What Musical Instruments are Used in a Traditional Irish Music Group?

A traditional Celtic Drum, Bodhran maker and musician
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Question: What Musical Instruments are Used in a Traditional Irish Music Group?

Traditional Irish music groups (and the ever-popular Irish jam session, called a seisĂșn) are home to a variety of musical instruments which have drifted into the cultural tradition over hundreds of years of musical evolution. The most common include:

Answer:

Accordion: The two-row diatonic button accordion, usually tuned C#/D or B/C, is a very common melodic instrument in contemporary traditional Irish music, and has been since the 1940s (before that, the 10-key melodeon, similar to the squeezebox used in Traditional Cajun music, reigned supreme for around 50 years, and before that, the accordion hadn't been invented yet).

It's also not uncommon to see related instruments like a piano-key accordion or the English concertina acting in this role.

Bodhran: The bodhran (pronounced bow-rawn) is a simple Irish frame drum that is played with a two-headed stick called a "tipper." It is not universal in traditional music, but it is almost always seen in a group that is playing for a traditional dance or contemporary dance competition.

Bouzouki: The bouzouki, a Greek relative of the mandolin, was introduced to Irish music in the late 1960s, and often takes the same place in the band that the guitar would: playing rhythmically along with the melody, but not necessarily driving the rhythm or playing lead, just filling out the sound of the chords. You'll see mandolins and citterns (a related instrument) in this position as well, and though the bouzouki's presence is not necessarily standard, it's certainly very common.

Fiddle: The fiddler is generally the leader of the band, melodically, in Irish traditional music, and you'll almost never see or hear a group that bills themselves as traditional that doesn't have a fiddle.

Unlike many other genres of fiddle-based music, there's usually just the one fiddler in the band (rather than having a second fiddler to play harmonies), though in a jam session, there can be as many as will fit in the room.

Flute: The mellow-toned wooden flute has been a major part of Irish traditional music since the early 1800s.

Some say that they entered the tradition when it became standard for concert flautists to play the metal flute with the complex modern system; at that point, they say, the concert flautists of Europe all cast off their old wooden flutes, which flooded the market with cheap instruments that pub session players were glad to have. Truth? Probably not, but stories that juxtapose trad music against classical are always entertaining enough. Some Irish flute players do use a modern concert flute, including Joanie Madden from Cherish the Ladies, who plays both concert and wooden flutes.

Guitar: Guitar has not been a part of the Irish tradition for long (approximately 100 years, give or take), but at this point, it's a standard piece of the puzzle. Most guitarists in bands and sessions play primarily rhythmic accompaniment to the melody, though they do not typically drive the rhythm in the way that they do in other acoustic genres. Several virtuosic lead-style guitarists have emerged from the Irish trad scene in the past couple of decades, but they are the exception, not the norm.

Harp: Though the harp is known as a symbol of Ireland, it is more often found as a solo instrument and less often found in a band or session.

Still, some of the best-established Irish traditional bands (like The Chieftains) do have a harpist in their bands, adding a soft melodic and harmonic texture to the music.

Tin Whistle: This tiny instrument plays a big role in Irish music, and related instruments have been a part of the development of the genre for thousands of years. The modern form was invented in the mid-1800s and is an ideal instrument because it's cheap, portable, and can play a melody loudly enough that it cuts across a dance floor.

Uilleann Pipes: These relatives of the better-known Scottish highland pipes often surprise new listeners (who have perhaps only heard their much-noisier cousin) with their mellowness. They're, again, not a part of every Irish band or session, but they are quite common. In many contemporary bands, the uilleann piper will double on both the pipes and the tinwhistle, providing a different sound and texture for different songs.

Others: The following instruments are not typically found in your average Irish music group, but they're far from unheard-of, particularly in open sessions that might attract players from multiple musical traditions: banjo, harmonica, ukulele, upright bass, and other esoteric acoustic instruments.