Twenty-odd years ago the guitar world experienced an outbreak of Irish Jig and Reel Fever. Hot pickers tuned their guitars to DADGAD and mobbed pub sessions everywhere, hitting the languid off-beats and suspended chords they’d copped off Micheál Ó Domnaill. Today, Irish music is more popular than ever. But pickers are more likely now to be driving tunes with a heightened urgency, abandoning DADGAD for a modal Drop-D, and borrowing rhythms from Latin America, Africa, and beyond.
This brave new world of Celtic guitar and its snowballing popularity can be credited in no small part to the playing of a young, left-handed, Dublin-born guitarist with a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. At the age of 30, John Doyle has already logged eleven years of touring with some of the finest musicians on the Celtic scene, notably with the groundbreaking quintet Solas. With hundreds of concerts and festivals, many recordings, soundtrack work, and a teaching video already under his belt, John has become one of the most-imitated Celtic guitarists around. Today he’s traded New York’s grit for the more relaxed pace of Asheville, North Carolina and is launching his solo career. John’s debut CD on Shanachie Records. “Evening Comes Early,” was released in June.
I was initially impressed by John’s sheer energy as an accompanist when he first toured with Solas. But then I began to notice how many different ways he can play a tune, how many different chord voicings he can access, and how the underlying rhythms melt and mutate, keeping things interesting and always propelling forward. “Evening Comes Early” showcases another side of John, that of a master finger-picker and confident ballad singer. I spoke with him in Asheville about where he’s been and where he’s going.
When you first arrived in the States, was what you were doing different from what the New York Celtic fret players were doing?
DOYLE: Very different, for some reason. I think the high-energy, driving guitar sound that I was doing was not a part of American culture, or New York culture, at the time. It caught on quickly, though.
Is this the direction American players are taking Celtic guitar now?
DOYLE: Oh, I think it goes in several directions. I think they get a lot out of that percussive style. It’s exciting for young players, like it was pretty much all the rage in Ireland. But there’s other directions to go in, as well, to the lighter side of things.
What brought you to New York?
DOYLE: I was playing in Dublin with Susan McKeown and Chanting House in 1990, and she got some arts council funding to go to New York and study. She went over and I followed four or five months later. I figured I’d stay for a few months and then leave. It ended up being eleven years.
Did you know anybody besides Susan when you got to New York?
DOYLE: No, the first person I met was Joanie Madden from Cherish the Ladies. She got us our first gig in New York. From Joanie I met Eileen Ivers, and from Eileen I met Seamus Egan, and from Seamus I met everybody else. Susan, Eileen, Joanie and I used to play in a place called The Lion’s Den on Bleeker Street. Good fun. Seamus would pop his head in now and then and play. From there, we all got together and reformed the new Chanting House band.
This is your first solo project. How is it different from your past work as part of an ensemble?
DOYLE: It’s the stuff that I’ve been intimately involved with for as long as I’ve done music—the songs and tunes as well. It’s the guitarist-vocalist approach, like those great early recordings by Martin Carthy and Nic Jones.And I learned a lot of stuff from my father. He’s actually on the CD. He’d be one of my main influences. I grew up listening to traditional music from around Dublin and Sligo and went outwards from there—all the Irish folk, English and Scottish stuff.
Did you focus on the Irish music first and then get turned on to Carthy and Jones, or were you absorbing it all at the same time?
DOYLE: I think it was all at the same time. It was early on when I heard Dick Gaughan’s “A Handful of Earth.” I must have been about twelve. I remember being dumbfounded, saying, “How the hell is he doing this?” I’d listen to that constantly. Then my brother brought home a Martin Carthy album and I thought, “This is how I want to play.” Before then I was listening to Paul Brady and Arty McGlynn. Between all those styles, for singing and playing, they were profound influences.
You’ve taken Brady’s and Carthy’s rhythmic freedom and made it part of your style. How do you decide when to add or drop beats and when to stick to the straight rhythms?
