Last updated 11 June 2022
- About me
- A musical renaissance
- A website is born
- My YouTube channel
- The Irish Mandolin Tunebooks
- The tunes
- Simplified settings
- My original compositions
- My playing style
- A daily routine
- Tablature – a controversial way to learn tunes!
- Recording equipment
- The mandolins which feature throughout this site
- A new addition to the electric mandolin collection
I was born in the townland of Derrymacash, a few miles outside Lurgan, in County Armagh. I came from a family who were fairly musical but those tastes inclined towards the folk end of the spectrum rather than the traditional Irish music which forms the basis of my musical interests…
Not that I was always interested in trad… In my teenage years through to my mid to late 20s I was obsessed with punk rock in its various guises. (And, truth be told, certain favours of punk-influenced music still grab my attention from time to time.)
I moved to England in the mid 1980s, settling eventually in Camden Town in North London before moving to South East London in the mid 1990s. It was during the final few years living in Camden Town that I began to tune into Irish traditional music and bought my first instrument – a banjo – in order to try to get to grips with the tunes. (Perhaps I ought to use the term “banjo-shaped-object” because it really was a piece of junk which I’d be embarrassed to have in the house these days! Ah, the callowness of it all…)
Camden Town and its environs at the time had a pretty active trad scene. There were regular sessions at – for example – The Stag’s Head, The Golden Lion and The Fiddler’s Elbow. But they tended to be very advanced sessions indeed and I found myself travelling further afield to try to find a session here and there that was beginner-friendly. Thankfully London’s a big old town and I managed to find one or two which allowed me to sit in and cut my teeth.
When I arrived in South East London, I was surprised to find that there was a very active trad-ish scene underway. Why “ish”? Well… some of the players in the mix came from backgrounds other than trad and had a tendency to attempt to introduce some folky material into the evenings’ proceedings. However those of us who were more interested in traditional material banded together and started to create opportunities to play in a more focused way. This culminated in the re-launch at The Blythe Hill Tavern in Catford of a regular weekly session, soon to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
It’s fair to say that this was where I truly cut my teeth and for a long stretch of time I was one of the regulars, turning up religiously week after week. And loving the crack (I can’t bring myself to use the word “craic” which always seems to me to be pre-loaded with paddywhackery.) The tunes. The porter. The banter. The new faces. The old faces. From time to time I’d supplement my Blythe Hill Tavern sessioneering with forays into other sessions – but “The Blythe” was definitely the home turf…
And then – “gradually but suddenly” – I started to lose interest in the tunes and just stopped turning up at sessions. I sold off the handful of instruments I’d gathered together. Life had taken a few too many “interesting” turns…
So it remained for quite a few years. Until – in 2019 – I woke up one day with an itch to play tunes again. And literally that same day I took myself into town to buy a mandolin…
A musical renaissance
Armed with a mandolin for the first time in many years, I set about re-introducing myself to my repertoire.
Several things became obvious from the word go. The first was that I had lost a lot of the fluidity I’d previously managed to build up. I had never played at anything approaching competition level but I had been able to play reasonably cleanly and reasonably fast. But I struggled to find that level of clean speed which I’d once possessed. (More on this later…)
The second was that although I was really pleased to be playing tunes again, I had no desire to re-enter the session fray.
A third – and this was something pointed out to me by a friend and wasn’t immediately obvious to me! – was that I had developed some bad playing habits over the years and somehow they had become even more exaggerated after I picked up an instrument again.
But the sheer pleasure of playing the mandolin again was a life-changer for me and I decided I’d like to do something to help pass on that pleasure to others.
A website is born
In the late 1990s/early 2000s I ran a website – now defunct – called Pay The Reckoning which was devoted to various aspects of Irish Traditional music. So I had a reasonable understanding of how to go about creating a website.
