Raleigh, NC Irish Sessions

Raleigh, NC Irish Sessions

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Mandolins were abundant at these sessions.

This Summer I spent a good deal of time in “the Triangle”, woodshedding some tunes everyone should know and even writing a couple more. Living in Durham, NC for the Summer,  I was missing my musical creative outlets back home in Asheville, so I sought out some local Irish Trad Sessions. This led me to two sessions in Raleigh and one in Morrisville, NC. Luckily, the reputation of being a session player from Asheville only slightly preceded me.

Tir Na Nog –  Raleigh, NC

My first stop of the Summer was to attend the Sunday session at Tir Na Nog in Raleigh. It was a wide open session, with a great deal more of variety than I was used to.  It was also the last session they were to have. It turns out I showed up on the last day of business for Tir Na Nog. Which was a shame really, because it was a lovely place with a wonderful hostess/owner.  The session itself was a little less structured than I’m used to. And there were even some classic rock songs sung with sincerity towards the end. I got to play my favorite Choice Wife/Gallagher’s Frolic set and so it was lots of fun nonetheless.

It was at this session, that I was reminded how reputations can influence expectations for the good or the bad. I showed up early to meet the session leader.  There were a few folks who also showed up early. I brought my octave mandolin with me, which travels in a guitar shaped case. The first expression I got when they saw my guitar shaped case, seemed to say, “Great, another guitar player” as if they had seen their share of sessions with multiple guitarists. (Those of you who have also experienced that, might understand how much of a headache that can be.)

Asheville Reputation!

Then after exchanging names and before I could ask about the standard session

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My travel companions on this trip included my Rozawood Octave Mandolin and my Deering Tenor Banjo.

etiquette here, they asked where I was from.  So I told them.  Then everyone was silent a moment longer than necessary, and someone said, “Oh, you’re from the Jack of the Wood aren’t you?” And I knew exactly what that statement implied.

 

So I had to laugh good naturedly and said, “Yes, I am from the Jack of the Wood session in Asheville.” and with a wink said, “But I also play well with others and would rather have a good time, making friends, than fret over musical purity.” We all laughed out loud and it was then clear we understood each other, and went on to make great music.

The Stag’s Head –  Raleigh, NC

The next session I was able to attend was at the Stag’s Head, also in Raleigh, down the street from Tir Na Nog. This is a glorious session. It’s on a large stage! The stage doesn’t matter, but the amount of room each player has on that stage is fantastic. (Remember, I play at the Jack of the Wood often, where sometimes 18 people try to fit on a stage built for an acoustic singer/songwriter duo.) The players range in skill level, but they all get along nicely and play beautifully.

 

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The Stag’s Head Irish Trad Session in Raliegh, NC

Alan, the accordion, concertina and whistle player can mesmerize you with his tunes. His whistle playing in particular, I could listen to for hours, so sweet and full of the spirit of what I imagine Irish music to be. Every other player too adds a nice touch to the group.  This session is a bit tighter, and I did not experience anything other than Irish music here.  The session at the Stag’s Head occurs on Sunday at 2 PM as of this writing.  It’s worth checking out, and does seem to be an open session. Meaning, there aren’t any obvious restrictions on who can play and who can’t.

Trali – Morrisville, NC

In Morrisville, NC there is an Irish Pub called Trali. I’m assuming this is a chain as I’ve seen them other places and this was the second one I encountered while in “the Triangle”. This session is a semi-closed session.  It seems to be you should probably know someone who already plays in the session, and you should be able to play a lot of tunes, keep a steady tempo, and not try to play when you don’t know the tunes.

Luckily, one of the players, Scott (a fantastic flute player), told me about this session.  He said he’d put in a good word for me with the session leader, whom I then corresponded with electronically. She said I was vouched for, and so welcome to attend, and then she asked if I played with the earlier session or the later session at Jack of the Wood.

This gave me pause.  Some of you who have been to the JOW sessions know there is an interesting culture between the earlier and later sessions. The earlier session is a rocking good time, but sometimes (not often these days) the tempo shifts or we get a brand new player who means well, but derails things a little. The later session is “a full-bore, you better be damned good, or we’ll ask you to leave” kind of a session. That can be intimidating, and not a lot of fun for folks who may be decent at their instrument, want to have a good time, and aren’t expecting to get ignored or told to leave because there is someone better in the audience who wants a seat.

