The Instruments of Irish Traditional Music

A Complete Introduction

Introduction

In this article you will find a guide to the principal instruments used in Irish Traditional Music, such as tin whistle, low whistle or uilleann pipes. The instruments of Irish traditional music are in general acoustic and generally used for playing single-line melody. Fiddles, harps, uilleann pipes, whistles, and flutes have been in the tradition the longest. Free reed instruments such as accordions and concertinas are a more recent addition, as well as banjos, bouzoukis and other string instruments. The bodhran as a frame drum is an ancient instrument, but the style of playing is contemporary.

InstrumentDescription
FiddleEssentially a violin, played in a distinctively Irish style. Known for expressive and rapid playing, it’s a staple in Irish music.
Uilleann PipesA complex, quieter form of bagpipe played with a bellows under the arm, known for their sweet, expressive tone and wide note range.
Tin WhistleA simple, inexpensive wind instrument, also known as the penny whistle, widely used in Irish folk music for its clear, piercing sound.
FluteThe wooden flute, used in Irish music, has a warm and mellow sound. It’s similar to the classical flute but typically has fewer keys.
BodhránA type of frame drum played with a beater, central to the rhythm in Irish music, known for its intricate playing technique.
ConcertinaA small, hexagonal accordion, particularly associated with County Clare. Played by compressing and expanding the bellows, with buttons to control pitch.
Button AccordionPopular in Irish music, this accordion comes in several varieties like B/C and C#/D systems, differing in key layouts from the piano accordion.
HarpThe Irish harp, a national symbol with deep cultural significance, offers a gentle, lyrical sound and has been played for over a thousand years.
BanjoThe four-string tenor banjo, adapted from its American cousin, is tuned to suit Irish music and used for melody playing.
Mandolin and BouzoukiOriginally from Italy and Greece, these instruments have been adopted and modified for a unique Irish sound in Irish music.

Tin Whistle

The simplest, and most popular, instrument in Irish music. A small 6-holed flute, in D, like a simplified version of the classical recorder. It is easily played in the keys of G and D. It typically has a range of about two octaves and comes in various keys, with D being the most common for Irish music. Other popular keys include C, Eb and Bb.

It is simple and robust in construction, affordable and easy to play, and very versatile, it is often used as a repertoire-learning instrument, before progressing to more difficult instruments like flute, fiddle or pipes. In its present form, the whistle dates from the 19th century, and has changed little since then. Modern players continue to explore the instrument’s possibilities, incorporating influences from other musical genres and experimenting with different materials and designs. The tin whistle’s simplicity and distinctive sound have made it popular Irish music, used in various folk traditions and contemporary music worldwide.

Notable Players

  • Mary Bergin: Known for her fast, highly ornamented playing style, Bergin is a seminal figure in modern whistle playing.
  • Paddy Moloney: While primarily a piper, Moloney’s whistle playing with The Chieftains helped popularize a style that is both rhythmically precise and melodically rich.
  • Joanie Madden: Madden’s style is characterized by its expressiveness and fluidity, blending traditional Irish influences with broader folk and Celtic elements.
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Low Whistle

The low whistle is a relatively recent addition to the family of Irish woodwind instruments, known for its deep, resonant sound. It is a variant of the traditional tin whistle but pitched lower, typically in the key of D, though it can also be found in lower keys such as C, B♭, and higher keys such as E, F or G.

The low whistle is much longer and wider than the standard tin whistle, with a larger bore. It is often made of materials like aluminum or alloys, brass, or plastic. The increased size allows for a lower pitch, with a mellow tone that is particularly effective for slow, expressive pieces. The fingering is identical to that of the standard tin whistle, but the greater distance between holes and larger hole size can make it more challenging to play, especially for those with smaller hands.

The low whistle requires more air than the standard tin whistle, demanding good breath control for tone and volume variation. Like the tin whistle, the low whistle uses techniques such as cuts, rolls, and slides, but these must be adapted to the instrument’s larger size and can be more challenging to execute.

