Updated: Jun 7
The guitar is an instrument that has only appeared in Irish music around the 60's and, since then, it has been gaining ground in Irish bands and sessions. Still, there are those who don't like the guitar in Irish sessions. Which is fair, since the guitar is not part of what we call traditional music. It is quite recent, and harmony altogether is a relatively new element in Irish music. And to help us understand this better, today we're going to talk to Danny Littwin.
He has been playing the guitar since he was a child, taught by his father, who was also a musician. He played the bass and the guitar with many artists and bands, has lived in many countries around the world and is currently in Brazil with his broadcasting company, NY Digital.
Danny plays in the band Oran, an Irish music group from São Paulo, and together with Mila and Gustavo, he started the traditional Irish session at Deep Bar 611 in São Paulo (SP), through which many of us got to know and started playing Irish music.
His guitar technique, in addition to being very traditional in Irish music, has a very particular personality in the phrasing and harmonic and rhythmic choices he makes. Just as each guitarist (or each harmonist) has their own style because of different choices about the same aspects.
The Daily Pint - Danny, could you tell us a bit about your musical background? How did you begin, where did you study, whom have you played with, who are the musicians that have most influenced you?
DANNY - My first memory in life was watching my father learning a tune. We had a record player and he was repeating the music phrase by phrase with many repetitions. I was 2 years old. I started playing when I was 7. There were instruments hanging on the wall and I took one down and started playing. Standard tuning. My father showed me how to play a D and an A chord where the index finger (1) doesn’t move: 3rd finger 4th string, 2nd fret (E), 1st finger 3rd string 2nd fret (A), 3rd finger 4th string 2nd fret (C#)
I learned by going to sessions and watching other people. I don’t think I was ever a very good mimic because whenever I played anything it sounded a bit different, (hahaha). I studied music, clarinet, as a child and later studied music theory in high school and university.
I developed a good ear for picking up harmonies quickly and was pretty adept at keeping a solid rhythm and improvising. Bluegrass helped, it was always a point of pride to just know what key you were in, and sometimes you couldn’t see, so you had to rely on your hearing.
I have been fortunate to have played with loads of great players, and to have worked with even more: Frankie Gavin, Alec Finn, Jackie Daly, Johnny MacDonagh all from De Danann (I was their sound man too), Mickey Dunne, Jerry O’Sullivan, Ivan Goff, Christy Barry - who taught me what traditional Irish music meant, Joe Burke, Kevin Griffin, Jason O’Rourke, Jack Coen, Mike Rafferty, Johnny Connally, Colm Murphy, Joanie Madden, Seamus Egan, Tony DeMarco, Brian Conway, Paddy Reynolds, Andy McGann, and many, many others. Living in New York was like attending a Masters level at university in trad music and we played almost every free evening. I developed my style by playing with some amazing pipers. I listened to the drones and regulators and tried to come up with something that fit in. Also by listening to the rhythmic elements of the bowing of a good fiddler. It’s very important to have the tune in your head and play something that is complementary, interesting and not too busy or obtrusive.
The Daily Pint - Could you explain to us the difference between playing guitar for Irish and bluegrass music?
DANNY - In Bluegrass, the rhythmic emphasis is often on the back beat. (In 4/4, that would be the 2) Irish music usually emphasizes the 1 or down beat. Most Bluegrass players use standard tuning, or occasionally Drop-D. Most Irish players use Drop D or DADGAD (my preference).
There is no real rule. My own playing is derived from Bluegrass really - I played with my father’s band as a kid, so that was my first influence. So I use the technique of hitting a bass string as one beat and then the rest of the chord. (Lester Flatt of Flatt & Scruggs did this by using a thumb pick for the bass note and a single finger pick for the rest of the chord. He was really the first player to elucidate this style of backing.)
The Daily - Currently, what are your musical works?
DANNY - Currently I am producing music for a play, working on an album with Harmundi, working up some new arrangements for Oran, and also getting started on the next season of dance music for Cia Celta Brasil. I’d also like to start a rock band, I’ve been working on my slide playing and it is finally getting to be respectable.
The Daily Pint - And now THAT question: in Irish music, harmony is free and subject to the harmonist's own choices (even though it is tied to the rhythm and tonality of the melody). I realize that each person makes very different and unique choices, based on their own musicality. How do you come up with your harmony? How do you think about making the accompaniment of irish tunes?
DANNY - The tune determines the backing. (In English, Harmonia is backing or accompaniment) Chord choices, chord voicing, contrary or parallel motion in the bass line and then creating an accompaniment that is coherent with the player(s) and the music. The changes aren’t always obvious, so you have to be alert. I like to reinforce the melody while trying not to overwhelm it. Knowing how to play a specific tune makes backing it much easier.
The Daily Pint - If you're in an Irish session where someone plays a tune you've never heard, how do you build this accompaniment? What do you think of first to accompany a tune you've never heard?
DANNY - When I encounter a tune for the first time I like to listen to it all the way through to catch any oddities or quirks. If I have to play something without knowing what will happen next, I keep it very simple, maybe even just a pedal tone or drone. Some composers write very complex tunes that require a couple of times through (or more) to create something musical. Other tunes are easier to pick up. Sometimes the rhythms aren’t obvious, other times the rhythm is very apparent.
The Daily Pint - Danny, what does it mean for harmony to be a recent element in Irish music? And how does this relate to the fact that the harmony is not fixed in this style?
DANNY - Irish music is generally played as an ensemble, with everyone playing the melody in unison. The accompaniment in Irish music was originally the bodhrán. Harps played melody and chords. Fiddles would use double stops occasionally, though this was a later development. When the uilleann pipes were developed in the mid 18th century, the drones and regulators became the accompaniment. In the 19th century and later, accordions were added and the bass notes would be used to fill in.
All music evolves. Tastes change. “Tradition” is complicated. I cannot play the same way with a more traditionally minded player as I woulld with someone who had more modern proclivities.
The Daily Pint - Are there any differences between accompanying a tune and a song (besides one being instrumental and the other vocal)?
DANNY - One needs to let the vocal be the absolute center of attention. Anything played needs to make space and add support. While this is true for supporting a tune, it is even more important in supporting a singer.
The Daily Pint - Now a question that became controversial here in The Daily Pint: are reels 4/4, 2/2 or 8/8? How do you think to play them?
DANNY - 4/4, though played in cut time, depending.
The Daily Pint - Danny, what tips would you like to give a musician who plays blues/rock/bluegrass and wants to start playing Irish music? How about for a beginner guitarist who arrived today for his first jam session?
DANNY - Listen to The Bothy Band, Planxty and De Danann. Pay attention to what the accompaniment is doing. A backing musician will not necessarily be always welcome. So when in doubt, ask. Beginner sessions are good for beginners, especially if there is a good session leader who is patient.
Defining the rhythm is the key, Bluegrass players will probably have an easier time getting this except that there are no jigs in Bluegrass,- just strumming chords creates a blur, music needs impulse and emotion.