So what was she asking?  Did she think the earlier session was sloppy?  Did she think the later session was too stressful?  Did she wonder if I was laid back like the earlier session?  Was she asking me if I was good enough to play with the later session? Who knows really? Musicians are a peculiar bunch (myself included). Sometimes people hold on to grudges.  Sometimes people maintain high standards at the expense of joyfulness… it goes on…so…

I decided to quit over thinking it and tell her the truth. I said, I personally really enjoy playing with both sessions for different reasons.  I have and can play in both sessions, but to be honest prefer the more laid back approach of the earlier session. That seemed to be the right answer, and so she gave me the time and day to show up.

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A lovely time at Trali in Morrisville, NC

And this session was also glorious. Everyone was friendly, the musicianship was stellar, and there was plenty of room. (Can you tell, I like my space?) We sat around two tables pushed together, the waitress brought us beer, and we went around the circle each picking sets to play as we would. If you get a chance to listen to or be invited to play at the Trali session, I’d highly recommend it.

Conclusion

I was asked to attend a home session in between Stag’s Head and Trali. That was an excellent welcoming group of people made up from all the different sessions I had visited. And overall, my experience of the Irish Trad sessions in Raleigh and Morrisville were fantastic and just what I needed while away from the cool (because it’s hot as hell here!) Mist Covered Mountains of Asheville.

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How to Better Learn Tunes

It’s July 15th, 2017.  Celtic Week at the Swannanoa Gathering is upon us. There are many tunes to play and many more to learn. As someone who knows a few tunes, and has thousands more to learn, and as a teacher, I’ve got a few ideas on how best to learn AND REMEMBER all the tunes you want.

Tune Learning Tip #1 – Learn Tunes You Really Like

Just because your local session plays many tunes you don’t know, don’t make the mistake of trying to learn every tune from their repertoire, just for the sake of being able to play them. There will be plenty of tunes at your session, that when you hear them, you can feel the groove, and the melody moves you. Focus on these tunes. They will be the ones that are the easiest and most joyful to learn. They will stick in your head and in your fingers easier. Then as you get better, it will become easier to learn the other tunes that everyone else plays.  By learning the tunes you like, you more joyfully and easily learn the language of the music in your instrument. That makes it easier to learn other tunes later, that may not stick in your head so easily.

Tune Learning Tip #2 – Talk Yourself Into The Ability to Remember New Tunes

It can be overwhelming to sit down and think about all the tunes you don’t know. This creates a little psychological wobble in your experience. Rather than sitting down and thinking, “Alright, I got these three new tunes I want to learn… this is going to be great!” most people think…”Only three new tunes?  This is going to take me forever. Everyone else seems to know hundreds of other tunes…”

When this happens you’re less likely to learn well.  The more enthused you are and the more you believe in your ability, the better. I’ve experimented with this. For myself, I’ve tried to learn tunes without much psychological prep. It usually took me longer to learn those tunes. I’ve also tried sitting down and intentionally telling myself…”These tunes are easy to learn.  My fingers know just how to play these tunes. This is great! I’m going to be able to play these next week at the session.” Now you really have to get into this.  You have to talk yourself into it until it feels like you mean it. Then learning new tunes eventually seems to become effortless.

Tune Learning Tip #3 – Hang Around Encouraging Musicians

My main focus here, really, is on having an encouraging teacher, a teacher who inspires you to believe in your abilities.  Or at least try, try, try until your abilities match your enthusiasm. I’ve known many excellent (and professional (meaning you’ve probably bought their CD’s (or vinyl if you remember what that is))) musicians who were terrible teachers. Usually they are terrible for one or two reasons.

  1. They had natural talent and can’t relate to folks who don’t naturally know how to pick up an instrument and do what they do.
  2. They make you think you’ll never be able to play as good as you need to. (Be careful of this! It can be extremely subtle.)

We aren’t going to talk about terrible teacher #1. The best you can do with that kind of teacher is simply admire their abilities, and maybe it will click one day. You know what I’m talking about… when you go to a class and the teacher says “Ok…do this…” and he/she flashes through the most amazing chordal accompaniment, stops, looks at the class and says, “Now you do it…”  Instead of breaking down the simple mechanics of it, so you know how to repeat it in any key at any time.  (And that is possible.)

