We often get questions about what kinds of instruments are ‘allowable’ in an acoustic music session.
Well, generally speaking, acoustic instruments. Instruments that require amplification, like electric bass or keyboards, are likely to overpower non-amplified instruments and voices, and bring a different resonance. I have been in a session where someone successfully played an electric bass with the amp turned way down low, but he was a particularly skilled and sensitive player, and it was a big session so the electronic sound supported the mass of acoustic instruments. As with everything, there are no ‘rules’ – it’s about the dynamics of who’s there, who’s playing what, the acoustics of the room, the strengths of the voices, and so on. If people seem scandalised by your instrument, and don’t relax after a couple of songs, it may not be the best choice for this particular session. Have you brought along anything else?
Here’s a list, by no means complete, of the kind of instruments that tend to fit into an acoustic session. Hopefully we’ll explore these in more detail over coming posts (guest bloggers, always wanted to publish something about your favourite instrument? Your time has come).
All of these – including voice – can be quite loud. Judging when to play, what to play, and how loud to play, is an art. More about this to come.
- whistling (with lips, you know)
- whistle (tin or wooden)
- flute (silver or wooden)
- pipes (smallpipes, uilleann pipes)
These are probably among the most familiar of acoustic instruments. Let’s talk much more about all of these, and their endless variations.
- double bass
- banjo (4 string or 5 string)
- banjolin, banjola, similar hybrids
- bouzouki (however you spell it)
- bush bass
Squeezy instruments have a long and glorious tradition in the folk music of many parts of the world. At a modern session you’re quite likely to see and hear:
- piano accordion
I’m counting on a guest blogger to put up their hand and provide more information on the available varieties of Squeezy Thing.
Percussion should always be played with sensitivity, awareness and variety. Pretty much every song has a rhythm – don’t thump away through everything just to prove you can hear it! Dedicated percussionists usually carry a range of instruments, and use them intelligently to support the song. Some examples include:
- shaky egg
Do note that within the folk/acoustic music scene, there’s a lively tradition of percussion-only sessions – get into a good one of those with a rainstick, Persian drum, that Swedish instrument that looks like a flying saucer, or some pebbles in a water-bottle, and you’ll really know you’re alive!
I wouldn’t have thought there was a place for a brass instrument in a session – but then Richard Ferrari brought along his trombone, and I discovered there is such a thing as ‘folk brass’. It takes tremendous skill and sensitivity to play it, though, and in a small session with quiet voices, it may be best to lay your brass instrument aside. I’ve personally heard people make the following work:
- straight saxophone
Be guided by the people around you. We had to bully one wonderful trumpet-player out of using his mute, because he was so oversensitive about dominating the session, we couldn’t hear him at all. Relative loudness is a tricky thing to judge, especially if you have a hearing deficit – enlist help.
These are instruments I’ve seen work in a session – contrary to expectation – when played intelligently and in the right place:
- swanee whistle
Feel free to add!