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Irish Tunes

by Steve Shaw

SP20 Low D

Irish Tunes on the Diatonic Harmonica

For a number of years now I've been taking my harmonicas along to various traditional music sessions in Cornwall, which is where I live, and playing the traditional tunes of Ireland, Scotland and Northumberland. I had been a member of the local folk club and had admired particularly the "greats" of the traditional Irish music revival of the 60s and 70s. Once I'd learned a few tunes on the harmonica in the early 1990s I was persuaded to parade my limited talents (having formed a family band with my young son and daughter!) in front of the club members. As I'd never really got into blues, and, what's more, had taught myself how to play without recourse to any tuition materials, it never occurred to me that I was operating somewhat outside the mainstream of harmonica playing in general - that is, until two or three years ago, when I got a computer and joined several harmonica internet forums.

I then discovered that my instrument of choice, the 10-hole blues harp, was employed mostly for - well - blues playing. The only harmonica album I'd come across was Brendan Power's "New Irish Harmonica," and it didn't take me long to discover that he was using mostly modified chromatic harps, which seemed far-removed from my humble blues harps. I even met Brendan on one occasion when he played at our folk club, and was gobsmacked to see his case full of exotic black-coloured harps! I was happy doing what I was doing, however, and even went so far as to equip myself with a green bullet and a guitar amp so as not to be drowned out by the other session enthusiasts. I mustn't have been too bad, because I didn't meet resistance to this even though I was the only electrified guy in the room!

Anyway, I've since gone on to being a member of a trio which occasionally gets asked to play for weddings, barn dances and special pub evenings, and the three of us form the core of our latest session manifestation in Cornwall. I've even progressed to making my own CD, with the help of one of my trio colleagues. Everything we do is cheerfully amateur stuff, even though we're very serious about it all.

I could go on to describe all the disadvantages of learning the harmonica in such isolation (I didn't know that there was such a thing as tongue-blocking, for example), but my real purpose in writing this article is to explore the possibilities of diatonic harmonicas in Irish music. Of course, the word "diatonic" applies not just to 10-hole harps but also to the 12-holes (Glenn Weiser's excellent book/CD set on Irish and American fiddle tunes for harmonica recommends these for many tunes) and, not least, to tremolo harps which, before Brendan Power, Mick Kinsella and James Conway came along, were the harmonicas most associated with Irish music. The tremolos have their honourable place, and I use them a lot myself, but my first love is the 10-hole single-reeded harp, and it is to this that I will from now on confine the discussion. If, after reading this, you are tempted to get out your blues harp and try the odd Irish melody, I will have achieved something!

First and foremost, when you play Irish music you are playing complete melodies - not just riffs, licks or occasional solos. The three-octave span of the standard 10-hole has one complete octave only. There are two notes missing from the diatonic scale in the bottom octave (the 4th and the 6th) and one from the top octave (the 7th). For most tunes you will need most of the notes of the scale. The consequence is that most melodies are best played mostly in the middle and upper octaves. The over-use of "most" or "mostly" is deliberate there! So, if you are coming from the blues, you may have to get used to the idea of playing higher up the harp more than you may be accustomed to. The different blow-draw pattern from hole 7 up can cause initial problems in fast melodies, but, believe me, it's a breeze when you've practised it for a little while.

Now, you may be thinking that an instrument without accidentals "built in" is limiting enough without the additional burden of those missing notes. Well, I can tell you that very few tunes require the low missing 4th or the high missing 7th, so you can almost forget about these. Unfortunately, it isn't so easy to shrug off the missing 6th in the bottom octave. Perhaps a third or more of the tunes I play require this note. You may have to get the note clean, fast and without slur in a rapid passage, so that good ol' 3-draw bend isn't always going to do the trick. Even Brendan Power and James Conway acknowledge this. So what is to be done?

