattern established in Example 2 and toggle from the 7th to the 5th frets and back again.  What you’re hearing now is a hypnotic rock-n-roll chord change that, if not overused, can really add some lovely dark coloration to your chordal accompaniment.            

Next time I’ll teach you a really dark and plaintive tune called “The Coleraine Jig.”  It includes some uncommon chromatic movement and suggests a slightly different approach to accompaniment.  Till then, good luck with your jig driving.