Arranging a session song II: Instrumentation, lead breaks, flow


Maybe this is your regular session, and you knew before you arrived that Mal was likely to bring his banjo and Ian’s in town this week with his button box. Maybe you’re in a strange city and you’ve walked into a session bursting with mandolins and fiddles. As song leader, you’ll never have total control over who plays what when – but you can encourage particular kinds of instrumentation to support your arrangement of the song.

Say you want to sing Deeper Well with no instrumentation but percussion. You might say to the bodhran player, ‘Can you give me a beat?’ and indicate the tempo. Or just begin by drumming on your guitar, and smile to encourage the bodhran player to pick up the rhythm. If a guitarist starts playing along, a quick shake of the head will tell an experienced sessioner that you don’t want musical accompaniment (especially if you’re using your own guitar as a drum).

Experienced sessioners will pick up your cues that you’d like the violin to take a lead break, and then the flute to do another (more on lead breaks in a minute). Getting all the instruments to stop for a couple of beats, as in Dixie Chicks’ Travelin’ Soldier, can be harder – but when it works it’s magic. If you want the volume to drop, you can sometimes achieve this just by making your voice quieter, maybe adding a hand gesture. Raising the volume of your singing will bring a responsive crowd of sessioners along with you.

It’s good to be familiar with recorded versions of songs, because sometimes there’s a piece of distinctive instrumentation that your fellow musicians are dying to contribute: the drum-beat that dies away long after the other instruments have finished in Travelin’ Soldier, for example; or the unjustly persecuted flute riff in Down Under.

Recorded versions can be tricky beasts, though. An interesting example is Steve Earls’ Galway Girl, which has an instrumental section with an A and a B part. In all the You Tube videos I’ve seen, the A part is used several times throughout the song, with the B part either not played, or only played once at the very end of the song. However, in every session where I’ve heard it played, we finish with the  A part twice and then the B part twice. To me that feels more balanced and satisfying (sorry Steve Earle, but Australian sessioners do a better version of your song).

Lead breaks

You can always tell when a newbie sessioner is beginning to relax into the vibe of sessioning, because they start leaving lead breaks. This takes confidence and courage, because when you’ve taken the plunge and started to lead a song, your instinct is to get it over with as soon as possible. The person who’s comfortable enough with themselves, the song and their fellow musicians to stop singing, look up and invite the other instruments to have a go, is well on their way to becoming a seasoned sessioner.

Most songs have at least one place where a bit of instrumentation will enhance the overall performance. Often this place comes after two verses and two choruses, but the variations are endless. An instrumental break can suggest the passing of time (Fields of Gold, Galway Girl, Norwegian Wood, Travelin’ Soldier). Sometimes the lead instrument creates a sense of what the main character in the story is doing (dancing, dreaming, having sex, falling in love, falling out of love, working, waiting, etc.) The instrumental break can deepen or complicate the mood of the song. Or it can provide a chance to dance: some folk songs meld beautifully with specific tunes (e.g. Couldn’t Have Come At A Better Time with The Kesh Jig, Crack Was Ninety in the Isle of Man with Sally Gardens, I’m a Rover with Athol Highlanders).

An instrumental break gives the singer a rest (and time to breathe, swallow, or swig their drink) and the musicians a chance to show off. If you want a specific instrument to take a lead break, give the player a pointed look or encouraging smile. If there’s time, you can give a verbal cue (‘Can we have some banjo?’ or ‘All the woodwinds!’) Be sensitive though. The instrumentalist you think has worked out a nice riff during the choruses may freeze if publically called on to play a lead. This scenario is common (I am guilty of it myself): the song leader smiles at the flautist, who was doing nicely. The flautist instantly stops playing, shakes her head, blushes and says ‘Oh no, I wasn’t going to’ – but then has a go, and pulls off something quite respectable. I tend to just stop singing and let the instruments sort it out among themselves. The mandy-player might rip out a marvellous lead break and then use eye contact to throw to the whistle player. Maybe they’ll all just roar along together. If you want, you can practise something with a friend ahead of time (‘After the second chorus of Three Drunken Maidens, can you go into Portsmouth on the recorder? It’ll be in C’).

You can also signal, when you’ve finished singing, that you want the song to have an instrumental ‘outro’. Play chords for the chorus, or for the verse and chorus, and let the instruments carry the song to the end. Try to keep eye contact with everyone else so you all finish together (of course it’s not the end of the world if you don’t).


When you’re adapting a popular song for sessioning, think about the need for a whole bunch of singers and instruments to get into a groove together. Often, a song that leaves a few beats between one line and the next sounds fine with one voice, but feels jerky in a session. If you don’t need those beats to breathe, swallow or change fingers, it may be smoother to leave them out.

An example I can think of is I Wish I Was Back Home in Derry. I’ve heard people try to leave several beats between each line in the chorus – but everyone else sweeps on with the next line. If you’ve learnt a song with ‘gaps’ in it, but other people aren’t leaving gaps, consider whether their way actually improves the rhythm and flow of the song.

Coldplay starts Viva La Vida with a sort of half-verse – 4 lines of lyrics and 4 lines of instrumental – before going into the second verse. That pattern doesn’t occur again in the song. For sessioning, I find the song flows better if you skip the 4 instrumental lines and go straight from the half-verse into the second verse. It’s not the Coldplay way, but it honours the song and works in a session. Similarly, we ‘folk’ Price Tag by Jessie J by smoothing out the flow and softening the rap.

Getting clever

A group can get very creative with arrangements, especially once most people are familiar with the song. Try singing rounds, singing two songs at the same time, or singing one part of a song against another. Viva la Vide has an ‘Oh-oh-oh’ bit that can start in the instrumental break and run beneath the last chorus. Liven up Bob Dylan’s Easy Chair by singing ‘Down into that easy, down into that easy, down into that easy chair’ against the last chorus of ‘Whoo-ee ride me high’ – then have the two sub-groups of singers swap parts. Paul Kelly’s Adelaide similarly lends itself to one group singing ‘Do-do-do-do’ against the chorus (which is just ‘Adelaide’ repeated four times). Have fun. Try stuff. Don’t worry if it doesn’t sound choir-perfect – it’s a pub, not a tabernacle. Stretching is how we improve our musicianship.

What have I left out, about arranging for sessions? What kinds of things do you think about when you’re arranging a new session song, and what kind of miracles have you made happen on the fly? Can’t wait to hear all about them.


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