I was very aware from being a regular visitor at various sites such as “The Session” and “The Mandolin Cafe” that there are large numbers of musicians who have an interest in Irish traditional music but who live many miles from the nearest session. They lack the opportunity to hear the music played in its raw form. Perhaps, I thought, if I could provide them with a little bit of opportunity to experience that. To show that our music isn’t just about – certainly isn’t all about – the highly accomplished players, with highly-produced albums of light-speed, tricky reels. There’s an entry level of playing that is much more accessible…
And so the idea of putting together a site which would contain a number of my favourite tunes, with a sound file of myself playing solo mandolin and some accompanying resources – a link to any further information at “The Session”, some mandolin tab (and sheet music) and any narrative which I thought appropriate for certain tunes. I wasn’t sure that it would work but nothing ventured, nothing gained and in September 2019 I launched TheIrishMandolin.com
There have been quite a few developments since its launch. But the “learn some tunes” section remains the epicentre of the site. It now contains an alphabetical index by tune type and I’ve added a page (primarily for my own benefit, but it seems to appeal to a few fellow mando-nerds) which lists new additions to the “learn some tunes” section in chronological order as I update…
As well as adding new material to the “learn some tunes’ page, I am currently reviewing the old sound files and re-recording sound files when the original no longer meets my current quality standards or where – in line with my previous policy – the tune is played through once-only (i.e. with no repeat). This means, in some cases, deleting sound files which can’t be “rescued” but in most cases means “cleaning up” the original sound file using Audacity software to minimise background noise and to normalise the sound level so that it is consistent with the sound levels of new recordings on the site. In other cases – a small minority – if the original sound file is so poor that it can’t be “rescued”, I will remove it from the site.
Therefore the “learn sone tunes” section is never static. And that’s how it should be. There’s no beginning and no end to this music. We never stop learning. We’re always finding a new tune that grabs our attention. We’re always finding a new setting that we haven’t heard before that gives us a new perspective on a tune we’ve known for years.
Does it have an audience? When I first had the idea, I didn’t know how popular it would prove to be. I thought it would have very limited appeal. However I’m delighted that at the time of writing the site has attracted 14,064 visitors who have viewed items within the site 79,425 times…
My YouTube channel
Some time later a friend suggested that I should start a YouTube channel to complement the website. I resisted for quite a while. There were lots of arguments against. I didn’t know how to make videos. Even if I did, what form would they take? (I was sick to the back teeth of “Oirish” YouTube videos which were slideshows of scenery or – much worse – twee shots of some idealised pastoral past, clearly made by people who’d never set foot in Ireland in their lives!) And there was the fact that even then I had a substantial back catalogue of material at my “learn some tunes” page. To convert all of that material to YouTube videos would take me an age…
I can always come up with a list of reasons NOT to do something to further my mission to make Irish music more accessible to players of the mandolin! And sometimes I just need to acknowledge that it will be hard work but it could be a useful tool for those learning the tunes. And sometimes I simply need to take the first step and all of those doubts fall away.
So it was with my YouTube channel… I figured out a formula which I thought would work (simple and to the point … me playing mandolin over an image of the sheet music/tab) and I got down to business. Again, like the “learn some tunes” page, the YouTube channel has developed quite a bit since I created it. The key change has been to list the various tune types into separate playlists. And recently I have been “revisiting” the early videos when I have been updating sound files at the “learn some tunes” page to provide viewers with a better learning tool for the tunes in question…
The site appears to be well-used. At the time of writing, I’ve had 64,607 views and I have 438 subscribers… Clearly people are finding it valuable!
You can check out my YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/TheIrishMandolin
The Irish Mandolin Tunebooks
As a means of creating a different way to access the music – and as a means of supporting the site financially – I took a decision to start to pull together some of the resources I had published into e-book format. I’ve now published 4 volumes of the Irish Mandolin Tunebook. (Volume 1 contains 100 tunes; Volumes 2 and 3 contain 50 tunes; Volume 4 – which comes free with every purchase of Volume 3 – contains 20 of my own compositions.). I’ve been very pleased with the interest in these from all over the world. A big thank you to everyone who’s bought one or more volumes.
