There’s something about a rip-snorting set of reels played in an Irish pub that makes the blood pump faster and the Guinness taste better. The tunes morph into each other, shifting keys as they shift emotional punch. The best of them deliver real rock-and-roll energy.
And yet, Irish reels sound distinctly Irish (and Scottish reels sound distinctily Scottish), in spite of sharing an underlying four/four rhythm with bluegrass and country and swing and many other popular American genres.
So what is it that sets them apart? And if we’re coming into Celtic reels from other musical realms, how do we keep those other ealms separate from the Celtic? Well, the short answer to that last one is: we don’t, really. There’s so much cross-pollination in music nowadays that no genre can claim absolute purity anymore.
But not to worry. We’re left with the core shapes of the tunes to build out from, and a short list of idiosynchratic ornaments that help hearken back to ancient times, older instruments, even to old forgotten languages.
In my last column I broke down a few of the most common (and most identifyable Celtic) ornaments, including the fiddle turn, the fast-picked triplet, and the anticipatory snap grace note. All of these ornaments are as important in playing reels as they are in playing jigs. In fact, whether playing jigs, reels, hornpipes, or even slower set pieces, you’ll find these ornaments incorporated into tunes in limitless variation.
But let’s go back to the core shapes of the tunes for a moment. Most Irish and Scottish reels are built of two or more eight-bar phrases, most often repeated before continuing on to the next one.
I’ve transcribed one of my favorite quirky reels, “The Gravel Walks,” here as a slightly atypical opening example. You’ll notice that it is transcribed as a four-part reel with the first three parts only four bars long. I actually prefer to think of this tune as having four eight-bar parts, but that the first three don’t repeat. And if you try to think in terms of longer melodic phrases, you’ll have an easier time mastering the “Irishness” of a reel.
A few years ago I was studying Balkan music with Bosnian violinist Slavko Silic and struggling with such “socket-wrench” time signatures as 7/4, 11/4, and 13/4. As a newcomer to that musical genre, it was all I could do to count my way through each bar and hope to start the next one on the right down beat. But I couldn’t get anything to flow properly. It all came out choppy and unsatisfying.
Slavko’s most cosmic bit of teaching involved explaining that the melodic phrases were, in fact, 16 bars long — long sentences without punctuation, zipping past the bar lines that were just there as notation conveniences. When I started playing them that way, removing unnecessary punctuation, magical things happened.
It turns out that there’s a similar phenomenon going on with Celtic tunes. While we’re used to seeing reels written out with four beats per bar and tempted to think in terms of “ONE-two-THREE-four” and then on to the next bar, this notion misses the point of the tune entirely.
A reel must be propelled forward, across the bar lines, allowing the melody to be understood as a series of complete sentences — sentences that ultimately tell a story we want to hear again and again.
“Gravel Walks” is pleasantly complex, with all the ingredients of a first-class Celtic foot-stomper. It rumbles along in modal A for 24 bars and then shifts to C for most of the last eight bars before tumbling back to modal A when it bites its tail and starts at the top again.
There are plenty of opportunities for tasty ornaments. I’ve indicated several double pull-offs, combining hammer-on/pull-offs, and quick triplets. (As always when dealing with ornaments, treat them merely as suggestions and move them around or leave them out to keep your playing and your arrangements fresh.)
But one of the things I like best about this tune is how the melody propels forward across the bar lines if you let it. When first poking through the notes to get them under your fingers, you’ll likely hear pairs of bars as complete phrases. Try not to. Try to play through the repeat and hear the whole eight bars as one unbroken musical thought.
Of course, it’s hard to come up with a rhythmic accompaniment to a reel like this that doesn’t break it back down into individual bars and threaten to fight against the forward propulsion. Whether you go for a down-beat rock drive (ONE-two-THREE-four) or a back-beat swing (one-TWO-three-FOUR), you may be less than satisfied with the “Celtic-ness” of your results.
Is there a solution to the problem? Well, here’s one, courtesy of cultural cross-pollination. Believe it or not, there’s a wonderful Middle Eastern and North African rhythm called baladi that’s worked its way into Celtic reels in recent years.
You can see from the tab transcription that the rhythm cycles every other bar, helping to pull past every other bar line. It also stresses the TWO beat in its first bar and the ONE and THREE in its second bar, discouraging a choppy back-beat accompaniment or a too-heavy downbeat pulse. The baladi mixes things up just enough to let the melody say what it has to say.
As with any accompaniment pattern, baladi needs to be varied or combined with other ideas so it doesn’t become annoying or boring. But I highly recommend trying it out with Irish reels like “Gravel Walks” a a way of breaking away from any predisposition you may have for fou/four accompaniment patterns.
What you’ll find with baladi is, it locks beautifully with the internal melodic rhythm common to so many Irish reels, in which tunes start with a quarter note followed by seven pairs of eighth notes.
When I play “Gravel Walks” solo I like to give it the subtlest swing, slightly emphasizing the second and fourth beats of each bar. If you keep the swing subtle, it doesn’t conflict with the baladi accompaniment.
It’s not just that leaning too heavily on the first and third beats tends to result in a “monkey-with-a-stick” coarseness. This tune has acquired a sort of swing in sessions from California to Edinburgh. Actually, in Edinburgh, the swing was probably encouraged by Shetland-style players, who in the last generation or so have taken Scots and Shetland reels into swing territory formerly occupied only by the likes of Django Reinhardt.
But, whether you consciously swing or not, do try to play the long phrases, thinking ahead, and listening for the longer, more eloquent musical thoughts. Celtic tunes have more character when viewed from this angle, and may be easier to remember when you’re sipping your Guinness in the pub and it’s your turn to “Give us a tune!”