DOYLE: It’s very much by feel. I’ve always had a tendency to do that, because a song can move around and have an extra beat or two here and there. In English and Irish folk it’s pretty common for singers to do that. And when you’re singing, where the song goes, that’s where you want to go.
You seem to be equally at home flat-picking and finger-picking, though there seems to be more finger-picking on the new CD. Do you have a preference?
DOYLE: I love doing both styles and was involved in both when I was with Solas, though there was a lot of “backing up the lads”—the high-energy stuff. I got a name for that kind of early on and I’m still doing it a lot with Eileen Ivers. But then there’s the other style of playing, that I find more modally-based, that’s better suited for the ballads.
Yes, there’s a plaintive quality to the ballads on the new CD. And it seems like you’re looking to American versions of some of the trans-Atlantic ballads.
DOYLE: I think it’s half from living in Asheville. I just love the music down here. The more I hear it, the more it has in common with the Irish stuff, though the tunes and the songs are crooked and they often have their own slant. You take a song like “Pretty Saro” and it’s just another version of “Bunclody,” that I remember from my father’s singing.
What’s your tuning preference?
DOYLE: I stick with Drop-D mostly for playing tunes. If you’re backing up tunes, it’s the handiest for varying sound. You can play with it and get fuller chords than DADGAD, I think.
How do you decide what chords to use in a tune?
DOYLE: Well, just take a simple D tune that has the same chords in the A part and the B part—“The Mountain Road” is a classic example. You can drone on D for the whole tune if you want. From there you just fill in what you might think would sound good. Like in a D-major scale, you think about all the chords you have in that scale, D, E minor, F#, G, A, B minor, and just try them all. If you want to distinguish the B part from the A part, you just throw a B minor in there in place of the D. It darkens it up a bit. But basically what I try to do is make each tune sound like a song, because I don’t think people understand each tune’s identity as well as they do a song’s. Every tune has an underlying melody in it—an underlying structure and implied chords. It has a kind of lovely half-time musical texture like a song, that I seek out and look for. I don’t know if that makes sense…
You mean there are lyrics lurking there in the tune?
DOYLE: No, not so much lyrics, but another level of music underneath. That’s what I do with the chords. I try to make it sound like there’s a song underneath there, so people can identify with it better. They hear a more “western” chord structure and they say, “Oh, that’s a nice tune.”
You encourage that with your use of walking bass lines.
DOYLE: Right. On something like “The Mountain Road,” I’ll walk the bass to match the shape of the melody and suggest the song underneath it.
You’ve got some original tunes on the new CD. Do you write differently for guitar than you would for traditional Irish ensemble instruments like fiddle or accordion?
DOYLE: I try not to. I try to make my tunes sound as authentic, as old as I can, though some differences come out in the guitar style. Like the first of the tunes in the “Guitar Reels” medley on the CD, “The Hungry Rock,” goes up to a high A, that you would never do in a regular tune. It’s very cruel to the fiddles [laughs]. But in general, I try to keep it in the regular range.
On your “Guitar Reels,” your use of triplets remind me of Gerry O’Connor’s banjo style. Is it different trying to get those fast banjo triplets on the guitar?
DOYLE: Not too much. The difference is you don’t have to do them all the time. In banjo you tend to have to do the triplets because you don’t have the sustain. You can get a little more moody on the guitar. As far as the triplets, Seamus taught me those and it’s just a matter of practice. But on the guitar the thing is to try to do most of those triplets on a run-up—three ascending notes—not so much on one note. And you damp with the finger a little bit. Try to emulate the pipes—the rolls and ornaments that the old instruments are doing.
You have some lovely textural ideas in your arrangements on the CD. Did you do your own arranging?
DOYLE: Most of the stuff I arranged myself and my co-producer Michael Aharon added a few ideas as far as other textures for instruments. I met Michael through Seamus Egan. They worked together on Seamus’s solo album a few years ago. I knew that Michael played cello, for instance, and on my father’s song, “The Dark Slender Boy,” I wanted to hear that sound.