Notable Players

  • Davy Spillane: A pioneering figure in popularizing the low whistle, Davy Spillane is renowned for his emotive and expressive playing style. His work, particularly with the band Moving Hearts and in his subsequent solo career, has been instrumental in bringing the haunting sound of the low whistle to a wider audience.
  • Cormac Breatnach: Breatnach is known for his lyrical and nuanced playing style. His approach to the low whistle is deeply rooted in traditional Irish music while also being open to contemporary and cross-genre influences.
  • Michael McGoldrick: A virtuoso in both flute and low whistle, McGoldrick’s playing is characterized by its innovative and eclectic style. He has been a key figure in the contemporary folk scene, contributing significantly to bands like Capercaillie and Flook, as well as through his solo work.
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Irish Flute

The Irish flute evolved from the classical European flute in the 19th century. When the Boehm-system flute was introduced, many of the older, wooden, simple-system flutes found their way to Ireland. In Ireland, these flutes were embraced by traditional musicians and adapted to the particular needs of Irish music.

Irish flutes are traditionally made from wood, such as African Blackwood, rosewood, or boxwood, which contributes to its characteristic warm tone. In recent years flutes have become available in polymer, a type of dense plastic. The Irish flute is typically keyless, although some flutes have keys to extend their range and chromatic capabilities. Standard Irish flutes are tuned to the key of D, aligning with other common traditional Irish instruments like the tin whistle and fiddle. lower keys such as C or Bb and higher keys such as Eb or F are also used.

Notable Players

  • John McKenna: Hailing from County Leitrim, McKenna was a seminal figure in the early 20th century. Known for his robust, rhythmic style and influential recordings, he greatly impacted the tradition of Irish flute playing, especially in the development of the Sligo-Leitrim style.
  • Matt Molloy: A master of the Irish flute, Molloy is famed for his fast-paced, fluid, highly-ornamented and technically proficient style. As a member of iconic groups like The Bothy Band and The Chieftains, he has been a pivotal figure in both preserving and evolving Irish traditional music and flute playing.
  • Mike Rafferty: Born in County Galway, Rafferty was known for his traditional East Galway flute style. His playing, deeply rooted in the Irish tradition, was characterized by a fluid, lyrical quality, and he was highly regarded as both a musician and teacher in the Irish music community in the United States.
  • Harry Bradley: A contemporary flute player from Belfast, Bradley is known for his powerful, rhythmically driven style. He draws influence from older generations of flute players, blending traditional techniques with a distinctive personal flair that has made him one of the most prominent Irish flutists of his generation.
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Fiddle

The Irish fiddle is essentially the same instrument as the violin but is distinguished by the style in which it is played and the cultural context it inhabits. The fiddle was introduced to Ireland in the 17th century, possibly earlier, and quickly became integrated into the existing musical traditions. Over time, regional styles developed, influenced by local cultures, music from other countries, and individual musicians’ techniques. Significant are the Sligo style, the Donegal style and the Clare style. Also notable is the style of East Clare/East Galway as epitomised by the music of Paddy Fahy and the playing style of Martin Hayes.

Specific bowing patterns are essential to Irish fiddle playing, contributing to the distinctive rhythm and drive of the music. Technique is characterized by its fluidity and expressiveness. It often involves quick, ornamented, and rhythmically precise playing.

Notable Players

  • Michael Coleman: A seminal figure from County Sligo, Coleman’s recordings in the early 20th century played a pivotal role in shaping Irish fiddle style, particularly with his fast, ornate Sligo style.
  • Kevin Burke: Known for his expressive, lyrical playing, Burke, with roots in the Sligo tradition, has been a prominent figure in modern Irish music, contributing to groups like The Bothy Band and Patrick Street.
  • Martin Hayes: From County Clare, Hayes is celebrated for his introspective, emotive style, often playing at a slower tempo to emphasize the emotional depth of the music, and has brought Irish traditional music to international audiences.

