This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Fall 2005 issue

I taught a Celtic tune session class this summer at the delightful California Coast Music Camp north of San Francisco.  Many of the students were eager newcomers to the Celtic genre, and some had plenty of jigs and reels under their belts but were moving sideways from guitar to mando or vice versa.  But nearly everyone was working way too hard when it came to finding chord voicings to go with the tunes.

I’m a great believer in letting the instrument do as much of the work as possible.  This means playing fewer than all the available strings, using one- and two-finger chord shapes whenever possible, and letting the open strings ring joyfully, creating lovely voicings and occasionally providing intriguing tension and emotional power just by being there.

When I’d convinced the class to play about half as many notes in accompaniment as they’d initially tried to, suddenly the ensemble sound started to jell and the tunes started to behave the way they were intended to behave.  These tunes are built around arpeggios and snatches of scales that have chordal power and forward momentum built into them.  Accompanying a jig or reel, especially one written in one of the darker, more moody modes, you need do very little more than drone for the tune to create a lovely and compelling arc of tension and release as it spools itself off and grabs its tail in its mouth for another time around.

So I found it an ongoing challenge to devise increasingly minimal chord progressions to put under tunes and increasingly minimal fragmentary chords to do the job.  I got the impression that the bluegrass and jazz players felt a little guilty playing so few notes, fond as they were of those sweet, fat 4-note mando chop chords.  But they eased on in as I repeated my mantra, “Trust the tune—let it do the work for you.”

Many Celtic players are used to the notion of “modal” chords, the term often used to describe a chord omitting the 3rd scale step and so only as major or minor as the context of the tune lets it be.  But I found myself going beyond “modal” to “skeletal”… chords that are barely more than tonic drones with the vaguest kind of chordal hints on top, usually a fifth, but sometimes an octave doubling, and open string suspensions flanging away in the distance.

A great tune to try skeletal chord ideas on is “Paddy Fahey’s Reel”, a session standard and delightfully dark melody.  For this issue’s exercise you’ll need either a recording device or a friend to play “Paddy Fahey’s” through for you a few times in a row so you can experiment with three slightly different chord progressions and decide which one works best for you.

I’ve provided notation here for three different ways to chordally accompany the tune.  Let’s refer to them as skeletal, uncommitted, and committed. 

The skeletal accompaniment progression is nice and moody and allows the built-in darkness and modal power of the tune to dictate whether an underlying chord seems major or minor or something in between.  You’re really just walking root position parallel fifths up and down the bottom two courses and letting the upper two courses ring as either part of the chord or edgy suspensions.  When you follow the notation, a single chord in the measure indicates (of course) that you play that chord for the full measure, while if two chords are paired up in a measure, each gets 2 of the 4 beats.

The uncommitted chord progression fills out chords a little more, but still avoids the third scale steps of the chords (except for the definite Gm), leaving it up to the imagination and the context of the melody whether chords are major or minor.  You’re still leaving the E course open throughout, singing a drone that either fills out the chords or adds color as a suspension.

The committed chords telegraph their major- or minor-ness clearly.  On my octave mando, I enjoy fingering the chords with a barred index finger on the lower pair of courses and my ring finger on the A course, either crowding together on adjacent frets in the case of the Dm or opening up to two frets apart for the C major and A major chords.  I then walk up and down the neck as the progression dictates, using my ring finger as the sliding anchor note.

As for these committed chords, they are all technically “correct” and in keeping with the tune’s shape and mood.  Yet, somehow, (and I admit here to tipping my preference hand) by committing so solidly to fuller chords, something essential is sucked out of the tune.  See if you don’t agree, playing along with the tune several times and comparing all three chord progressions under it.  There’s an air of mystery to the tune played with no accompaniment at all.  That mystery is retained with the drony skeletal chord approach.  It’s even retained with the uncommitted chords, allowing the single accidental (the C# in the B part) its fleeting instant of major-ness as part of the brief and surprising A major chord.  But the mystery vanishes with the imposition of fuller, committed major and minor chords.  It’s as if we’re not trusting the tune to do its job.  And that, I believe, is a shame.

There are plenty more ways to chord under “Paddy Fahey’s”—these are just three useful examples.  As I’ve stressed in other columns, you should always feel free to change your choice of chords, placement of chords, and everything else every time you go through a tune like this.  As you learn a tune so well it becomes second nature, you’ll find that the tune will tell you how chordally busy to be and even how to arrange it when you play it through three or four times in a row during a session.  Always trust the tune.  Let it lead you in amusing and satisfying directions.