Instruments

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).

Wind instruments

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.

  • voice
  • whistling (with lips, you know)
  • harmonica
  • whistle (tin or wooden)
  • flute (silver or wooden)
  • recorder
  • pipes (smallpipes, uilleann pipes)

Stringed instruments

These are probably among the most familiar of acoustic instruments. Let’s talk much more about all of these, and their endless variations.

  • guitar
  • fiddle/violin
  • viola
  • cello
  • double bass
  • mandolin
  • banjo (4 string or 5 string)
  • banjolin, banjola, similar hybrids
  • ukelele
  • bouzouki (however you spell it)
  • autoharp
  • bush bass

Squeezy things

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:

  • concertina
  • melodeon
  • 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

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:

  • bodhran
  • cajón
  • spoons
  • bones
  • lagerphone
  • tambourine
  • clapsticks
  • 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!

Brass

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:

  • trombone
  • trumpet
  • 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.

Other

These are instruments I’ve seen work in a session – contrary to expectation – when played intelligently and in the right place:

  • didjeridoo
  • melodica
  • kazoo
  • swanee whistle
  • washboard
  • jug

Feel free to add!

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7 thoughts on “Instruments

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  1. The key to playing all instruments, particularly those capable of higher volume levels, is sensitivity. In a singing session the voice should be the leader and not have to compete with the accompaniment. Too often we see a single voice “backed” by ten guitars (yes, I have counted that many). Be prepared to sit out a song or two, sharing the playing around. Tune sessions are driven by the melody. They don’t need percussion or chord backing so these too should be used in moderation. A feature of many stringed instruments, and others such as the cajón, is that the sound is projected away from the player – they perhaps don’t realise just how loud they are.
    On the subject of accompanying vocalists – the common etiquette is that if a singer starts a cappella nobody else should play unless invited.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for these observations, Mal – you are spot-on. I’m intending to expand a bit at some point on why we don’t start playing an instrument to ‘accompany’ a person who has started singing a capella – especially if they happen to be holding an instrument at the time, and could clearly ‘accompany’ themselves if that’s what they wanted! Part of the purpose of this blog is to help people become more attuned (pun intended) to signs of what other people need done or not done, to help them and everyone else have a good time, and make the session even more wonderous.

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  3. Great if you have a mix of different instruments like flute and accordion……….. all stringed instruments can be too much. No one agree’s with me about how good the electric guitar sounds ……… it’s only as loud as the volume button.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, what a fascinating topic for me…. I play lots of instruments and go to sessions. There are a few of mine that I like to play with Celtic music but others don’t appreciate so much. These include darabukka, congas, cabassa. I have also been told that my cajon playing wasn’t irish enough. I was trying to incorporate some of the rock rhythms that I had heard from Celtic bands that were playing the tunes that we were doing.

    There are also a couple of instruments conspicuous by their absence. I am learning the Celtic harp and I hope to be able to bring that along to sessions and play along with the jigs and reels (especially with syncopated bass and chords as well as some melody) as well as the typical slower harp pieces. Electronic keyboard can emulate relevant instruments, esp bass and I have also thought that would be great to bring along. I don’t have a hurdy gurdy but I would love to get one. That’s not on the list either.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know a couple of hurdy gurdy players who perform with Queensland morris groups – amazing stuff. Celtic harp is a beautiful instrument!

      We’re going to have to agree to disagree on keyboards in sessions. I’ve certainly heard beautiful keyboards played in a session context (e.g. to accompany a slow flute tune). But for me, as soon as you add in the electronic resonances of an amplified instrument, it takes something away from the kitchen-table/ campfire aesthetic of an acoustic session. I love the down-in-the-dirt sounds of wood and strings and reeds, the unplugged concept, and the democracy of acoustic instruments.

      It’s extremely difficult to play certain instruments in a way that doesn’t dominate. This includes brass instruments, some percussion instruments like cajon and djembe,and multi-stringed instruments like the autoharp and the twelve-string guitar, as well as electronic instruments.

      Also I do think the tradition you’re playing in matters. I prefer to hear Irish music played on Irish instruments (but I have no problem with a bit of guitar accompaniment, which I know is frowned on by purists). There are certainly some sessions that welcome and encourage ‘fusion’ music, with tunes from one place-based tradition played on instruments from somewhere entirely different.

      What do other people think? What are your preferences regarding session instrumentation? Thanks heaps Gavin for this thoughtful provocation!

      Like

  5. ” I was trying to incorporate some of the rock rhythms that I had heard….etc”
    Not attacking Gavin, but I think this comes back to one of the basic etiquette points – the person starting the song/tune decides the key, tempo, rhythm. While it’s then up to others to accompany, add harmonies, and generally fill out the piece, they shouldn’t attempt to alter the basic structure. At the best this confuses other players and becomes a mish-mash.

    Liked by 1 person

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