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

Recently I sent a student home with what I thought was an innocuous, useful exercise in nailing down the swing feel behind a reel.  At the next lesson I found, to my chagrin, that my “try this rhythmic pattern” had been heard as the impossible “you must establish this rhythm and never deviate from it”.  Ack!  A teacher should never underestimate the power he wields in the teacher-student relationship.  To this poor student I humbly apologize.  And to the rest of you who are still wrestling with Celtic swing, I offer the following kinder, gentler ideas.

Swing in Irish and Scottish reels, as I’ve discussed in several past columns, is a wonderful backbeat propulsion that some tunes really like.  Broadly, it means that rather than emphasizing the 1 and 3 beats in a 4-beat bar, you emphasize the 2 and 4.  But isn’t there some leeway and wiggle room in this rhythmic emphasis?  You bet your flatpick there is.

When I try to get a student to swing for the first time, I always check to see if they tap their foot while they play.  If they tap on the 1 and 3, I try to get them to tap (and bob and sway and nod) on the 2 and 4 instead.  Tapping and stomping and moving any or all of your body is hugely important in really internalizing the rhythms in all Celtic session tunes.  So, while it’s possible to tap on the 1 and 3 and deliver solid counter-rhythms on the 2 or 4, the opposite is also true.  Here’s a good tune to try the idea out on.

“The Bus Stop Reel” is popular all over, but I first heard it played by Open House, Kevin Burke’s innovative quartet.  Kevin’s bandmate Paul Kotapish (who now, happily, performs stage left of me in Wake the Dead) can swing and drive with equal commitment.  He can also move from one feel to the other without the listener noticing he did it.

I used the Open House setting of “Bus Stop” as a starting point, devising a simple accompaniment line that shares in the duties of swinging the tune, while maintaining important emphatic downbeats.  As always, when learning a new emphasis pattern, it’s a good idea to exaggerate the emphases hugely.  Go way overboard.  Then, once they feel comfortable, back off and just give them slightly more juice than the other beats.

The accompaniment line I came up with here for “The Bus Stop Reel” is very spare but does the job of countering the emphases in the melody line and keeping the swingy backbeat percolating forward.  As in most Irish tunes, you don’t have to play all three notes in a chord to make the chord plain.  As often as not the melody implies the underlying chords just fine.  And in the fourth bar of the A part, I deliberately left the open E string ringing a suspension at the top of the implied D chord.  I love suspensions, but if this fails to please your ear, you can add the high F# instead and play a fatter D-major chord.

As for fingerings, the melody line has no surprises in it at all.  When playing the accompaniment line, I like to float up and down the fingerboard with my middle finger, up to the seventh fret for the unison A, then back down for the E on the second fret of the D course.  It’s important to keep a light touch on this arrangement and this fingering helps me remember to stay light and loose.

As discussed above, you’ll see how both the melody line and the accompaniment move back and forth between the swing backbeat and the emphasized downbeats.  With any luck, this will quickly sound perfectly natural to you and your right hand won’t fight the rhythm. 

If you are most fond of playing melody lines in sessions, this little arrangement will help you loosen up your swing as you apply the idea to other tunes.  If you are always or occasionally an accompanist in the sessions, I hope this helps give you a little more free rein to mix up the pulse without losing the overall swing feel.  In either case, always remember there are no absolutes in playing Celtic music.  Enjoy.