How do you deal with terrible teacher #2?  Well, let’s first figure out how to recognize that kind of teacher.  Usually, they are a fantastic player. They sound great.  They play great, and everyone loves to listen to them. However, when you start learning from them, they always make you feel a little less than. They always make you think, you probably aren’t ready to play in a session, or you can’t really play up to speed.

The only way you learn is by trying, making mistakes and trying again. This is what makes you an awesome player. I recently played a few sessions in Durham, NC. I met a woman who had been playing fiddle for about 2 years. I knew immediately she had a good teacher. How?

Well, there were five of us. I had my octave mandolin. She was on fiddle.  There was a guitarist, a whistle player, and another fiddler. The Stag’s Head was LOUD! It was crowded. We had to all huddle together, and all I could hear was her, and all she could here was me.  And over the roar of the party going on around us we could hear a little of the guitarist beating out chords. She was not intimidated. Even when we got distracted and she got off a little bit… I kept playing as steady as possible… and she got right back on track.  She wasn’t the most fantastic fiddler I ever heard (yet). But she was ballsy, and she stayed to the tunes, and made it all the way through, even if not completely perfect.  And by God, it was a good time! (After, she specifically said, “My teacher says…’No matter what, keep going…don’t stop!'”)

I love seeing new players, getting in there and giving it their best!  I particularly like it if they stay on tempo, but the joy of the playing and trying is awesome.  I have a feeling this fiddler is going to be really fantastic someday soon.  Why?  Because she tries and she has confidence (and she knows how to stay in the time signature).

If you have a teacher that would not encourage that kind of trying, you need a new teacher, because they are going to drag you down.

Even though I spent the most time here discussing point #3, really focus on Tip #1 and Tip #2, because I know, it’s hard to find good teacher’s (unless of course you are at Celtic Week).  Give these a try and let me know how it works. Give yourself at least 8 weeks of really applying these ideas, and notice how much easier you learn new tunes and how much more fun it is!

PS- Sorry, to miss you at Celtic Week this year. Doing some traveling, and won’t be back in time.  But I do hope to see you in 2018!

Noonday Feast’s Irish Inspired Album – Waves and Tides

Hello all 8-string lovers:

2014 was a sparse year for blog posts, but for good reason.  We’ve been busy.  Our band Noonday Feast has been working weekends on its first album, while also playing gigs to fund the studio!  As of Winter Solstice 2014, it is complete and available.  We call it Waves and Tides.   Here are a few clips from the album.  See the video below.

Although, we are working on new material and will probably go back into the studio soon, to begin work on Noonday Feast II, I intend on posting more of my favorite mandolin tab Irish Tunes, I’ve been working on.  Keep your eyes open.

Enjoy the album.  You can buy it through this link.

Buy “Waves and Tides” by Noonday Feast

All of the tunes are original except for two.  We are far from traditionalists, but see tradition as a foundation for exploration.  You will easily be able to hear my love of Irish Music in these works, but you will also get a taste of folk, and at least one electric guitar solo.

This album is mandolin, octave mandolin, fiddle and bouzouki heavy.

New Fellenbaum Octave Mandolin #22

I’m happy to say, that I’ve recently acquired a Fellenbaum octave mandolin made by Tom Fellenbaum, owner of Acoustic Corner in Black Mountain, NC.

Fellenbaum Octave Mandolin #22. Spruce and Cherry. 21 3/4 scale length.

Fellenbaum Octave Mandolin #22. Spruce and Cherry. 21 3/4 scale length.

Four years ago I contacted Tom about building an octave mandolin.  We talked about it briefly, but then I didn’t have the funds at the time to pull the trigger.  Turns out, that at the same time I was talking to him, another fellow was too.  He even wanted the same scale length and wood choices.  So Tom went ahead and cut out the top, neck, back and sides for two octave mandolins.  He build the mandolin for the other guy, and had the pieces of the second mandolin hanging around his shop.

Fast forward to two months ago.  I contacted Tom again.   My work is going well, and I had some extra funds.  He said, all I have to do is put it (the pieces) together!

I picked it up yesterday and couldn’t be happier.  It’s got a rich tone and good volume.  The scale length 21 3/4 is perfect for me.  It allows me to play chords when I don’t know the tune, and play the melody easy enough when I do.   Here is a quick sound clip, playing the Far Away Waltz and the Ten Penny Bit.

