Flatpicking Guitar Magazine March/April 2004

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Interview with Arty McGlynn

This page updated March 14, 2004

"Arty McGlynn is to flatpicking traditional Irish music what Doc Watson is to flatpicking American fiddle tunes. Like Doc, Arty took an instrument that was primarily used in an accompaniment role and gave it a lead voice. He first did this in a recorded form on his 1979 release McGlynn's Fancy: Arty McGlynn Plays Traditional Irish Music on the Guitar. The recording was immediately hailed as a 'classic in the traditional music world' and as a result Arty became 'the most sought after musician in Ireland.' And, like Doc, Arty continues to create and innovate while remaining true to tradition. Fintan Vallely of the Irish Times recently stated, 'Almost 20 years since he first played this venue (Belfast's Harp Folk Club), McGlynn's
picking of tunes was hugely impressive, a terrific demonstration, not only of the impact this player has made to the use of guitar in traditional music, but of the unfazed consistency of his innovation.'

Arty McGlynn has played and recorded with some of Ireland¹s most famous individual artists and bands, including Christy Moore, Paul Brady, Donal Lunny, Liam O'Flynn, Planxty, Patrick St, De Dannan, the Chieftains, and the Van Morrison Band, to name a few. He has been, and remains, in high demand as a performer, recording artist, and producer. He is also a 'guitar player's guitar player' on the Irish music scene.

In preparation for this special Celtic guitar issue of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine I approached a number of well known guitarists from England, Ireland, and Scotland and asked who we should feature on the cover of this special issue. The answer in every case was the same, 'Arty McGlynn.'

Although Arty's name is mostly associated with traditional Irish music, his early professional career took him away from the traditional music that he encountered and learned from his family while growing up in Omagh, County Tyrone, Ireland. Arty said,

"There was always music in the house my mother played fiddles, my brothers and father played accordions. I started playing accordion when I was about five and played until I was eleven. There was always a banjo in the house and I used to play around on that as well. Then my mother bought me an electric guitar in 1956. That was the explosion of rock and roll and the whole thing. The skiffle thing was all happening."

Recalling his early years playing accordion with his family, Arty said that the best lesson he learned about music came from his father who said, "You are losing time! It doesn't matter if you miss some notes, don't lose time. Even if you have to skip over a few notes, make sure your time ends up the same when you are finished." Arty said, "My father wasn't really a teacher. I learned more from my mother, who was a fiddle player. But that was a very good lesson that he taught me."

When Arty got his first guitar, at about the age of 12, there was only one other guy in town that he knew who played the guitar. He says,

"He was about five years older than me, but he was a very patient type of guy. He could figure stuff out. He could read music. He knew his chords. I used to go to his house and he opened up a lot of doors for me very easily that probably wouldn¹t have had the discipline to do myself at that time. I learned a lot from him and I also studied theory with a sax player from Omagh named James O¹Niell. He was a fine jazz musician."

At a fairly young age Arty was delving into the playing of jazz greats like Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel, which he was led to through his earlier interest in Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent.

Arty explained that during the mid-to-late fifties most of the dance bands in Ireland were coming out of the swing era. When he was fifteen he joined a dance band called the Melody Boys and began playing
professionally. He says,

"It was a great experience for me because apart from doing the rock and roll stuff at home that I was learning off of records, I had to read charts and play swing chords with the band. It was good experience for a kid. I learned my theory from those bands, but I was always into playing rock and roll."

Although he stopped playing Irish music in about 1955, Arty says,

"I was still always aware of it because it was always in my house. During that time I sort of had a love/hate relationship with Irish music. Where I went to school there were dancing and music competitions that were very strict and conservative. I fought against all of that and I associated Irish music with all that for a long time. I like the music, I just didn't like the stuff that went along with it."

Arty also explained that during that era Irish music was not arranged in parts, everyone that played in the band played the melody at the same time while someone 'banged away on chords on the piano.' Arty said, "It wasn¹t very attractive." He said that it wasn't until Sean O'Riada, of University College, Cork, began to arrange traditional Irish music (late 50s through the 1960s) with defined parts that the music began to change. In Celtic Music: A Complete Guide author June Skinner Sawyers explains that
prior to O¹Riada's ensemble Ceoltoiri Chualann, "traditional music was considered a solo art, except for the popular ceilidh dance bands. Using traditional instruments but with classical-style arrangements, the ensemble incorporated elements of harmony and improvisation‹alien concepts in Irish traditional music." Paddy Moloney, of O'Riada's ensemble, later went on to form the Chieftans, the most famous traditional Irish band. Another traditional band that became very popular in the early seventies as Planxty. Arty said, "Planxty started around 1969 or 70. That was attractive, the stuff that Donal and Andy were doing [bouzouki player Donal Lunny and mandolin player Andy Irvine]. I sort of cocked my ear to that again because they were doing nice arrangements on bouzouki and mandolins and it was a different slant on
Irish music. In the meantime I'd been playing from 1959 in rock bands and show bands five-to-six nights a week."

Arty said that 'out of boredom' in about 1970 he started taking the acoustic guitar out on the road with him on the show band bus and playing tunes to pass the time. He said, "I wanted to get out of that situation. A show band is a very boring place to be after the initial excitement. I decided in the early 70s that I would do session work in Belfast and thought that if I could get the session work built up a bit, I could get off the road."

In about 1977 singer-songwriter Paul Brady, of the Johnstons (late 60s) and Planxty (mid-70s), had come back to Ireland and asked Arty to join his band in 1979. Arty played on Brady's rock debut album Hard Station which was released in 1981. Arty said, "During the time I was doing session work I would lay down a little track after a session." That finally came out as an album in 1979 as McGlynn's Fancy.

Although the album was heralded as a ground breaking recording due to Arty's lead guitar work on traditional Irish tunes, Arty said, "I was amazed at the attention it got because I did not circulate on the Irish circuit at all when I was in show bands. You play six nights a week, so you don't meet anybody when you are going out like that. So when I made the record, I never thought that it would see the light of day. It was just a hobby, really. But it started getting played on radio."

When asked about the role of the guitar in Irish music prior to that time, Arty said, "Part of the thing that put me off about Irish music was that it was very conservative back then. There was no time for guitars or bouzoukis. They were purists, you know?" In fact, Arty said that when he was growing up and playing Irish music at home with his family, there were no guitars at all. Guitars were not a part of Irish music. He points to Paul Brady as one of the first artists who started to incorporate the guitar into Irish music as a rhythm instrument. Arty said, "Paul had been in the states and he came back in around '73 or '74 and joined Planxty. I had known him in the early 60s when he was in college in Dublin and then we started messing around and playing again and I like what he was doing. He was using some open tunings Šlike open G tuning and drop D tuning. I liked that, so I started playing Irish tunes on the guitar around that time. It was Paul who really stimulated me to do it."

The admiration Arty has for Paul Brady is mutual. In the liner notes to Arty and Nollaig Casey's recording Lead the Knave, Paul Brady wrote: "The first time I became aware of Arty McGlynn's talent was back in the sixties when lost in the crowd one night, I enviously watched his fingers cruise the neck of his Gibson 335. Arty McGlynn even then was recognized as one of the best guitar players in Ireland. If, like me, you were an aspiring guitarist, you didn't pass up an opportunity to catch him when he was in town."

Arty continues, "Donal Lunny also started backing tunes on guitar and using different arrangements that hadn't been done before. But in general the guitar was associated with Elvis Presley, and was looked upon as being a 'sexual' instrument, and so it wasn't very popular with Irish musicians. What also happened was that the people who did get guitars thought that they could just sit down and play with a fiddle player. But they didn't know the tunes. They thought, 'Well it is in D, so I can just play in D'. And it was terrible for the musicians, so they would just leave. So guitars got a bad name because of that. It got to the point where traditional musicians would tell guitar players, "look, if you open that case, I'm going to stop playing."

Reflecting on the technical aspects of his playing on McGlynn's Fancy, Arty said, "To me, it was no big deal. I was playing Django stuff, so to play tunes in the first position in D wasn't all that complicated. But I was amazed at the naiveté of people in Ireland, even in the late 70s, who were saying, 'How can you do that on a guitar? How can you play a reel on a guitar.' And I'm saying to them, 'Haven't you ever heard of Joe Pass or Django Reinhardt?' They had obviously never listened to the guitar. There is no big deal there. A little jig on a guitar?"

After McGlynn's Fancy began receiving airplay Arty got a call from Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy and began working with their group. Makem and Clancy (of the Clancy Brothers) had been two of the pioneers of Irish folk music in the 1960s and performed to sold-out theaters all over Ireland. Arty said, "It was fantastic because it meant that I could still do my studio work and then work for a season in Ireland, two weeks at a theater in Dulbin, two weeks at a theater in Cork, and three weeks touring the country in the summer time. I was making really good money that I had never dreamt of, that I could never make in a show band. I was off stage at ten o'clock every night and playing with people that I really liked. Myself and a fiddle player would sit on stools behind Liam and Tommy backing them up. But then we would get to also go out front and do a solo spot, play a jig or something. That was in 1980."

While Arty did quite well playing with Clancy and Makem, the residual benefits that he gleaned from the success of his solo album did not stop there. In 1982 he got a call from Van Morrison and was asked to join the Van Morrison band. He spent seven years with Morrison's band, performing live and recording on both electric and acoustic guitars. Additionally, since Morrison's band did not work steadily, Arty played with a traditional Irish band called Patrick Street (founded in 1986 and featuring fiddler Kevin Burke).

After seven years playing with both Van Morrison and Patrick Street, the road began to become a grid again and Arty returned to studio work. Arty said, "I'm not very good on the road. I loved the music, but I didn't like the grind. When you are out on a fast moving seven week tour, after three weeks you don't even know what day it is."

In 1989 Arty recorded an album with his wife, fiddler Nollaig Casey, and the two began to do touring as a duo. In 1990 they were awarded the Belfast Telegraph Entertainment Media and Arts Award for excellence in the field of Folk Music. Around that same time he also started working with piper Liam O'Flynn. To date he is still touring with both Nollaig and O'Flynn and he also keeps himself busy with studio work. As a composer, Arty has composed music for several television documentaries and together
with Nollaig arranged and played music for the sound track of the Irish feature film Moondance as well as Hear My Song, in which they also made an appearance. More recently Arty and Nollaig played on the sound track of the film Waking Ned Devine where the music was composed by Shaun Davey.

In addition to being a talented performer and composer, Arty is also a highly respected producer. The album Barking Mad by the group Four Men & A Dog, which Arty produced, was voted Folk Album of the year by Folk Roots Magazine. He produced Christy Hennessy's album, The Rehearsal, which remained in the Irish charts continuously for eighteen months and also collaborated with Frances Black on her first two solo albums, Talk to Me and The Sky Road, both of which have topped the charts in Ireland and have been critically received in the UK and America.

Arty McGlynn started his life surrounded by traditional Irish music and then moved on to play rock, swing, and jazz on guitar for more than 20 years before going back to his roots. When asked about the technical aspects of playing these various styles of music, Arty said, "I just impose myself on it. I am not too concerned about what the tradition was. I suppose that when I am playing with Liam O'Flynn I play a little different than when I am playing with Frankie Gavin, for instance. Liam is a very straight traditional player and pipes are very modal or very melodic. He plays very old tunes that are modal and so I use the guitar more in a modal percussive form. But when I play with Frankie Gavin or Nollaig, they play different stuff and they don't mind if I stick in a diminished chords, or whatever. So Irish music has changed in that way. Other people are doing that also. If the melody lends itself to a certain chord progression, then why not do it? I don't have any set rules. But at the same time there are certain
things that I wouldn't dream of doing. I try to play what fits."

In his book, Accompanying Irish Music on Guitar (distributed in the US by Mel Bay Publications) author Frank Kilkelly has this to say about Arty's rhythm style, "In accompanying, his style is first and foremost rhythmic. He uses primarily dropped D tuning and in his playing you can hear a percussive, crispy top end, as well as a beefy bass sound."

Rhythmically, for traditional Irish music, Arty likes to use a drop D modal tuning so that he gets four D notes when playing a D chord. When playing a G chord, he rarely plays the third (B note). In general, when playing with a piper, he likes to get a percussive rhythm, use passing tones and employ droning notes. But he says, "Different people want you to play different stuff. A lot of people play it with different ideas, so it will depend on who you are playing with." Since the guitar is not a traditional instrument in Irish music, Arty feels that the guitar player is not so much bound by a traditional way of playing the instrument in the context of traditional music, so there is some flexibility and free range of expression that is afforded the guitar. Arty adds, "You have to know what people like and don't like. In Ireland today it is very diverse."

Regarding lead playing for Irish music Arty says, "I think that Irish music sits very well on the guitar in standard tuning. Everything falls nicely in a four fret area of the fingerboard. And I find that if you use drop D, it is a lot easier than using DADGAD where you are using open strings. In DADGAD it is harder to get rolling. The hardest part is getting your small finger to work all the time. But it is not complicated music to play." Arty used Drop D tuning for all of the tunes on McGlynn's Fancy. He said, "Drop D is ideal for Irish music."

When Americans who grew up playing bluegrass and American folk music attempt to play Irish tunes, the hardest part to capture is the rhythm. Arty said, "It is a weird thing. If I hear Americans, or even English
people playing Irish music, there is some little thing different about the rhythm. At the same time, if you hear us guys trying to play bluegrass music, there is something missing as well. I'm not sure what that thing is. There are some bands at home that are really good at playing bluegrass music, but there is something in the time that is missing. I don't know - I think that maybe it comes from the dancing. I think you have to see people dancing and hear the rhythms of the feet. Dancers are incredible. If you go down to Kerry and see people dance sets, the rhythms they do with their feet are incredible. It is a pretty uplifting thing. It is fantastic to play for dancers. You see these people moving and you get feedback off of it."

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