You could use a 12-hole harp for this large minority of tunes. If you do, you will be playing an octave higher than if you'd been playing a 10-hole with that missing 6th "put back." The extended range at the high end of the 12-hole harp means you can avoid the low octave problem - but you may not like the idea of playing so high. I play with fiddle-players a lot, and I like to blend with them by being at their pitch, not an octave above. Your mileage may vary! The increasingly-accepted alternative to that is to use harps in the "Paddy Richter" tuning (so-dubbed by Brendan Power). A Paddy Richter harp is the same as a standard-tuned harp except that the 3-blow reed has been retuned a whole tone up. This puts back that missing 6th, and the beauty of it is that you still have the note on your harp that 3-blow used to be because it's duplicated at 2-draw. This is a perfect solution to getting your harp set up for Irish tunes. Raising the pitch of a reed by a whole tone is fairly radical and needs some care so don't practise it for the first time on your new Filisko harp! It would be a shame not to do it yourself though……

Whilst on the subject of setting up harps I'll just tell you what I do about a couple of things but without telling you that you should do them too (remember, I'm self-taught!). First, I don't overblow and I don't want overly-small gaps. I need to play fast runs of notes with much changing of air direction with attack, and reed-choking is the bane of my life here if my gapping is close. Maybe that's just me, but so be it. Second, I rarely use chords or intervals (I don't tongue-block if you recall), and I have no problem with the equal temperament tuning of Lee Oskars. In fact, I retune all my harps to equal temperament. I just like it better that way. I promised not to pontificate, so I won't!

The mention of Lee Oskars there leads me on to describing the harps I like. I don't take much notice of assessments of the tonal qualities of the different makes as I feel that 99% of the tone comes from me. I like Lee Oskars because they are robust, accurately-tuned and extremely long-lasting. I like Hohner Special 20s because they are comfortable and airtight and of good quality, though nowhere near as robust or long-lasting as Lee Oskars. They have a sort of tingle factor for me. Sp20s are my friends. These two harps are pretty conventional choices, but I also have Marine Bands, Huangs, Suzukis, Hohner MS harps………

Following on from talking about which harps to use, the matter of which keys arises. If you want to play just for yourself (I hope not), or play Irish tunes in concert settings or recordings, you can play in whatever key you like, but if you aspire to playing in sessions (I hope you do - it's the best fun you can have with your clothes on) you will find that the keys in which tunes are played are pretty rigidly fixed. The vast majority of Irish tunes are in D, G or modes based around D and G. A sizeable minority are in A major or A Mixolydian mode.

If you have harps in D, G and A you'll be able to join in with 95% of what's going on. Standard G and A are fine, but I want to say a little more about D. In Irish tune-playing you'll be playing mostly in the middle and upper octaves. The standard D harp is pretty high in pitch for this kind of use. You'll find yourself an octave above the fiddles, for example. I rarely want to stand out like this, so my D harps are low D. This puts me at the same pitch as the fiddles. If you're a blues player, used to playing at the low end, you may think that habitual use of a low D would have you sounding like you were coming from Davy Jones' locker. I use a low D for all the tracks on my CD that call for a D harp. It's surprising how "middle-of-the-range" in pitch those tracks sound. There isn't ever very much happening below 3-blow. By the way, my low Ds are Special 20 low Ds. I wouldn't consider any other low D at the moment. I love my Sp20 low Ds and I want them to have my babies. Preferably quintuplet little baby low Ds.

All this talk of keys and modes leads us on to discussing that most favourite of topics for blues-harpers, the matter of positions. There's no question about it: the great majority of major-key Irish tunes are best-played in 1st position, the key of the harp. But not all. If a major-key tune in, say, D, has no C sharps in it, it can be played in 2nd position on a G harp. Why bother, you may ask, when you can just play it on your D? There is a very good reason, which relates to the way tunes are played in traditional Irish music. In a session you will not usually play just a single tune in isolation: rather, you will play a medley (a set) of two or three tunes. The musicians usually select tunes for a medley which are in different keys. For example, a set may have three tunes, in D, G and D. Now just think how useful it would be if you could play all three on a G harp - no dropping out, no switching harps…..can you begin to see where I'm coming from? By the way, that is a real example above of a set I play on a G harp. The three tunes in question are Connaughtman's Rambles, Saddle The Pony and Calliope House. Building up a good selection of tunes that I can play in 2nd position is one of my ongoing aims. In addition to the type of example I've just described I also have a number of sets with tunes in D and A which can be played on a D harp. The A tunes here are of course played in 2nd position, Mixolydian mode.