Further information on the tunebooks here.
When I first started tabbing tunes and recording sound files I concentrated on those tune which were already firmly part of my repertoire – tunes which I’d learned over the years from sessions, from records, from attending gigs, etc. More recently I’ve been learning tunes as I go along. As well as being inspired to learn a tune from listening to a great rendition by other musicians, other sources of inspiration include YouTube videos or sound files, etc made by fellow mandolinists with whom I have regular contact, database entries at thesession.org, several old notebooks which I’ve kept over the years and which are full of sketchy abc versions of tunes which I’ve been meaning to learn, various tunebooks (hard copy and online) which I have in my collection and the occasional direct request from visitors to this site who ask for assistance with learning a particular tune(s).
I don’t read sheet music very well (therefore I can’t simply sight-read) and so my approach to learning a tune from “dots” is painstakingly slow. I play the tune through once at a funereal pace to get a feel for its pattern and I note any tricky passages which are difficult to pick up on the first pass. I will then work on these passages one-by-one until I’m fairly confident that I can play them in isolation without majorly flubbing. Then I will start to piece the tune together again. At this point I often find that the tricky passages, which I have been able to play pretty fluently separately from the whole tune, start to trip me up again. And so it’s a question of persevering, playing the tune time and time again until it’s drilled into my fingers and into my brain. With some tunes, the process can be fairly slow and I may have to leave the tune to one side and come back to it in a few hours or a few days. (And in some cases, never… there comes a point where some tunes are simply beyond my competence.) However, surprisingly, in some cases I can pick up a tune within two or three repeats…
Do the tunes “stick”? Sadly that’s not always the case. I find that the tunes which tend to have the most sticking power are those which I’ve played in sessions or perhaps in a 1-1 setting with another player. There’s something about the musical bond which happens when sharing music in this way which makes a tune lodge permanently. However I find that by having spent so much time on each tune, with a little prompting I can generally get myself up to speed on each one quite quickly again.
In the “learn some tunes” section of the site, I direct the reader to further information on the tune at thesession.org Often you will find multiple versions of the tune there – many of which are quite elaborate. My settings of the tunes tend to be as simple as possible. My theory is the individual player can add their own interpretation to the tune once they’ve learned a basic setting. Or not! You may prefer a reasonably straightforward setting of the tune – allowing the tune to “speak for itself”…
My original compositions
Ever since I started playing this music, I’ve been drawn to writing my own tunes… It’s quite a controversial thing to do. There are many players who will only play “traditional” tunes, trusting to the “trad process” which weeds out those thousands of tunes which have emerged over the years and which haven’t warranted a place in “the canon”.
I have some sympathy with that position. And yet … I think of all the truly lovely pieces that have been composed in living memory by traditional musicians. Ed Reavy, Paddy Fahey, Paddy O’Brien, Sean Ryan, Vincent Broderick, Peadar Ó Riada to name just a few. I’m not saying that my compositions rank alongside those of the greats that I’ve listed above. However the process of composing – of conjuring up a melody out nothing but my own thoughts and feelings and whatever inspiration happens to strike in the moment – is very meaningful for me and I can’t imagine living life without it…
You can check out my original compositions here.
My playing style
Like many people who take to Irish music on mandolin, when I first started playing I was very keen to overlay each and every tune with triplets here and triplets there. I also developed a bad habit of slurring when pulling off from a fretted note to an open string or when moving from a higher fretted note to a lower fretted note on the same string. I had convinced myself that it added character to my playing…
Until one night recently when a friend with whom I was playing a few tunes asked if I was open to some constructive, helpful criticism. I said that I was – but not without a certain amount of trepidation. His advice was, in a nutshell:
“Lose the triplets. You don’t have to play them all over the place and you don’t play them very well anyway! Strip your playing back to the bare bones. Play the tunes not your instrument. And then maybe start to reintroduce triplets when you’re ready but sparingly, sparingly!