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Uilleann Pipes

The uilleann pipes, a distinctively Irish form of bagpipes, have a complex design, unique sound, and a major cultural significance within Irish traditional music. The name “uilleann” comes from the Irish word meaning elbow, which highlights the use of the elbow to operate the bellows.

Unlike many other types of bagpipes which are blown by mouth, the uilleann pipes are powered by a bellows strapped around the waist and the right arm. The melody is played on the chanter, which has a range of about two octaves. The drones provide a continuous harmonic background and are typically tuned to the tonic (root note), fifth, and octave of the chanter’s key. Unique to the uilleann pipes, regulators are additional pipes with keys that can be pressed by the wrist to provide chordal accompaniment.

The ornament called the “cran” is a series of cuts performed without re-articulating the main note with the bellows. This ornamentation is unique to the uilleann pipes and is especially prominent in playing the bottom D note, where taps are not possible.

There are two main styles of pipe playing, “open” and “tight”. The open style is characterized by a more fluid, legato approach to playing. Notes are connected smoothly, with less emphasis on staccato or sharply articulated ornamentation. In contrast, the tight style is marked by a more percussive, rhythmically pronounced approach. Notes are more distinctly articulated, and there’s a greater emphasis on staccato playing.

Notable Players

  • Willie Clancy: Clancy, from County Clare, was one of Ireland’s most renowned traditional musicians and a central figure in the revival of the uilleann pipes in the 20th century. His playing style was deeply rooted in the rich musical tradition of his native region and was known for its lyrical expressiveness and technical precision.
  • Seamus Ennis: Ennis was not only a master uilleann piper but also a collector and preserver of Irish folklore and music. His intricate and emotive playing style, coupled with his extensive knowledge of Irish music, has left a lasting impact on the tradition.
  • Liam O’Flynn: O’Flynn gained fame as a founding member of the folk group Planxty. His playing was characterized by its purity and expressive depth, making him a key figure in popularizing the uilleann pipes on the international stage.

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Concertina

The Irish concertina, a small, hexagonal accordion-like instrument, holds a significant place in the tradition of Irish music; County Clare, in particular, is renowned for its concertina playing. The concertina was invented in the early 19th century in England and Germany. It arrived in Ireland by the mid-19th century, where it quickly became popular, particularly in rural areas and among women, as it was considered a suitable parlor instrument. There are several types of concertinas, but the Anglo-German concertina, played in a diatonic system, is most commonly used in Irish music. It produces a different note on the push and pull of the bellows.

Notable Players

  • Mrs. Elizabeth Crotty: A traditional Irish musician from County Clare, Crotty was a key figure in the mid-20th century, known for her distinctive playing style.
  • Noel Hill: A contemporary master of the concertina, Hill has been influential in defining the modern Clare style of concertina playing, noted for its expressiveness.
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  • Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh: Another prominent modern player, Ó Raghallaigh is known for his innovative and versatile playing style, blending traditional techniques with contemporary influences.
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Irish Harp

The harp has ancient origins in Ireland, dating back at least to the early medieval period. It is a symbol of Irish identity and has been used on the coat of arms of Ireland and other official emblems. Traditional Irish harps are smaller than classical concert harps and might use metal, nylon or gut strings. Many contemporary Irish harps are lever harps, which allow the player to change the pitch of individual strings to play in different keys.

Turlough O’Carolan is a key figure in the history of the Irish harp. A blind harpist and composer, his compositions blend Irish folk and baroque styles, and many have become standards in the traditional Irish repertoire.

