In this series, we'll look at the process of starting to play an instrument in the traditional Irish style that you'll find in seisiúns around world.
This guide is written from a beginner's perspective, by a beginner, and doesn't cover in-depth topics for each instrument.
If you've got additional things you think a starting player should consider, let us know in the comments below.
This is the most fundamental part of the entire process. If you don’t enjoy your instrument, you won’t practise, you won’t seek out opportunities to play, and you’ll abandon the hobby sooner or later.
Let’s take a look at the options, from some of the most common to the least:
Image: Chris Hemmerly
Pros: Widely available and there’s a good chance you already have one, or a relative will. Basic tuition can be found almost anywhere, and the role in a trad group is mainly rhythm-based: perfect for those who don’t seek the spotlight. And it’s a versatile skill for many other genres of music.
Cons: The same things that some might consider good about the guitar might be problems for other musicians. While you can play melodies on the guitar (as any rock solo can show) but it’s just not the way it’s used in trad. Guitarists will find themselves confined to a backing role.
Banjo / Mandolin
Image: Mark Coggins
Pros: The banjo is pretty easy to find, being a staple in most forms of folk music. It plays the main notes of the tune, so it’s perfect for playing alone as well as with others. The mandolin is tuned and structured the same way as the banjo, so the same skills can be used for both.
Cons: As a melody-based instrument, you’ll be playing the main notes of a tune – what you’d hum to yourself – and speed will be essential when playing with others. The mandolin, while smaller and brighter-sounding (due to its pair of strings for each single string on the banjo) is also quieter.
Tin Whistle (feadóg)
Pros: Cheap as can be, this was once called the penny whistle, and today will only cost very little. Even the very, very best whistle makers in the world charge a few hundred dollars. The instrument is simple in form - six holes on a basic flute shape, and different notes are formed through covering different combinations of the holes. Whistles come in various keys, too, though D is the most common.
Cons: While covering the holes will get your note, don’t be fooled by the instrument’s simplicity - whistle players need to play fast. And that means rapidly changing combinations with perfect accuracy at high speed. In some ways, that’s true of every instrument, but when you see a good player’s fingers do the rapid dance needed, you’re seeing the result of long hours of practice.
Image: The Queen's Hall
Pros: Easy to acquire, the fiddle is the same instrument as the violin. The difference is in the entirely different style. Fiddle playing is rapid and extremely expressive, with plenty of room for your own interpretation. A good fiddler with the ability to pick tunes up by ear is highly prized.
Cons: Fiddle playing is notoriously difficult to learn. The instrument has no frets: those little markers on a guitar that mark the notes and make it impossible to play the sounds in between notes. Novice fiddlers are quite likely to sound like a bag of cats to start with. But the rewards are there for those with the passion - and a fiddle adds a huge boost to any session.
Image: Siaron James
Pros: The traditional Irish drum is one of the only dedicated rhythm instruments, and is recognisably Irish: it certainly looks the part. It’s distinctive, and a feature at Irish sports games when you need to energise the crowd!
Cons: Outside of Ireland, they can be difficult to find, and it's not an 'essential' part of a session.
Music Box (Concertina)
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