Ditch that bad habit of slurring notes. Think about how phrase would sound if you played it very cleanly. And concentrate very hard on playing it that way. Aim for clean playing every time…”
Yikes! That stung! I felt that I’d been playing badly for years and years and was blind to my failings. And those playing habits were deeply ingrained. How would I ever get rid of them?
For several weeks after that discussion I didn’t touch a mandolin. Could barely tolerate being in the same room as a mandolin. Eventually I picked up one again and tried playing a tune with my friend’s advice in mind. To no avail, my fingers lapsed into previous, deeply-ingrained bad habits.
But time… time… time and practice… time and practice and concentration. I’m now getting to a point where I’ve developed an approach to playing the tunes much more plainly than in the past. And I’ve managed to weed out the bad habit of slurring notes to a large extent. (Not entirely… when I’m tired or not concentrating hard enough or when I’m in a session setting playing hell for leather in an effort to keep up with faster players, I have a tendency to revert a little.). I’ve revisited quite a few of the tunes which I recorded when this website was in its infancy and I notice a significant improvement in most instances between the original recording and my more recent playing.
Most noticeably since around the beginning of 2022, I have begun to develop a feel for using triplets in a way which is, to my ears, much more colourful and accurate and so I’ve been gradually reintroducing triplets to me playing. Sparingly… and hopefully sparingly enough!
There is a great satisfaction to be had in investing time and energy in developing our playing style. It’s hard work and the results aren’t always (in fact almost never!) immediate. But gradually – and the gradient will vary considerably from one player to the next – the hard work starts to pay off…
A daily routine
One thing I have found very helpful is, at least once per day and at a point where I am properly “warmed up”, to play the same set of tunes. With as much concentration as I can muster. With as much care as I can summon up. Every day aiming to play the set just that little bit better than the day before. It might not work for everyone, but it has become a daily ritual for me and I think it has brought great benefits.
The set in question is a set of three jigs. The Connaughtman’s Rambles/Tiocfaidh Tú Abhaile Liom?/Junior Crehan’s. You can hear me play this set here.
Tablature – a controversial way to learn tunes!
I was recently taken to task in an email from a friend who had stumbled on my website and YouTube channel by accident and was unimpressed by the fact that I set out my tune learning resources in GDAE tablature…. “Baby food” were his exact words.
In the same email he was also a little critical of the fact that I tend to set the dots and tablature in a fairly “bare bones” style and that I play the tunes themselves in quite a bare bones fashion.
It gave me pause for thought and I had a moment or two of self-doubt but here is my considered reflection.
When I started the website, my decision to set out tunes in tablature format was prompted by the fact that I subscribe to a number of mandolin forums online and I have noticed that the bulk of members of such forums are based in the States and it would appear that tablature is a primary vehicle there for setting out tunes. My intention was – and remains – to make Irish traditional music as accessible as possible to mandolin players. Given the above, I decided to set out the tunes in mandolin tab format.
However I include “proper” dots alongside the mandolin tab and, of course, I also include a sound file so people have three learning options – tab, dots or by ear (or a combination of any of these).
(For some of my own tunes, I also include ABC transcriptions.)
I know that there’s a view among many traditional musicians that learning by ear is the “correct” way to learn tunes and that any other approach is to be discouraged. I would tend to disagree on a number of counts…
Firstly, I am of the view that however an individual wishes to learn (tunes or anything in life, really) is their own choice. I would feel very uncomfortable dictating to anyone how they should or shouldn’t pick up this or that tune. I would prefer to encourage people who have an interest in playing “our” music to continue to learn, continue to play, using whatever learning methods work for them. Creating unnecessary barriers such as saying “this is the only way to learn” can be a real turn off.