Notable players:

  • Laoise Kelly: Musician of the Year 2020 – TG4 Gradam Ceoil Ceoltóir na Bliana. Regarded as the most significant harper of her generation, she has pioneered a new style of driving instrumental harping.
  • Michelle Mulcahy: A versatile multi-instrumentalist, Mulcahy is celebrated for her rich, expressive harp playing that skillfully merges traditional and modern interpretations.
  • Michael Rooney: Distinguished as both a harpist and composer, Rooney’s work is notable for its complexity and emotional depth, contributing significantly to contemporary Irish harp music.
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Button Accordion

The Irish button accordion is a type of diatonic button accordion. The most common types of button accordions in Irish music are the B/C and C#/D systems. These refer to the key layouts of the instrument, with each row of buttons tuned to a different key. The Irish button accordion typically has one or two rows of buttons for the melody, on the right-hand side, and a set of bass buttons on the left-hand side for accompaniment. The instrument is known for its loud, penetrating sound, making it suitable for both solo performances and group sessions.

The button accordion was introduced to Ireland in the late 19th century. It gained popularity in the early 20th century. Over time, Irish musicians adapted the playing style to suit traditional Irish music, playin dance tunes like jigs, reels, and hornpipes.

Unlike piano accordions, the button accordion is bisonoric, meaning it produces different notes on the push and pull of the bellows. This characteristic shapes the playing style and phrasing of Irish music.

Notable Players

  • Joe Cooley: A legendary figure, Cooley’s dynamic playing style on the B/C accordion had a significant influence on Irish accordion playing.
  • Tony MacMahon: Known for his deep and expressive playing, MacMahon has been a key figure in popularizing the B/C system.
  • Sharon Shannon: A contemporary musician, Shannon is noted for her versatility and ability to blend traditional Irish music with other genres, expanding the accordion’s role in modern music.
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Banjo

The four-string tenor banjo is most commonly used in Irish music, typically tuned GDAE, an octave below the fiddle or mandolin. This tuning facilitates the playing of traditional Irish melodies. The Irish banjo features a shorter neck compared to the American five-string version and uses a resonator to project a bright, clear sound.

Notable Players

  • Barney McKenna: A founding member of The Dubliners, McKenna was pivotal in popularizing the Irish tenor banjo.
  • John Carty: An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Carty is known for his traditional playing style, contributing significantly to the repertoire and technique of Irish banjo playing.
  • Gerry O’Connor: O’Connor is noted for his virtuosic playing and has been influential in modern Irish banjo, blending traditional styles with contemporary approaches.
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Bouzouki

Introduced to Irish music in the 1960s, primarily by musicians like Johnny Moynihan and Andy Irvine, who were influenced by folk music from various cultures. The Irish bouzouki differs from the Greek original in several ways. It typically has a flatter back and a longer scale length, and the body is often wider. These modifications give it a deeper, more resonant sound suited to the chordal and rhythmic accompaniment of Irish music.

Notable Players

  • Donal Lunny: A pivotal figure in the popularization of the Irish bouzouki, Lunny’s work with bands like Planxty and The Bothy Band has been influential in defining the instrument’s role in modern Irish music.
  • Andy Irvine: Another key player in bringing the bouzouki into Irish music, Irvine is known for his innovative playing style, blending Irish music with influences from Eastern Europe and beyond.
  • Alec Finn: A founding member of De Dannan, Finn was renowned for his distinctive playing style and contributions to the Irish bouzouki’s sound and technique.
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Bodhran

The bodhrán is a traditional Irish frame drum. It typically ranges in diameter from about 10 to 24 inches, with different sizes offering varying tonal qualities. Some modern bodhráns come with tuning systems that allow the player to adjust the skin’s tension, and thus the pitch, according to the environment and musical context.

The bodhrán is played with a small, double-headed stick called a tipper or beater, and the other hand is used to apply pressure on the skin from the inside, changing the pitch and tone.

Notable Players

  • Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh: One of the first to popularize the modern style of bodhrán playing, McDonagh has been influential in the development of advanced playing techniques.
  • Kevin Conneff: The bodhrán player of The Chieftains, Conneff is known for his tasteful and rhythmic playing, contributing significantly to the band’s sound.
  • John Joe Kelly: A member of the band Flook, Kelly is renowned for his technical skill and innovative playing style, pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved on the bodhrán.
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