This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Fall 2003 issue
When I’m chording along with Celtic tunes on my octave mandolin, I’m often struck by how different my instinctive collection of basic chords is from those which are found comfortable and sensible by mandolin players. True, I came to the octave mandolin cold, learning it from scratch and without much technical instruction. There really wasn’t any consistent Irish bouzouki style in 1978 and the few hotshot masters of the evolving style (Alec Finn, Donal Lunny, and Johnny Moynihan, for example) all had their own unique signature sounds.
Possibly Alec Finn, of the Galway-based band De Danann, had the most impact on me in those first tentative days of poking around on my new toy and trying to find a way to play it. Finn played a real Greek bouzouki with De Danann, cross-tuning it and playing wonderfully open, drony, suspended chords under the melodic work of Frankie Gavin. One aspect of Finn’s chords I loved from the get-go was his free use of open strings as he slid up and down the neck on the other courses, implying chords more than actually playing them.
Borrowing left-hand positions from guitar, I came up with some pretty odd fingerings, like the 2-2-0-5 A chord using my thumb to bar the bottom two courses and pinky finger on the high E string. I don’t actually recommend or teach this chord, though I still find myself using it when it suits me. But the chord, or family of chords, that I want to talk about this time started with another A chord that I’ve found more useful than any other chord on the instrument.
Irish tunes are rarely wholly major or minor. In sessions, when I was building repertoire and not always sure where a tune might be going, I tried to stay away from the 3rd scale step, letting the shape of the tune dictate just how major or minor or happy or moody it wanted to be, without my chord choices getting in the way. So my first, idiot-proof A chord was, of course, 2-2-0-0. Sometimes I’d finger it with thumb and second finger, sometimes with second and third fingers. Since it’s just two A’s and two E’s, it’s about as plain and unproblematic as a chord can be.
It was also boring after a while. So as I got cockier and the tunes started sounding familiar, I added a 3rd step, playing A-major as 2-2-4-5, first finger barring the bottom two strings, then ring and pinky fingers covering the top. Again, this got boring, as it’s so flat-footed in its happy majorness. Lifting the pinky and making sure my index finger didn’t kill the high E string, I got a less sweet and much more practical A chord. And then I discovered that I could walk up and down the neck with it and things got more fun in a hurry.
Every scale step from the first through the sixth is chordable with one of two slight variants of the same chord. [insert notation example here.]
I finger both variants the same, using my index finger to cover the bottom two courses and my ring finger on the third course. I find that this gives smoother transitions between the major and minor chords than you get by switching fingers. The high E string stays open and free for all the chords, and that’s part of the joy.
There are countless tunes in A that lend themselves to being chorded with this happy little chordal family. I’ll give you one here that you might not know. This tune, “The Boys of Ballinafad”, is #195 in the O’Neill’s collection “1001 Gems, the Dance Music of Ireland”. For some reason, it’s not widely played in the sessions yet (though I’m hoping to change that). I found it one day while looking for a particular tune to fill a hole in a song arrangement. I love the assymmetric emphasis in the first part, with the strong beat halfway through the second bar, but the echoing phrase unexpectedly jumping the gun and giving twin strong beats for both halves of the sixth bar. This one rocks, folks.
But the second part is the one you can have particular chordal fun with. There are many ways to chord this tune, but I’ve provided one option that shows how easy it is to slide from the major 1-chord to the major 4-chord, and then down through the minor 3-chord and minor 2-chord. Remember that this is just one of many ways to go with this tune. But let it be a jumping-off point for you to try applying these chords to other tunes, whether jig or reel or hornpipe.
For notation this issue, I’ve tried something new, with parallel tab lines to indicate both the melody and the way I pick the chords. You’ll notice that I often suggest hitting an open string while switching from one chord to another. This is both a concession to physics and a joyful reminder that drones are built into the very fabric of Celtic music. You’ll need the space of one eighth-note to get to the next chord and it’s more important to hit the first beat of the new chord than the last beat of the previous one.
And again, remember you can mix things up rhythmically and should try to play the tune at least a little differently every time through. The chord fingerings should work for pretty much any longer scale mando family instrument, though I can’t vouch for you stalwart players of regular mandolins. But heck, give it a whack anyway. And the tune sounds great whichever octave you play it in.