Irish music also contains many tunes that are in "minor-sounding" keys, the vast majority of which are either Dorian mode or Aeolian mode. The commonest are:
E Dorian - play on a D harp, 3rd position
B Aeolian - play on a D harp, 4th position
A Dorian - play on a G harp, 3rd position
E Aeolian - play on a G harp, 4th position
A Aeolian - play on a C harp, 4th position
Don't let all this position-talk put you off, by the way. I was blissfully doing all the above, just by copying what I'd heard on CDs, before I ever knew what a "position" was, let alone a mode. Finally, there are a few tunes that are pentatonic, and which can be played in 12th position (or 1st-flat if you prefer), Lydian mode. To sum up, being able to play in positions other than first will allow you to be able to change key in medleys without switching harps - though you can do that as well, if you want to!

I've confined my discussion to standard-tuned harps generally. I haven't really investigated the possibility of using the Lee Oskar "melody maker" tuning, nor have I considered the potential of the XB40 (I've been waiting for one for months! I have a feeling that it might change my views…)

My discussion has, deliberately, been very harmonica-centred, and any aficionado of Irish music reading this may be getting a little worried by now that I'm neglecting the "soul" of the music itself. Sure enough, you can learn a few Irish melodies in no time at all, but it must not be forgotten that this music is at the very heart of Irish culture and is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. To play it well and idiomatically is an art in itself - and I don't use the word "art" loosely there. Whilst we don't want to get too precious about it (and, believe me, the music suffers from more than its share of purists!), it's important to treat the tradition, like all traditions, with due respect. It's lovely music when well-played, and you'll enjoy listening to it whether it's just a few CDs you have or whether you can get to some sessions or concerts. Standards are very high. You don't need to confine yourself to recordings containing harmonica to get inspired, either. If you take a look at my website I've recommended some of my favourite recordings - a very arbitrary list admittedly - and also some excellent tune-books.

Before concluding, I really ought to say a little about the form of the music itself. Most of the time you'll be playing dance tunes, of which there are several types, defined by their rhythms. Apart from the dance tunes you may have the chance to accompany a song or two. Next, you will come across the tunes of Turlough O'Carolan, many of which are firm session favourites. O'Carolan was a blind harper (he played the strung variety of harp!) who lived from 1670 to 1738. Finally, there are slow airs, which are generally tunes derived from songs of the more reflective type. Most slow airs are played without a discernible steady rhythm, and playing them is an art-form in itself. You really do need to get traditional Irish music well under your skin before you are able to convince an audience with your slow air playing. As the dance tunes form the bulk of session-playing I should say just a little about the different types, so here goes.

Most sessions are taken up predominantly by reels and jigs. Reels are fast tunes in 4/4 time, and of all the faster tunes they represent the greatest challenge to harmonica players, as it's quite difficult to decorate the melodies convincingly. If you want to play in sessions you'll need a good collection of reels. Jigs are in 6/8 time and have perhaps the most "Irish" sound of all. The other types of tunes are less commonly heard, but you should have at least a handful of each. Hornpipes are in 4/4 time but are played with a decided "lilt" and have the feel of two beats in the bar. Polkas are very popular in the south-west of Ireland. They are lively, fast tunes in 2/4 time, and are absolutely great on the harmonica. I could play 17 different polkas before I learned my first reel! Slip jigs, in 9/8 time, and slides, in 12/8 time, are heard occasionally, and there are a few waltzes too in the Irish tradition.

Finally, it has to be said that there are many aspects of playing traditional Irish music that I haven't touched on at all, such as matters of ornamentation and variation, finding good accompaniment for your playing and good manners in session-playing - nor have I provided any tunes. But I hope I've managed to demonstrate the possibilities of the little 10-hole harp in what may be a new and potentially very rewarding genre of music-making. As well as learning some tunes, do plenty of listening. Speaking for myself, traditional Irish music on the harmonica has been and continues to be one of the great loves of my life, and I've still got a lot to learn.

Steve Shaw

Steve's CD of mostly traditional Irish, "Blowing Through The Reeds," is available from Steve. Email him at for details, or listen to clips at


Planet Harmonica - 2004