Tom is a fantastic, professional and timely builder/artist.  The instrument was done a few days before the estimated completion, and the fit and finish are gorgeous.

Glad I got her before his wait list exploded!

Chord Scales to Accompany Irish Dance Music

Well…it’s official.  I’ve joined a band.  So far we have a whistle/flute player, a bodhran player, and myself on Octave and standard mandolin.  We’re working on our first recording, and creating a web site, and currently have 3 under the radar shows lined up here in Asheville.  As I was preparing for our recording and practice session later today, I began researching chord theory to accompany some of the tunes the flute player is interested in playing.  I stumbled upon this great resource.

http://hspeek.home.xs4all.nl/dadgad/theory.html

The theory will apply to your mandolin, bazouki or octave mandolin accompaniment too.

“Chord Scales” and accompanying Irish dance music.

Ceilidh - Irish Music is Meant for Dancing, and a good backup to the melody can be fantastic done right.

by Han Speek © 1996

I – Which Scales Are Relevant ?

[You ‘d better believe this. To prove it, one would have to collect numerous Irish trad. dance tunes and classify them according to the scales they use. This is a huge task. Breandan Breathnach is one who performed such a task, resulting in his 3-part tune collection “Ceol Rince na hEirann”. He also published an analysis of Irish trad. music, in which he presents this classification of the scales used. I have used his work as one of my starting points.]

According to Breandan Breathnach in his “Folk Music & Dances of Ireland” there are only two major scales relevant to Irish folk music: the Dmajor scale and the Gmajor scale. Both of these scales fit naturally on the whistle/flute/pipes in D. [Note: Most Irish musicians who play an instrument in a different key than D still tend to think about it (and talk about it) as if it were in D. But the accompanists will have to transpose in such a case. Guitar/bouzouki players will usually resort to using a capo.]

         I  II III IV V  VI VII I
Dmajor:  D  E  F#  G  A  B  C#  d

Gmajor:  G  A  B   C  D  E  F#  g

By repeatedly applying a process that Breathnach calls “inversion”, which simply means detaching the first note from the scale, and appending it (actually, it’s octave higher equivalent) to the end of the scale, 7 alternate scales can be derived from this major scale: the “modal” or church music scales. Of these “modal” scales (again according to Breathnach) only 3 are relevant for Irish folk music: the ones based on the 2nd, 5th and 6th note of the major (or Ionian, as it is called in church music) scale, resulting respectively in Dorian, Mixolydian and Aeolian scales.

Scales based on Dmajor:
-----------------------
D major/D Ionian: D  E  F#  G  A  B  C#  d
E Dorian:            E  F#  G  A  B  C#  d  e
A Mixolydian:                  A  B  C#  d  e  f#  g  a
B Natural minor/Aeolian:          B  C#  d  e  f#  g  a  b

Scales based on Gmajor:
-----------------------
G major/G Ionian: G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  g
A Dorian:            A  B  C  D  E  F#  g  a
D Mixolydian:                 D  E  F#  g  a  b  c  d
E Natural minor/Aeolian:         E  F#  g  a  b  c  d  e

These 8 scales are the basis for Irish folk/dance music, and will lead us to deriving the appropriate chords for providing backup for this type of music. [Note: occasionally you will come across a tune in Amajor, a key which is not listed here. I’ve heard a theory (I think it was Arty McGlynn who told me this) that these tunes are not originally Irish, but imported from Scotland. The ideas presented here do not apply to such tunes – these can be dealt with using ordinary “Western art music” chord theory.]

II – From Scales To Chords.

Generally speaking, a chord is formed for any note in a scale by stacking 2 3rd intervals on top of it:

  1. pick a note (any note) in the scale (call it the “root”).
  2. skip the next note in the scale
  3. use the next note (call it 3rd)
  4. skip another
  5. use the next (3rd of the “3rd”, but 5th of our “root”)

(If you run into the end of the scale, then treat it like the snake that bit it’s own tail – continue counting at the start of the scale. Mind the octave note; it should be discarded in this case.) This way you can derive the basic triad for each chord.