And secondly, learning by ear is a particular skill. I would tend to agree that it’s a skill which many people can pick up. But – here’s the rub – learning any new skill or developing any skill which we have at a basic level requires time and effort. And sometimes we simply don’t have the time available to devote to learning such a skill. (Or maybe we don’t have the time available *right now*…)
Also learning by ear requires that we’re able to hear the tunes in the first place. Living in London, I could probably, if I felt inclined, rock up to 4 or 5 sessions a week and hear tunes first-hand from first-rate musicians. However many of the people who make use of my website have never been to a session in their life and the nearest session might be hundreds of miles away… So they’re never going to be able to develop that skill of learning by ear in a face to face setting.
As for the basic settings and basic playing. I have to admit that this reflects my personal playing style (see the paragraph above). However the approach has the advantage of making the tablature and sheet music easy to navigate. Once the player has learned the bare bones of the tune, then it’s up to them how to ornament the tune (or not!) according to their own personal taste.
When I first started recording sound files for this site back in late 2019, I used a Samson GoMic recorded direct to GarageBand. Later, I used the same mic to record direct to Audacity as I found that I could enhance the quality of the sound file somewhat better in Audacity.
Several months and several hundred sound files later, my computer decided that it was no longer going to recognise the GoMic and I switched to using a Zoom H1n digital recorder. This was a much better piece of kit for my purposes. It doesn’t need to be plugged into a computer for recording purposes and the files are easily transferred to my computer after recording so that I can trim them, boost the sound levels if necessary and so on – again, using Audacity. It was only in retrospect that I realised just how “noisy” were the initial GoMic recordings. And so I have been working my way through a lot of those early recordings to attempt to clean up the originals and to provide additional, more recent recordings (which also serve to demonstrate just how my playing has improved after several years of very intense playing…).
I have recently starting making some recordings using my recently-acquired Revelation Jaguar electric mandolin and my Epiphone Mandobird VIII. (More on this below.) Originally I plugged either instrument directly to my computer using a lead developed by Griffin (now discontinued; see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Griffin-Guitar-Connect-iPhone-GC17122/dp/B003VWZJEQ) and recorded to GarageBand. I then tidied up the sound files in Audacity – simply because I understand the way in which the fine detail works better than I understand the fine detail of GarageBand…
11 June 2022. My Griffin lead finally gave up the ghost. The socket which allows the player to monitor the recording via a headphone socket started to wear out. And so, since yesterday, 10 June 2022, I have been using a simple M-Audio M-Track Solo USB audio interface to record ( again with the GarageBand/Audacity set-up mentioned above). I’m very impressed. The sound is much cleaner and it was a doddle to set up – albeit that it requires a little bit of knowledge of GarageBand to convert the resulting sound file to one which uses both channels rather than simply the left one…
The mandolins which feature throughout this site
There are a number of mandolins (and other GDAE instruments) which feature on recordings throughout this site and my YouTube channel.
From left to right, top to bottom they are:
G&O #34 mandolin – hand built to a very high spec by Michael Gregory of North Dakota, a keen supporter of this site and a fine musician with a particular grá for the music of Sliabh Luachra. This is without doubt the pride of my collection of instruments. I’ve recently been experimenting with stringing this instrument with .10 strings – much lighter than the .115s with which Michael himself strung it. The jury is still out. I certainly find it easier to fret notes more cleanly but the instrument loses a lot of its oomph in the process…
Paris Swing Macaferri mandolin – great little mandolin which records superbly. The manufacturers have now shut up shop and so these mandolins are becoming collector’s items… (Now “retired”.)
Falder mandolin – a beast of a mandolin built to a very high spec but sadly I’ve never been able to get it to live up to its promise. I have made arrangements for a local Luther who specialises in mandolins to give it a once-over and perhaps there are a few tweaks which can bring it up to par. (Or perhaps I’m simply unrealistic in my expectations!). I’ve not been able to find out anything about the maker so if anyone’s reading this and has any info, please get in touch!
