Spinning the John Doyle album Shadow and Light (Compass), you might easily believe you’re hearing a set of Irish songs and tunes dating back centuries, all sung and played beautifully on acoustic guitar, bouzouki, and other stringed instruments. A scan of the liner notes, though, reveals that these sturdy tunes are not “Traditional, arranged by” but Doyle’s new creations—even songs about 19th-century shipwrecks and the travails of Irish soldiers in the Civil War.
Shadow and Light is a singer-songwriter album that finds its lyrical power not by pondering personal experience, but by personalizing history.
This 2011 album is a natural step for the Dublin-raised musician, who first made a splash in Celtic music circles in the ’90s for his kinetic guitar work with the Irish-American group Solas. Few rhythm guitarists demand the spotlight, but Doyle’s superpowered accompaniment in trad-music settings like Solas is a marvel. On tunes that most players would cover with two or three chords, Doyle is all over the neck, substituting chords on the fly so each pass through a tune is a different harmonic journey, with bass runs and countermelodies that make the music jump.
Since Doyle left Solas in 2001, he has pursued a number of projects, including collaborations with fiddler Liz Carroll and original Solas vocalist Karan Casey; a recent stint leading Joan Baez’s band; and two other solo albums, Wayward Son and Evening Comes Early. Doyle has lived in the United States for more than 20 years now (currently in Asheville, North Carolina) and performs solo and with Casey and others.
I met up with Doyle at a Philadelphia-area house concert where, joined by fiddler Duncan Wickel, he performed a stunning show that displayed the full range of his powers on guitar, from rollicking rhythm to beautifully melodic fingerstyle (actually played with a pick and one finger). Before the show, the easygoing virtuoso sat down with his left-handed Muiderman flattop to shed light on how he honors and stretches tradition as a guitarist and songwriter.
Scroll to the bottom for information on Doyle’s tunings, as well as as a pair of extra videos on playing countermelodies and how to play “Liberty’s Sweet Shore.”
How did you arrive at the perpetual-motion rhythm style you first became known for in Solas?
I grew up in Dublin and my father was from Sligo, so I had this dual aspect about the music. I was an urban musician, so my style was angst-ridden [laughs], but I would go back [to Sligo] and have this rural time as well.
From a very early age, I was really influenced by Arty McGlynn and Paul Brady, and I was trying to mix the two of them up. I loved Brady’s intensity, and I loved Arty McGlynn’s solid musicianship. Donal Lunny as well—he was a rhythm player on the bouzouki and had a way to work around harmonic substitutions—and Andy Irvine. Between all those people I tried to get this particular driving sound. All the tunes we played with Solas were very intense. I was trying to be a bass player, a percussion player, and a guitarist at the same time, because we couldn’t afford a bass player or a percussion player.
If there had been a bass player in Solas, you wouldn’t have had the same kind of freedom to change the chords.
Exactly, and that was one of the joys of doing it. In Irish music or Celtic music, the idea of backing is relatively recent. There isn’t as much of a staid tradition of this chord should be here and this chord should be there. So there’s more freedom for backers than there is for tune players. There’s less of an idea of, this is what should happen. So I was much more into the idea of what could happen.
Can you give an example of how you take a simple progression and create variations through chord substitutions?
So, go to dropped-D tuning, where you have this low D drone. Irish music tends to be around D, as it all revolves around uilleann pipes and the lowest note [on the pipes] is D. This is why dropped-D tuning and DADGAD tuning work really well as far as strumming and backing is concerned, because they have that low note.
Say, for example, you were going around a tune, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” [Example 1]. That’s the tune, right? So the chords to that are basically D, G, D, G, A [Example 2]. The first thing you probably notice there, they are all partial chords.
Now the first thing I noticed was relative minors. So every time you play a D, you can play a Bm [Example 3]. You can also play an F#m, a minor third [Example 4]—not quite as much as a Bm, but you can do it. [You can play] sevens, different positions, nines . . . [Example 5]. Then I started to notice that the relative minors also work even if you’re on a different chord. The relative minor for G is Em, so you can play Em anytime you’re playing G; and then you go, well, that’s definitely going to be a run [ascending D–Em–F#m–G–A]. So that’s already changing things around a little bit. And on A, of course, you can do F#m [the relative minor] or C#m [the minor third]. So I end up going, well, you don’t ever have to play the I chord if you don’t want to [Example 6]. It was more interesting to me that you can really change everything up, and then you can also do bass runs [Example 7].
The rhythm part has its own kind of melody.
One of the things I’d noticed was a lot of people who like the music don’t necessarily hear the actual tune [sings “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”]. What they hear is… music. And so I try and find a harmony or a countermelody that’s a little simpler perhaps than the actual melody; I pick up the points of the tune that are the most interesting for me.
Was it an easy transition for you to go from backing traditional tunes to writing traditional-sounding songs?
I think so. My mind is hardwired. I’ve listened to so much traditional music that I conceive of a song in that place, and I feel comfortable in that place. It’s the music that moves me; I get the shivers up my spine when I hear something from that tradition. I’ve always wanted to hear new takes on historical subjects. That’s what I’ve been trying to do with this new album, trying to get these stories I loved into a song format that was a new part of the tradition.
That’s how we get these new songs with lots of shipwrecks.
Lots of death and destruction!
Yet some of the stories have personal connections too—for instance, with your great grandfather in the song “The Arabic.”
Martin Lohan… He was on the SS Arabic. In August of 1916 he decided to emigrate and got on that ship. A U24, a German U boat, was on maneuvers because it was the middle of the first World War. It was just after the Lusitania had sunk, and [the U boat] struck two torpedoes into the side of the Arabic. It sank in ten minutes and he was one of the survivors, and so I wrote the song about it.