It was a sweet touch, having your Dad sing on your album.
DOYLE: Well, Rich, the head of Shanachie, heard that track and thought Dad was a genius and now he wants to do an album with him. My father didn’t believe me at first. Then Rich wrote him a note, and my father rang me and said, “You know I’m gonna be doing a record.” He has amazing songs. I’ll be producing it so I can’t wait to do it.
You get a chance to play with plenty of American guitarists now. Who do you have the most fun either listening to or playing with?
DOYLE: In the Irish scene, or just generally? I’d have to say I’m having a lot of fun listening to Tim O’Brien right now. I was playing with him recently at Merle Fest. We did a little Irish thing with Paddy Keenan and Kevin Burke and some others—and Tim did this thing with the fiddle—he was singing and playing the fiddle, doing two harmonies on the fiddle and singing another… [laughs appreciatively].
Harmony is an interesting thing to talk about in Irish music. It’s a relatively new development. But you’re never shy to build interesting harmonies into your arrangements.
DOYLE: I’ve been doing that for years. You just get more adept at it as you go along and things change. New York was one of those places where you could blend so much into the music. Like in Eileen’s band there’s a Puerto Rican percussion player and a South African bass player who played with Paul Simon and Tommy McDonald who’s a blues singer. Like in this one band you can have all of that happening, so you’re bound to get influences from different cultures. Especially rhythm, getting all those different sounds happening and saying, “Oh, that could work.”
What would you like to be doing five years from now?
DOYLE: Pretty much the same stuff. Maybe start writing songs again, something I used to do a lot, in the Irish and English tradition. More solo and duo and trio stuff. I love mixing and matching.
So you’re not through playing in bands?
DOYLE: I’ve been blessed being able to play with Joanie and Eileen and Seamus and John Williams and all those people. They’re all amazing musicians who have a great, deep knowledge of music. There’s a great quote I like, I think I heard from Pat Metheny. It goes, “Always be the worst in the band. You learn so much.”
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What They Play
John Doyle records and performs on two guitars, a mahogany-side Lowden dreadnought D-10 and a Martin D-28. The Lowden was built as a leftie, while the Martin is an off-the-rack right-handed model with nut and saddle switched for left-handed playing. John feels the conversion retained the evenness he liked in the Martin, saying, “It sounds great with no discernable difference that I can
The Lowden is his overall favorite. “It’s perfect for finger-styling and for low tunings. I do a lot of recording on the Lowden, and play it on stage as well. Most Lowden guitars have what people call a “film” over them—it gives them a muffled, fat sound that’s great for when you’re thumping on that low string. You have this “boom” and it lasts forever.”
Still, John’s fond of the Martin for playing backup. “The Martin’s much more open-sounding. It’s my favorite guitar for strumming. I never thought it would be, but it’s fairly even-sounding.”
John performs and records using a heavy set of D’Addarios with a low 72. When flat-picking, he favors a reasonably light 60mm USA nylon pick, for clarity without being brittle.
John also plays a short-necked, 5-course Trillium bouzouki, made by New Hampshire luthier Robert Abrams. He tunes it DGDAD from low to high.
When it comes to amplification, John just wants to plug in and go. “On the Lowden I’ve got a Highlander pickup and a mic in it, but I never actually use the mic—just the pickup and it sounds great. On the Martin I’ve got a Baggs dual source and it’s the best sound—I can just plug it in, straight out, to a para-acoustic DI and I don’t use anything else. It takes a lot of pressure off.”
Evening Comes Early, Shanachie (released June 2001)
The Hour Before Dawn, Shanachie 78041 (2000).
Sunny Spells & Scattered Showers, Shanachie 78010 (1997).
The Words That Remain, Shanachie 78023 (1998).
Solas, Shanachie 78002 (1996).
Irish Rhythm Guitar—Accompanying Celtic Tunes, Homespun Video (1997).