Michael McCague is a guitar and bouzouki player from County Monaghan. He’s played with a variety of outstanding traditional musicians over the years, including as part of both At First Light and At The Racket.
He plays a weekly session in Tigh Coili in Galway and has just finished recording an album with Hugh Healy, a concertina player from Corofin in Clare, which will be out in the next few weeks.
Michael has produced Alison’s Traditional Irish Guitar Courses and shared his passion for both the genre and the instrument with the Alison Blog.
Hi Michael, tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Michael McCague and I’m from a small village in north County Monaghan called Scotstown. I play traditional accompaniment on the guitar and bouzouki.
My parents started me and my siblings on traditional music lessons to give us an outlet and a hobby. I first started playing by learning tin whistle at the local Comhaltas group. Then when I was about 6 or 7 I started going for lessons on the fiddle. I took up banjo for a few years later but never really took to it.
I took a bit of a break from playing music and then, when I was 16, in Transition Year, I remembered my cousin had this instrument with a funny sounding name and it turned out to be the bouzouki. He happened to be getting a new one so I bought his old one, and that’s how I started accompanying. He showed me a few chords and then I used to call round to him whenever he was home from university and he’d show me a few things and we’d listen to albums and try out different things.
How did you get into playing the guitar?
It really wasn’t until I got to college that I took up guitar. There was a guitar sitting around in the house I was renting so I used to pick it up and play a bit. I taught myself through translating my knowledge of bouzouki accompaniment and also from listening to records and playing in sessions. I knew a lot on the bouzouki by then in terms of chords and harmony and what chord progressions worked well for traditional music. I really just had to translate it onto guitar.
How did your music career progress after college?
I really wasn’t playing guitar that long when I started playing with a band called At The Racket. I had finished college and I used to play the odd session with Brian McGrath, who was the piano and banjo player in the band. He’s highly accomplished and much sought-after both as an accompanist and as a banjo player. He asked me to play a few gigs with them and that basically turned into me joining the band. So I started playing with them we’ve played a lot of traditional festivals and arts venues around Ireland and the UK.
What’s different about the guitar in Irish traditional music?
With the guitar, you have standard classical tuning or folk tuning, which is a tuning that lends itself to traditional music. You take the bass string and you tune it down from an E to a D. We call it Dropped D tuning.
DADGAD [named after the notes the strings are tuned to] is another traditional tuning for guitar. With DADGAD you have a potential for the notes to ring out more and have more sustain than with Dropped D, so there’s a looser sound to DADGAD and a tighter sound to Dropped D.
How did the guitar become integrated into traditional Irish music?
The guitar was being used in traditional Irish music as early as the 20s and 30s in recordings in New York but really it took off with the folk boom in the 60s. Paul Brady was an early forerunner. He was the first person to start playing Dropped D tuning. Arty McGlynn was another early exponent. Then you had people like Mícheál Ó Domhnaill who was one of the early DADGAD players. Though it’s still not a mainstream instrument, the guitar is engrained into Irish music now, primarily in an accompanist rhythm role.
Why do you love Irish music?
I would have considered myself quite shy when I was younger and traditional music really brought me out of my shell. It’s a great way to get out and about and meet people and develop your personality. It’s a very open and accepting community to play music in.
Traditional music is informal and it’s a simple music in some ways. It’s not very complex in terms of moving through keys and modulations, like jazz or classical music. But it’s got very involved melodies and you have to be very aware of different people’s styles and be fit to adapt and join in in sessions, whether you’re a melody player or an accompanist.
While it’s not very complex harmonically, it’s very melodic music. It’s an aural and an oral tradition and there are lots of different ways tunes can move and that’s so much scope for variation. That’s where the challenges in Irish music lie. There’s great freedom in it that way.
Why would you encourage others to learn your instrument?
Playing traditional guitar is fulfilling because you’re providing a really interesting backdrop to the melody players. Sometimes players might be nervous so you have to provide them with a steady rhythm to give them safety and comfort. And then sometimes you might give them a jolt, and provide them with ideas or a jumpstart. You’re providing them with support and also inspiration with the different variations in rhythm or chords that you play, so there’s a reward in bringing out a lot of stuff that’s inherent but subtle in the music.
And it’s a challenge too because there’s no set template for chords in Irish music. It’s not like pop music where the melody is written and then the chords are charted out. In traditional music the tunes are written or handed down and you just have to find a way to provide the harmony or the chords. It’s a totally open template so there’s great freedom in that but also great challenges in how you establish what your chords are and what your arrangement is. You’ve got a lot of freedom with Irish music.
Why would you recommend learning Irish music to people?
There’s a good community of people in Irish traditional music. They’re very non-judgemental.
There are also lots of different instruments to try out and you don’t have to have a specific role in the music. You don’t really have lead or backup. At a session, you can play along with lots of different melody players so if you’re not quite sure of yourself, there’ll always be stronger melody players there who can keep the melody going if you’re only starting to learn. It’s a very welcoming music and it’s not too complex or daunting.
It can be quite hard to get involved in some music genres, unless you start your own band. But with Irish music you can always go and join a local session group. It’s a living music.