This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2010 issue

I’ve always admired restraint in the arrangement and presentation of Celtic tunes.  I’ve written about it in this column more than once, touting my fondness for fragmentary chords and droning, among other techniques.  But I was lucky enough to sit down recently with Dennis Cahill, the Chicago guitarist and mandolinist who is best known for his long partnership with Clare fiddler Martin Hayes.  And while I try to be restrained in my approach to Celtic tune accompaniment, Cahill takes this idea to the next level, with delightful results worth talking about.

We chatted at length about just how pared-down and simple one could be in accompanying Irish tunes.  Cahill’s take is almost zen in its simplicity.  He likes to start with a single note, often not the root of an implied chord, but a middle note, hanging in space and percolating along rhythmically.  He then will add a second note, implying a chord in combination with whatever the tune’s melody is doing.  He will then move just one of the notes up or down a step or two, looking for suspensions and drones that are more uneasy than flat-footed, that pose questions rather than make dramatic statements, that keep the tune airborne.

These chord voicings are lovely on guitar, but equally applicable to the mando, considering how simple they often are.  A nice added value to this approach is that if you start a set of tunes with this much restraint, you’re almost certainly playing lightly and softly, giving yourself plenty of dynamic headroom for building the set to a thunderous finish that will delight musician and listener alike and not totally wear you out in the process.

As the studio producer of the duo’s most recent CD, “Welcome Here Again” (2008, Compass/Green Linnet), Cahill uses both mandolin and guitar to back Martin’s fiddle, sometimes layering and doubling so subtlely one scarcely notices exactly what’s there, though they add beautifully to the depth and fullness of the sound.  The CD is full of good examples of Cahill’s approach, but one I particularly like is “The High Jig”, which Hayes plays with languid calm and to which Cahill adds long, ringing single notes and double-stops, letting the rests between the notes carry as much emotion as the notes themselves.

The melody as transcribed here is pretty straight-forward, lending itself to a quiet delivery.  The accompaniment I’ve transcribed represents only the first time through the tune as played by Hayes and Cahill.  Cahill changes up chord voicings and slowly adds more notes to fill in chords as the tune winds through multiple times through.  I would recommend a similar approach, starting with really revelling in the single ringing notes and listening to how the tune harmonizes and pulls away from them as they decay.

Cahill plays this accompaniment on guitar on the CD version.  I’ve found some odd and amusing mando voicings to duplicate the guitar voicings, which I’ve provided here.  The voicings are designed to facilitate longer ringing decays, which really help to define the implied chords and get the most out of the chordal ideas.  Feel free to invert very high notes to the octave below.  It will darken the chord, but that might be very nice indeed.  There are several fingering approaches that will work equally as well as those indicated here.  And clearly, you’ll have to fingerpick to get the chord in the third and penultimate bars as written.  If you prefer to flatpick, just stagger the notes a little.  In the end, Cahill’s techniques of restraint serve to remind us just how much chordal implication is woven into Celtic tunes without us having to beat ourselves up to pull it out or add it from elsewhere.

Although Dennis Cahill is equally at home on mandolin and guitar, he admits that in Celtic music each instrument has distinct strengths and weaknesses.  His chordal ideas can work well on both instruments, but when playing melody lines he always reaches for the mandolin.  He admits that standard-tuning guitar is not the Irish musician’s friend.
“The problem with jig and reel melodies on guitar,” he says, “is that when you take it up to fiddle speed it just sounds nuts.  Guitar’s a more percussive instrument than fiddle.  The image I always have is of a little dog running with a big dog.”  He grins.  “The little dog is keeping up… but it doesn’t look good.”

Cahill has just as little interest in frantically keeping up rhythmically or chordally, either on guitar or mandolin.  He preaches fewer chord changes in his workshops and master classes, as well as really listening to when the melody line is running against the chord and when the melody is part of the chord. 

The care with which Cahill listens as he accompanies Hayes is a big part of the duo’s musical power.  Hearing them perform, one feels as if one is eavesdopping on an intimate and impassioned conversation.  “You make a decision when you’re playing music,” Cahill says.  “It’s either a display or it’s communication. That’s your choice.  I’m not going to say one’s better than the other, but I know which one I pick.”