For the Dmajor scale it would result in:

root: D  E  F# G  A  B  C# 
3rd : F# G  A  B  C# D  E
5th : A  B  C# D  E  F# G

(The same method can be applied to the other 7 scales. The results of that will be presented later. For now, we will continue the discussion, looking only at the Dmajor scale, since this is probably the most familiar to everyone.)

So far, making the step from scale to the elementary triads doesn’t differ from what the chord theory for “Western art music” also teaches us.

The next step would be to analyze, and name, the chords we have found. We used 3rd intervals to build these triads, and there are 2 kinds of 3rd intervals: major 3rd (skip 3 positions on guitar/bouzouki fretboard: D – F#) and minor 3rd (skip 2 positions on fretboard: E – G). A chord with a minor 3rd between root and 3rd is called a “minor” chord.

chord on D :  D   major 3rd  F#  minor 3rd  A   : Dmajor
chord on E :  E   minor 3rd  G   major 3rd  B   : Eminor
chord on F#:  F#  minor 3rd  A   major 3rd  C#  : F#minor
chord on G :  G   major 3rd  B   minor 3rd  D   : Gmajor
chord on A :  A   major 3rd  C#  minor 3rd  E   : Amajor
chord on B :  B   minor 3rd  D   major 3rd  F#  : Bminor
chord on C#:  C#  minor 3rd  E   minor 3rd  G   : Edim (2 minor 3rds stacked
is called a "diminished" chord in Western art music)

Here we encounter our first difference between “Western art music” theory, and what applies to Irish dance music accompaniment: “diminished” chords are _NOT_ used. So instead of the G in the chord on C#, we use the next note in the scale: A, which is 2 _major_ 3rd’s away from C#. This results in:

 

chord on C#:  C#  minor 3rd  E
               |                
                ----- our new note -----   A   : A/C#, 1st inversion of Amajor

[Note: An inversion of a chord can be obtained by applying the same circular shift as we used to get the derived scales from the major scale to the 3 notes that form the basic triad of a chord. The first shift results in a chord with the same 3 notes, but the 3rd as the root note – “1st inversion”; the second shift gives us the 5th as the root note – “2nd inversion”.]

III – Extending on the basic triads.

Since on both guitar and bouzouki (piano is a different case altogether) it is possible to play more than 3 notes simultaneously, our next step could be to see which notes might be added to the basic triads we have just derived.

Note doubling.

The simplest way to extend on the basic triad is note doubling: adding a note already present in the chord, either in the same octave or in a higher/lower octave than what we already have. Example: the D chord can be played as D – F# -A – D, or D – F# – A – F#, or even D – F# – A – F# – D (if you can find a fingering for this). This doubling of notes doesn’t change the name of the chord, since we still only use notes of the basic triad.

The 7th note.

Another likely note to add to a chord is the 7th step of the scale. Since we found our triads by stacking 3rd intervals, you might be tempted to find out what happens if you stack another 3rd. If you do so, you will have added a 7th – and it works. But the resulting chord’s use in Irish trad. music is not so frequent as it is in classical, pop, or for instance American folk music. In fact, there are only 2 chords in the chord scale where this 7th note isn’t obtrusive: the II and the V position of the chord scale. In all other positions of the scale it tends to stand out – it adds a jazzy flavour to the chord that often violates the character of the music.<.br> Applied to the II chord in the scale this adds to the chord the note which is the root note of the scale. This is something that works out quite pleasing for the other chords in our chord scale as well, and brings us close to a concept that is native to Irish music: droning, i.e. having one tone (usually the root) continuously present behind the actual tune. This is quite common practice in accompanying Irish music, no matter on what instrument, and is one of the reasons why open guitar tunings are so popular for backing up this type of music – the open strings are usually tuned to convenient drone notes.

