The Irish Mandolin


Updated 31 December 2020

This website is designed to give those new – or relatively new – to Irish music on the mandolin a chance to hear how the tunes sound played to a reasonably acceptable standard on a reasonably good mandolin.

The vast majority of the tunes recorded until November 2020 are played on my Eastman MD304 (as pictured) strung with D’Addario J-74 strings. Since that date most new tunes are recorded on a mandolin (G&O #34) which was hand-made by Michael Gregory and kindly gifted to me by the man himself. A wonderfully generous gesture and I will make every effort to repay his kindness by playing the mandolin until it well and truly opens up. I’m hoping to create a page in the New Year dedicated to this really quite remarkable instrument. From time to time I may also play the odd tune on octave mandola or domra (I have recently taken delivery of a c1950s Ukrainian domra which is great fun to play, although perhaps a little too timid to be of much use in a session setting…).

With a few exceptions, the tunes are each played once through. I’ve aimed to play the tunes “straight”, with very little ornamentation, so that the listener can – hopefully – get a feel for the rhythm and the melody quickly. (Having said that I have had the occasional request from visitors to the site to play tunes through twice or three times and so I may re-think that policy…)

That process of playing tunes with very little ornamentation and a very steady (for which read quite slow) speed is quite difficult. Over the years I have attempted to strip out ornamentation from my playing. For several reasons. The primary reason, however, is that some players – and not just mandolinists (not by a long chalk!) – tend to overuse ornamentation (in my humble opinion, your mileage may vary) to the extent that the tune almost becomes secondary to their prowess on their instrument. This really came home to me a few months ago (pre-Covid – remember those days?) when I was sitting beside a very accomplished fiddler. Although I knew a good number of the tunes she started, I found it difficult to identify most of them because she seemed to want to “roll” every phrase. I could only really ID the tune when someone more astute than me picked up on it and started to play it “straight”. Just my tuppence worth; feel free to disagree!

I don’t claim to be the best mandolinist in the world. I reached my skill plateau a long time ago. However what I lack in skill, I hope I make up for in enthusiasm.

I also don’t make many claims to be a world-class recording engineer. These tunes have all been recorded on very basic equipment! All the tunes are unaccompanied and single-track. Just me, a mandolin and a microphone. Until November 2020 they were recorded using a Samson Go Mic plugged directly into my PC. One day it mysteriously packed up. My PC wouldn’t recognise it. Nor would my partner’s Mac. So I invested in a Zoom H1n. Simple and very portable bit of kit. I love it!!

Think of the recordings as “field recordings”! I hope that this simplicity makes it easier to focus on the rhythms and the melodies, to learn the tune quickly. Hopefully you’ll then be able to take the tune away and start to add your own twists, turns and personalisations (but bearing in mind what I say above about too much ornamentation *sometimes* being the enemy of melody!).

About me

I’m Aidan Crossey – originally from Derrymacash in County Armagh, now living in London, England where I’ve been “on and off” active in the Irish traditional music scene for many years.

My main instrument is the mandolin, with occasional forays into octave mandola. For years I’ve played tenor banjos in sessions but if I’m being honest I never really got to grips with the tenor banjo. It’s a loud, imposing instrument and to my ear it lacks the sweetness and delicacy of the mandolin. (However, it can usually be heard in even the most well-attended session! Mandolins have a tendency to disappear behind a handful of fiddles and pipes… I’m hoping that my recently-received G&O #34 will be able to cut it in a session as and when Covid restrictions allow sessions to take place again!)

How to use the tune learning section of the site

When you enter this section, listings of a number of reels, jigs, hornpipes and so on in alphabetical order. Ordinarily I play each tune through once only. My aim when the idea of this site came to me was – as I’ve said above –  to play the tunes fairly “steadily” in the main, which is to say that in most high-end sessions they’d be played somewhat faster. However I’ve found that stepping the pace down is actually quite difficult. Some tunes have an in-built dynamic which means that there’s a limit below which they become quite difficult to play. Or perhaps it’s an indication of my personal preference for a tempo which feels right for me. Either way, my enthusiasm has often got the better of me and most of the the tunes are played rather less sedately than I may originally have intended! I hope the listener can still manage to use them as an aid to learning the tune.

The tunes in the “learning” section of the site

The Irish music tradition has a vast number of tunes. No player can hope in his or her lifetime to learn more than a very small percentage of the tunes which are current. Therefore the tunes reflect my personal taste. Some are session standards; some are less common. However I hope that all share one feature in common – that they’re grand tunes that you’ll want to learn…

Also you may find that the tunes aren’t played quite the way that you play them or that other musicians play them. That’s the way with Irish music – there are lots of different “settings” of tunes and which setting we play is determined by lots of factors. Hopefully the way I play each tune means that I would be able to join in with that same tune at any given session.

And names! You may know one or two of these tunes under different names. That, I’m afraid, is simply the way of it with Irish music too. One tune can dozens of settings and dozens of names by which it’s known.

In order to help with the setting/name issues I’ve linked each tune to its relevant discussion on “The Session”, a fantastic resource for those if us interested in Irish music. Go to The Session homepage here.

Buying a mandolin for playing Irish Music

Many a beginner has been deterred from taking up the mandolin because they inadvertently shelled out good money for an “MSO” – a mandolin-shaped object. Made from the cheapest and least toneful of woods, these unresponsive, tinny, “dead” instruments are a waste of time and money. The problem, of course, is that good instruments – the Gibsons, for example – cost big bucks.

So – two tips from me. The first would be to check out the Eastman range of mandolins. Their “04” models (A styling with oval sound hole) are superb instruments for Irish music. They’re all hand carved and so the tone can vary quite a bit from one instrument to another. So go to a reputable dealer and spend half an hour or so with two or three to get the feel. They’re not cheapo cheap but they’re a much better investment than most mass-produced brands.

A second tip would be to follow this seller “mcgeowns” on eBay. I have bought several very high quality mandolins from him. He specialises in refurbishing late 19th century to mid-20th century European mandolins. For Irish music purposes, his 20th century German mandolins are fantastic value for money. They’re generally very toneful, robust, often quite loud machines and if you’re lucky when bidding you’ll get a hand crafted, refurbed vintage instrument for less than the price of a generic MSO. If you’re unsure about any of his mandolins, drop him a line via eBay. He’s very genuine and very communicative.

Get in touch!

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about this site. So please get in touch. Go the contacts page here.

The obligatory request for donations and a nod to our kind sponsors

Running a website may not count as the world’s most expensive hobby. But renting web space, etc isn’t completely free of charge – particularly when one is also buying audio support as part of the package. Hence the paypal button. If you feel like making a donation to help support this endeavour, then please feel free. It will be very welcome. And you’ll get a mention in the “roll of honour” on the homepage.

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