Learning Tunes

How to Learn Traditional Bluegrass and Irish Fiddle Tunes

Bluegrass and Irish music are like walled cities. To pass inside, a secret key is needed, this being a tune repertoire. Unlike blues, you can’t  "wing it" during sessions. You must know the tunes. However, once learnt, a tune repertoire is an entry pass to sessions around the world. This page is about how to learn traditional bluegrass and Irish fiddle tunes. Bluegrass has a basic repertoire of around 50 tunes (arguably).

In my view, these are best learnt by ear, rather than by reading notation. Once learnt by ear, a tune is automatically committed to memory, and can be more easily played with others. Steve Kaufman’s "4 hour Bluegrass Workout", from Homespun Tapes, is an excellent tune learning resource, featuring the basic bluegrass fiddle tune repertoire. Each tune is played at half speed, with backing, then at full speed. The melody can be turned off, leaving the backing band only.

The Irish repertoire contains far more tunes than the Bluegrass one. In particular, Irish sessions comprise sets, with 3 or more tunes, played one after the other. Hence a small repertoire is easily exhausted. Irish tunes should be learnt in sets. Once you know a set well you can introduce it at a session, and at least be sure of what is coming next. L.E. McCullough’s "121 Favorite Irish Session Tunes", also from Homespun Tapes, is a good entry to the Irish repertoire. Again, the tunes are played at half speed, with band, then at full speed.

The computer is a useful tool for learning tunes from CDs. First import (or “rip”) the CD into your computer. Then play the tune with a program like The Amazing Slowdowner. The tune can be slowed down while keeping the music at the same pitch. VERY handy for learning tunes. Steady rhythm is a pre-requisite for playing tunes with a group. Unfortunately, this steady rhythm is best developed by playing with a group, resulting in a Catch 22. The computer can assist here. In particular, Band in a Box will turn your computer into a backing band for tune playing (and a pretty good one at that!). All you do is enter the tune chords, e.g. from the Homespun publications, set the style (e.g. bluegrass), choose the key and tempo, and the band takes over.

When learning a tune, I start with Band in a Box playing at around 2/3 of the final metronome speed. For example, I’ll start with a tempo of 90 for a new Bluegrass tune, aiming for a final tempo of say 128 (a common Bluegrass speed). When I can play the tune without mistakes at 90, then I’ll raise the tempo 5 clicks and repeat. Continuing in this way, the tune can eventually be brought to full speed. This is much better than fumbling a tune a full speed to begin with, as all you will do is practice your mistakes. For much more detail on learning tunes, visit Harmonica Academy, which has many harmonica lessons designed to help you develop this style.