This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2003 issue

How many different ways can you come up with to play an Irish reel? And how different can you get before the reel becomes unrecognizable? These are two terribly important and closely-linked questions asked often in these days of blossoming Celtic musical expression and the conscious absorption of many world styles into the tradition. I figure the answer to the first question is: an unknown, very large number. The answer to the second depends on whether we’re talking about melody, harmony, rhythm, structure, or some combination of these things.

In this issue I want to discuss (and strongly advocate) melodic variation in particular. Like most American Celtophiles, I first fell in love with Irish music through listening to records. Early on I discovered the modern Celtic revival supergroups like The Chieftains, the Boys of the Lough, and later Planxty and the Bothy Band. And I eagerly picked up vinyl collections of field recordings going back to the 1920s and featuring old masters like Michael Coleman and Padraic O’Keefe. Nearly every other budding American Celtic music nut did the same, if we weren’t lucky enough to hang out in the Irish bars of Chicago or Boston or New York.

So, when we all learned tunes to add to our repertoire, we’d cop the licks off the records, doing our best to play the way the masters did. But the records failed in one respect to convey the tradition as it was and still is passed on in Ireland and Scotland. In order to fit onto first 78s and then short tracks on LPs, the tunes were rarely played through more than two or three times, before medleying into something else or just ending. This is one reason why the heirs of the Vinyl Tradition in sessions all over America tend to play tunes just twice through or maybe three times, and then immediately blast into the next tune.

I don’t blame the speed of modern culture or the ever-decreasing attention span of America’s youth. I chalk it up to short 78 rpm sides and the fact that most American session players just play for each other and not for village dances, like they do in the Old Country.

When I first started travelling extensively in Ireland I naturally found myself at village dances and ceilis and was delighted with what I learned. I found that simple tunes would roll along many times through while the dance went on and the better players made a point of slightly changing the tune, or at the very least, the ornamentation, a little bit every time it went by. I remember sitting and listening to fiddler Frankie Gavin during one such evening in north Clare, playing a tune at least twenty times through and subtlely altering it each time without ever straying far from the essential shape of the tune.

Now, the concept of a tune’s “shape” (which I first illustrated in the Summer 2001 issue) is at the heart of the question about when a tune becomes unrecognizable. You can sometimes stretch a tune pretty dramatically and retain enough of the shape of it so other players in the session, or dancers dancing to it, or listeners just humming along, still know it’s the same tune.

One common trick which some players do consciously and some without thinking, is to stay firmly within the implied chord progression logic of the tune, perhaps also within any arpeggio structure the tune is built on, while keeping the very end of each phrase the same as the standard, unornamented setting. Since a huge majority of Irish tunes are built around strong arpeggios within equally strong chordal progressions, you’ll find plenty of latitude to scramble arpeggios, change directions, and yet somehow maintain contact with the tune this way.

All the best players have personal ways they step outside the tune while still honoring it. Some are more understated than others. One of my favorite founts of variation is Gerry O’Connor, who expresses his love of bluegrass by throwing in occasionally counter-intuitive, unexpected, and chromatic flights of fancy in his Irish settings. But rather than tossing you into the deep end, let’s start by paddling around a little in the shallow end of the variation pool.

Here’s a transcription of a lovely newish reel, “Cahir’s Kitchen,” written by piper/whistle player Paddy Keenan, who was a founding member of the Bothy Band in the 70s. It’s from “The Long Green Acre,” a CD Paddy recently recorded with guitarist Tommy O’Sullivan and which is available in the U.S. on Compass Records.

“Cahir’s Kitchen” is a pretty standard 8-bar reel pattern with an A part and a B part which actually share the identical chord pattern for accompaniment. But Paddy doesn’t bother to play it through with slavishly repeated A and B parts before beginning his variations. The variations start immediately, so the tune almost sounds like a four-part reel until you examine the pairs of 8-bar patterns and see that they’re really all variations of each other. I’ve transcribed the first two times through the tune for you, as Paddy plays it on the recording. I’ve tried to stay as close to his low whistle setting as I could though, naturally, a few of his slurs and slides are impossible to notate properly for the mando (and probably impossible to play, too). As you feel around for fingerings and ways to get up to the high bits in the B parts and back down alive, you’ll sense how this tune was clearly written on and for a traditional instrument very different from a mando.

I love how Paddy feels so free to play arpeggios in seemingly any combination at the beginnings of phrases, while managing to get back to the same two-bar phrase each time. And this richness of invention is done without ever changing the underlying chords or rhythmic logic of the tune. I hope you’ll hunt down the CD to hear the tasty way Tommy O’Sullivan chords under the melody, but for starters, I’d recommend a light, swingy backbeat sort of feel, without snapping off the 2 and 4 beats too quickly. Rather use more of an ascending brush stroke to jazz it up a little. And adding suspensions to the chords can’t hurt one bit.

After working with “Cahir’s Kitchen” for a while, try revisiting some other tunes in your Irish repertoire and looking for arpeggios you can scramble up or knock holes in, and see if this doesn’t encourage you to get more satisfaction out of each tune before moving on to the next one.

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