Do you see writing a song as a similar process to arranging a traditional tune?
I think there’s a similar process. Writing, of course, has a very creative aspect, but there’s a creative aspect in arranging—I’d be a historian if I wanted just to mark it down. I wouldn’t see the point in doing [a traditional tune] if it wasn’t creative in some way; I want to bring out my love of the song, to bring out the core of what I think is in the song, the idea of what can happen instead of what other people perceive it to be. What I perceive it to be and what you perceive it to be might be two completely different things. Take a simple song like “The Wild Rover.” It’s known as this huge drinking song, but really it’s about the woes of drinking: “If I had all the money I left in your care / It would buy me the food for a family affair / It would thatch my new cottage, it would buy me a barn…”
So without some real searching in a traditional song, you won’t be able to find what the core of the song is. The same goes for writing historical songs. It’s not so much history—it’s more about the human condition that we’re bound to repeat these things because most people don’t pay attention. That’s why I write these songs. There’s still famine going on in many countries. We choose to ignore it. There are still people battling, and there are still wars being fought all the time.
John Doyle Shares 7 More Tips on Improving Your Celtic Guitar Playing.
And there are refugees.
Refugees—exactly. Emigrants. Of course the reason I’m so involved in writing emigrant songs is because I’m an emigrant.
That reminds me of “Liberty’s Sweet Shore,” your song about Irish emigrants during the famine of the 1840s. The guitar part has such a strong melody. Compared to what we talked about with backing traditional tunes, this is a much more self-contained style.
I got most of my influences for this style from English folk, like Richard Thompson, Dick Gaughan, Martin Carthy. Nic Jones I got later on—I didn’t hear him until my 20s. This style is trying to emulate what they were doing. I don’t know who told me that your style is what you can’t do rather than what you can do. I couldn’t play like Carthy—I don’t think anyone can really play quite like Martin Carthy—and Richard Thompson is a world unto himself. Dick Gaughan too—they’re all amazing players. I wanted to emulate that style, so I’d tune up and I’d tune down to figure out what they were doing, and through that I found something else.
The guitar on “Liberty’s Sweet Shore” and other new songs sounds like fingerstyle, but you actually play with a pick and fingers, right?
Pretty much. Richard Thompson plays with [a pick and] two, three fingers, and he can do that rolling thing. But I only use the middle finger. I don’t know why it ended up being that way. Maybe I was just lazy. But I found I could get that roll with a pick, you know, and I could do these little runs in between the picking.
“Liberty’s Sweet Shore” is in the tuning C F C G C D [see “Doyle’s Tunings” below].
Another new song with a really strong guitar melody is “The Bitter Brew”—that has a bluesier sound.
I think that was in D A D G A D [Example 8].
You mentioned “The Arabic.” The album version is solo and has quite an intricate guitar part. Would you demonstrate part of it?
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Well, the start of it, I suppose. Here you have a break for a song and you try and keep it moving so it’s not all staid—here’s the root chord, here’s the seven chord, here’s the four. I’ve never really wanted to play like that. I’ve always wanted to find something else. So you start off with this [Example 9].
I’m like this [holding the pick with the thumb and index finger] when I’m just using the pick to pick [single lines], and then I change: I usually have two fingers on the pick [middle and index along with the thumb] when I’m strumming. Strumming, you really want to have this loose, malleable feel. You’re coming down at a 45-degree angle, and when you’re coming up again you want the same angle, and these two fingers help. You’re going to feel the pick moving in your hand constantly. When I’m teaching students I say, the first person who loses the pick into the hole wins. You have to be able to move it around.
Can you give some tips on playing those fast triplets so characteristic of Irish tunes?
The ornaments, the triplets, are the one thing that separates bluegrassers from Irish musicians in a way. It’s to emulate piping. Tenor banjo players got it from pipes and fiddle players got it from pipes, so guitar players get it from pipes or banjos. The idea is down-up-down, but you have to do a down before you do it [Example 10]. And then you just do it quickly. If you want, you put the dirt in the middle of it—when the pipes are doing it, they have this dirt in the middle of the treble [Example 11]. Then there’s the rolling triplet [Example 12]. It’s the same idea of down, down, dampen, down [Example 13].
You were initially known for your rhythm style, but nowadays your guitar work encompasses single-note tunes, melodic fingerstyle, and so many styles. Which is your favorite mode of playing?
It just depends on your mood, doesn’t it? I like playing behind songs. I think I get the most out of that. But, that being said, when I’m in a session that’s really good, and I’m playing with people who are really good traditional musicians and I get into the zone of strumming and playing, there’s nothing like that feeling. It’s very Zen-like. There’s nothing but the rhythm and chords, and they’re passing by and you’re totally in the moment, and there really isn’t anything like that. When it’s driving, the energy is quite astounding. It’s a beautiful thing to be part of. So I have a soft spot for that.
For accompanying traditional tunes, John Doyle typically sticks to dropped-D tuning. For other settings, he’s used a number of tunings, including DADGAD, D G D A D E, C G D G A D, C G C G C E, and even B tunings such as B F# B F# B F# and B E B F# B F#. But eventually he grew weary of retuning so much and settled on C F C G C D—used on many songs on Shadow and Light. Doyle calls this C tuning a “happy blend” of other tunings that works well for singing in C and F (or in other keys if you capo up). “You get a second on the last string, so it’s very like a banjo tuning,” he says. “It also has this lovely dark tone, with fifths in the middle. It has that feel—something that you can’t get in standard.”