A Traditional Irish Music Instruments Primer
Traditional Irish Music Instruments (sourced from Wikipedia)
The Irish fiddle is one of the most important instruments in the traditional Irish music genre. The fiddle itself is identical to the violin, however it is played differently in widely varying regional styles. Compared to classical violin, the Irish fiddler tends to make little use of vibrato except for slow airs, and even then it is used relatively sparingly. Like the rest of Irish traditional music tradition, melodies are embellished through forms of ornamentation, such as rolls, trebles, and cuts. Slow airs are occasionally played upon the fiddle, but the style is best known for fast, snappy reels and jigs.
The uilleann pipes are the characteristic national bagpipe of Ireland. Their name is a partial translation of the Irish-language term píobaí uilleann, literally “pipes of the elbow”, from their method of inflation. The bag of the uilleann pipes is inflated by means of a small set of bellows strapped around the waist and the arm. The uilleann pipes are distinguished from many other forms of bagpipes by their tone and wide range of notes together with the unique blend of chanter, drones, and regulators. The regulators are equipped with closed keys that can be opened by the piper’s wrist action enabling the piper to play simple chords, giving a rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment as needed. The uilleann pipes have a different harmonic structure, sounding sweeter and quieter than many other bagpipes. The uilleann pipes are often played indoors, and are almost always played sitting down.
Low D Whistle
The low whistle, or concert whistle, is a variation of the traditional tin whistle/pennywhistle, distinguished by its lower pitch and larger size. It is most closely associated with the performances of Irish artists such as Finbar Furey and his son Martin Furey, Riverdance, and Davy Spillane, and is increasingly accepted as a feature of Celtic music. The low whistle is often used for the playing of airs and slow melodies due to its haunting sound. However, it is also becoming used more often for the playing of Irish jigs, reels and hornpipes, it being easier to produce some ornamentation on the whistle, due to the size of the finger holes.
The most common low whistle is the “Low D”, pitched one octave below the traditional D whistle. Low whistles operate on the same principles, and are generally fingered in the same way as traditional pennywhistles although for many, a “piper’s grip” may be required due to the distance between the holes. They belong to the same woodwind instrument family of end-blown flutes. Though the tone of this instrument varies subtlety among makers, low whistles are generally characterized by a more breathy, flute-like sound than traditional tin whistles.
The Irish button accordion has been popular in the Irish music scene in the United States, evolving in parallel with the instrument’s progress in Ireland. The players included Irish immigrants, locally born Irish-Americans, and also Americans of no Irish descent who played Irish music. Initially the primary instrument was the 1-row 10-key melodeon, later expanding to two- and three-row instruments. With its loudness and durability, the accordion became a staple of the dance-hall bands of the Irish diaspora in America and Irish traditional music groups today.
The tenor banjo was a common rhythm-instrument in early 20th-century dance-bands. Some 1920s Irish banjo players picked out the melodies of jigs, reels and hornpipes on tenor banjos, decorating the tunes with snappy triplet ornaments. Meanwhile, in Ireland the rise of “ceili” bands provided a new market for a loud instrument like the tenor banjo. Use of the tenor banjo in Irish music has increased greatly since the folk revival of the 1960s.
The tin whistle, also called the penny whistle, or Irish whistle, is a simple, six-holed woodwind instrument. It is a type of fipple flute, putting it in the same class as the recorder, Native American flute, and other woodwind instruments that meet such criteria. The tin whistle is closely associated with Celtic music. The most common whistles today are made of brass tubing, or nickel-plated brass tubing, with a plastic fipple (mouthpiece). Gaining popularity as a folk instrument in the early 19th century in the Celtic music revivals, penny whistles now play an integral part of several folk traditions. Whistles are a prevalent starting instrument in Irish traditional music, since they are often inexpensive, relatively easy to use, and the fingerings are nearly identical to those on the traditional six holed flute. The tin whistle is a good starting instrument to learn the uilleann pipes, which have similar finger technique, range of notes and repertoire. The tin whistle is the most popular instrument in Irish traditional music today.
Irish Flute and Celtic Harp
The term Irish Flute refers to a conical-bore, simple-system wooden flute of the type favored by classical flautists of the early 19th century, or to a flute of modern manufacture derived from this design, often with modifications to optimize its use in Irish Traditional Music or Scottish Traditional Music. The vast majority of traditional Irish flute players use a wooden, simple-system flute. Although it was, and is, played in every county in Ireland, the flute has a very strong heartland in the mid-western counties of Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon, with South Fermanagh, East Galway, Clare and West Limerick also having a reputation.
Today, transverse “simple system Irish” flutes are being made for the playing of a variety of traditional musical styles. In the Irish tradition, the material used is most commonly wood. Other material includes Delrin, PVC, and even bamboo, though wood is still by far the most popular material. These modern Irish flutes can vary in the number of added metal keys, or have no keys at all. Most are tuned using modern methods and are typically better in tune with modern instruments. All have the basic six hole diatonic design as in a tin whistle.
The Celtic harp is a triangular harp traditional to Brittany, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In Ireland and Scotland, it was a wire-strung instrument requiring great skill and long practice to play, and was associated with the Gaelic ruling class. It appears on the coins and coat of arms of the Republic of Ireland.
In construction the Irish and Scottish harps may in general be considered as one. A characteristic feature is the metal strings. The strings, usually played with the fingernails, produced a brilliant ringing sound. In the early 19th century, even as the old Gaelic harp tradition was dying out, a new harp was invented in Ireland. It had gut strings and semitone mechanisms like an orchestral pedal harp, and was invented by Dublin pedal harp maker John Egan. It was small and curved like the historical Irish harp, but its strings were of gut and the soundbox was much lighter.
A concertina is a free-reed musical instrument, like the various accordions and the harmonica. It has a bellows, and buttons typically on both ends of it. When pressed, the buttons travel in the same direction as the bellows, unlike accordion buttons, which travel perpendicularly to the bellows. The concertina was developed in England and Germany, most likely independently. Various forms of concertina are used for classical music, for the traditional music of Ireland, England, and South Africa, and for tango and polka music. The folk revival movements of the 1960s led to a modest resurgence in the popularity of the concertina. More recently, concertina popularity again seems on the rise, particularly in the traditional music of Ireland.
See, hear, and enjoy lively, entertaining Irish traditional music on an Ireland RnR tour in Ireland. Go to IrelandRnR.com to see a selection of different tours in Ireland.
Additionally, West Point grads and alumni classes are invited to “Jump Into Ireland” on a one-week Ireland Reunions tour. Isn’t it about time you visited Ireland? What better fun way than with your college classmates and fellow alumni! Invite your Beast Barracks roommates, your Academic Year roommates, your Company mates, and your Ranger School buddies! Go to IrelandReunions.com to learn more. Go Army!
My grateful thanks and sincere appreciation to the following Irish traditional musicians featured in this post for entertaining our tour groups in Ireland with their lively, beautiful, and delightful Irish traditional tunes through the years:
The Irish traditional music group Tuatha from Killorglin, County Kerry: Donal Moroney – Fiddle, Guitar/Mandolin, Barry Lynch – Uilleann Pipes, Tin Whistle, Mike Dowd – Button Accordion.
Dan O’Callaghan from Kilnamartra, County Cork, Uilleann Pipes and Low D Whistle.