IV – “Will-do” Chords

Up to now we ‘ve gone strictly “by the book”, so to speak. Everything I said up to now is thoroughly documented in literature. Now we’ve come to the point where we will leave this path, and introduce a concept that make life a lot easier. One thing you will probably have noticed about Irish dance music is that it’s usually played rather fast. And reading the above you will have thought: I won’t have time to change chords so often and so fast. Not to worry – most musicians, even the pro’s, don’t. Often they will substitute the theoretically correct chord with something that’s easier to change to, or even the chord they were already holding down, with a suitable bass note to create the impression that they were using the proper chord progression. These chords I have, just for ease of discussion, named “will-do” chords, because they “will do” the job of an other chord with a lot less work. One very frequently used example of this would be the 1st inversion of D, the D/F#, which is almost always used in the place of an F#m in the D scale. Similarly, the G/B can be used instead of the Bm. Some people, including Arty McGlynn, will often even use a D chord with an E bass instead of an Em, something that wouldn’t make sense normally (how’s that for a chord – D, E and F# together in one chord. Try naming this one :-)), but in places where you’re just “passing thru'” the Em chord in a chord progression, it works. And it’s a lot easier (especially if you’re using DADGAD) than trying to quickly change from fingering a D chord to an Em.

V – The Most Useful Chord Scales.

[Note: the indicated 7ths (between brackets) are optional]

Dmajor chord scale:
root: D   E   F#  G   A   B   C# 
3rd : F#  G   A   B   C#  D   E
5th : A   B   C#  D   E   F#  A
7th :    (D)         (G)

Name: D   Em  F#m G   A   Bm  A/C#
          (7)        (7)


E Dorian chord scale:
root: E   F#   G   A   B   C#   D
3rd : G   A    B   C#  D   E    F#  
5th : B   C#   D   E   F#  A    A
7th :    (E)          (A)

Name: Em  F#m  G   A   Bm  A/C# D
          (7)          (7)


A Mixolydian chord scale:
root: A   B   C#   D   E   F#  G
3rd : C#  D   E    F#  G   A   B
5th : E   F#  A    A   B   C#  D
7th :    (A)          (D)

Name: A   Bm  A/C# D   Em  F#m G
          (7)          (7)


B Natural minor/Aeolian chord scale:
root: B   C#   D   E   F#  G   A
3rd : D   E    F#  G   A   B   C#
5th : F#  A    A   B   C#  D   E
7th :    (B)          (E)

Name: Bm  A/C# D   Em  F#m G   A
          (+B)         (7)


G major/G Ionian chord scale:
root: G   A   B   C   D   E   F#
3rd : B   C   D   E   F#  G   A
5th : D   E   F#  G   A   B   D
7th :    (G)         (C)

Name: G   Am  Bm  C   D   Em  D/F#
          (7)         (7)


A Dorian chord scale:
root: A   B   C   D   E   F#   G
3rd : C   D   E   F#  G   A    B
5th : E   F#  G   A   B   D    D
7th :    (A)         (D)

Name: Am  Bm  C   D   Em  D/F# G
          (7)         (7)


D Mixolydian chord scale:
root: D   E   F#   G   A   B   C
3rd : F#  G   A    B   C   D   E
5th : A   B   D    D   E   F#  G
7th :    (D)          (G)

Name: D   Em  D/F# G   Am  Bm  C
          (7)          (7)


E Natural minor/Aeolian chord scale:
root: E   F#   G   A   B   C   D
3rd : G   A    B   C   D   E   F#
5th : B   D    D   E   F#  G   A
7th :    (E)          (A)

Name: Em  D/F# G   Am  Bm  C   D
          (+E)         (7)


[Since many players I've met find Em hard to deal with in DADGAD, an option
would be to capo at 2nd fret, and play Dm. But then you would need a scale for
Dm. Here it is.]
D Natural minor/Aeolian chord scale:
root: D   E    F   G   A   Bb  C 
3rd : F   G    A   Bb  C   D   E
5th : A   C    C   D   E   F   G
7th :    (D)          (G)

Name: Dm  C/E  F   Gm  Am  Bb  C
          (+D)         (7)


[This one shouldn't be here, really, since it's derived from the scale of C.
But I've come across it a couple of times, mostly for Irish tunes that were
arranged by American musicians. So it may be handy to have available.]
D Dorian chord scale:
root: D   E   F   G   A   B    C 
3rd : F   G   A   B   C   D    E
5th : A   B   C   D   E   G    G
7th :    (D)         (G)

Name: Dm  Em  F   G   Am  G/B  C
          (7)         (7)

Choice Wife, A Farrell’s Welcome to Limerick, Gallagher’s Frolics Revisited

Got inspired to record these two tunes, and put them to a short video of a walk on the park way, I just took.

The tabs and standard notation to these songs are on the tab and notation page of this site.

Recorded with my Mowry and Trinity College Octave.