Revelation Jaguar electric mandolin – the newest addition to the stable! Over the next few weeks and months, this instrument is going to feature a lot at my website and then in due course at my YouTube channel. I live in a flat surrounded by others who are working from home at least some of the time. Therefore it’s quite difficult to find times to record acoustically which don’t disturb them or where their general moving about doesn’t intervene in my acoustic recordings. A few doors down from me someone is having major work down to their house. Although the noise is barely noticeable otherwise, my recording equipment picks it up and amplifies it. So I find myself waiting for the day’s work to end before I can record acoustically. And we happen to live under the flight path to Heathrow, just at about the point at which they release the undercarriage and at times the noise from planes starts to intrude into my acoustic recordings. And finally I’m a really poor sleeper and find myself awake at ungodly hours. I’d like to make use of that time to do something productive musically … but I don’t want to disturb the peace. For all of those reasons there’s a lot to be said for using an electric mandolin from time to time. I’ve been experimenting madly over the past few weeks with GarageBand in an attempt to navigate its plethora of amps and effects to find a sound which suits my instrument, my playing style and – of course – the tunes! My playing of the tunes has been strictly acoustic up to this point and I’ve found it quite difficult to adopt some new approaches. But living and learning, trial and error … all part of life’s rich tapestry.
Update 27 February 2022. My downstairs neighbour has had a start date confirmed for major rebuilding work on her flat which means that from March through to June/July there’s going to be a lot (A LOT) of noise from down below… Therefore expect to hear the electric mandolin featuring as the main (possibly only) mandolin for some considerable time until normal service can be resumed…
Ashbury AT-40 tenor guitar – a cheap and cheerful “bottom of the range” tenor guitar but despite its affordability, it plays really well and records well to boot. I wheel the tenor guitar out from time when I think a tune benefits from being played fairly slowly or where the deeper tones add a new dimension to a tune.
Eastman MD304 mandolin – I used this for a long time as my main instrument. Beautifully made and with a lovely tone but – and it’s a big but! – incredibly quiet. Eventually that lack of vim mean that I sold it on… Hopefully someone else is having fun with it! (Now “retired”.)
Kentucky KM1000 mandolin – a high-spec F-style which is without a doubt the fastest mandolin I’ve ever owned. I bought it because I had a hankering for the ‘F” sound but appreciated after several months that it wasn’t best-suited to Irish music and it has since found a home with a bluegrass player who has been using it to great advantage. (Now “retired”.)
Soviet-era Ukrainian domra – a curiosity instrument. Same scale length as a mandolin but only 4 strings. I’ve featured it in a few recordings but it’s a novelty instrument rather than a key member of the clan…
Musikalia octave mandola – several of the early recordings which I’ve resurrected in this site feature me playing a Musikalia octave mandola which has since been passed on to another player. I had a lot of fun with that instrument back in the early 2000s. Here’s a shot below of me (arrowed) playing it at a session in The Blythe Hill Tavern in Catford in 2003 on an evening when the maestro, Dan Beimborn, paid me a visit and we headed out for a few tunes. (Dan’s pictured playing a bouzouki which I had recently bought – and made a far better noise with it than I ever managed!) (Now “retired”.)
A new addition to the electric mandolin family
I’ve enjoyed playing the Revelation Jaguar electric mandolin so much that I recently took the plunge and upgraded to an Epiphone Mandobird VIII electric mandolin. To be honest, I’ve never managed to set the Mandobird up to overcome the problem that the e strings tend to be much weaker than the A strings. I’ve adjusted the bridge numerous times – “up and down like a bride’s nightie”, as the saying goes. The current bridge setting is – er – passable. Having said all that, it’s a lovely instrument to play. The balance is just perfect and I have to admit that it looks really quite stunning as a piece of equipment! Picture below: