New Celtic banjo book from Tom Hanway

Easy Irish and Celtic Melodies For 5-String Banjo: Best-Loved Airs and Session Tunes by Tom HanwayMel Bay Publications has released Easy Irish and Celtic Melodies For 5-String Banjo: Best-Loved Airs and Session Tunes by Tom Hanway, available as a book/CD combo or an ebook with MP3s.

While Celtic music is more commonly played with a flatpick on a tenor banjo, Hanway’s approach – and his recent musical passion – is to utilize the techniques of contemporary 3 finger banjo to authentically reproduce the sounds of Irish dance music.

Tom is a native New Yorker, who started his banjo adventure as a Scruggs-style picker, but became gradually drawn to the traditional music of the Emerald Isle, eventually marrying an Irish woman, and has been living in Ireland since 2003.

He shared a few words about his gradual evolution from the music of his home country to that of his adopted one.

Tom Hanway and Bill Monroe - photo by George Quinn“I got interested in Celtic music by listening to traditional bluegrass, with its use of gapped scales and modes, especially in the music of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, and bluegrass fiddlers. Monroe’s Bluegrass Breakdown and Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Backstep appealed to me because of their modal sounds. The former, in G Mixolydian mode, is the original bluegrass breakdown, with a haunting Old World melody. The latter is a mountain modal tune, in A Dorian, and I could hear what Bill Monroe loved to describe as “the ancient tones” in this traditional American music.

Back in the late 80s, I set out to learn ‘fiddle tunes’ and then later, just ‘tunes’ – moving outside breakdowns and into jigs, reels and hornpipes from Ireland, Scotland and England. An early tune was the Red Haired Boy played without a capo, and not relying on melodic or Keith-style banjo. I studied with Tony Trischka from 1985 to 1989, and it was Tony who got me to read music, my first tune being the Irish jig, The First Night in America from O’Neill’s Music of Ireland.

I used to visit Bill Keith and have marathon lessons over the course of a weekend, and I took on board his melodic approach to fiddle tunes. I also took notice of Béla’s version of The Wind that Shakes the Barley using a single-string approach and lots of triplets. I began to merge these styles while continuing to listen to Irish traditional musicians.

Tom Hanway with his signature SwallowTail Stelling banjo - photo by Vernon WebbThe turning point for me was when I began to listen to a lot of Irish recordings, and to a lot of ‘trad’ musicians at sessions, not focusing on just ‘fiddle tunes’ or 5-string banjo tunes. I began to get tunes and ornamentation ideas from uilleann pipers, whistle players, fiddlers, accordionists, harpers, tenor banjoists and even bodhrán players. I just immersed myself in it, and it was like a musical baptism.

I was never the same after I visited Willie Clancy Week in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, Ireland, back in 1993. I recorded over thirty cassettes of traditional music and I began hitting every session I could find in New York City.

In 1998 Mel Bay Publications published my Complete Book of Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo with 100 tunes from all six Celtic nations and the diaspora. In January 1999, Bluegrass Unlimited wrote:

What Earl Scruggs’ book did for bluegrass banjo Tom Hanway’s book may well do for the 5-string in Irish and Celtic music…. [This work] will certainly become regarded as ‘the bible’ for any 5-string player with an interest in this joyous music.

Today there are many approaches to playing traditional Irish and Celtic music on the 5-string.  With so many players who are playing traditional tunes, it’s really an exciting time to be developing and teaching Celtic fingerstyle  banjo, and I feel blessed to be doing it – watching it blossom on both sides of the Atlantic, across oceans and continents, even “down under” in Australia and New Zealand, and in vital parts of the Celtic diaspora.”

Easy Irish and Celtic Melodies For 5-String Banjo is designed for beginning and intermediate players with an interest in Irish folk music, or more skilled pickers new to this style.

More details on the book, including a list of tunes and a number of sample pages, can be found on the Mel Bay web site. It is offered for sale for $17.99.

Hanway returns to the US this summer to play concerts and perform at the 14th Annual Out Among the Stars (OATS) Festival, July 4-7 at the Benton Rodeo Grounds in Benton, PA. Tom Hanway and the Dirty Hands will perform Tom’s original tunes and songs, classic bluegrass, as well as traditional reels and hornpipes from Scotland, Ireland and Wales.  Hanway will also appear with Hilltown, closing the show on Saturday night.

He will also give an “Ancient Tones” workshop with traditional bluegrass and Irish musicians, playing Celtic tunes from both sides of the Atlantic, showing how these traditions are connected, and combining tunes in new and interesting ways.   The workshop will be recorded for a future instructional video.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.