by Jacob McCauley

Photos by Dan Henderson

The Contemporary

Bodhrán Player
side. In spite of that, amazingly, the bodhrán has the potential to create an incredible range of tonality and rhythm, similar to what you would hear with multiple drums. Although many people think the bodhrán is an ancient instrument, it isn’t. It’s a fairly recent addition to the traditional music scene. It actually wasn’t until the 1970s that it began to emerge as a popular instrument, when it was creatively utilized as a dynamic instrumental addition in up-andcoming traditional Irish bands, such as The Chieftains, Planxty, The Bothy Band and De Danann, who burst onto the traditional music scene and captivated the global musical audience with their experimental and innovative musical arrangements, pushing the boundaries of traditional music. The bodhrán began to emerge in public playing and sessions, at that time appearing in its earliest and most basic form: most commonly an 18” diameter skin with a thin 3” shell, braced with cross-bars. It is interesting to note that at this time, most players had very little knowledge about how to properly play the instrument. Naturally, at this point, it was a trial and error process (not always the most pleasant experience!), and the playing was extremely basic. In the early days, little or no backhand was used (many players would often hold the cross bars while playing) and the tipper techniques were fairly crude. One of the first positive influences would have been some of the first bodhrán players featured in the popular traditional groups at the time. In my opinion, the prime example of this would be the playing of Johnny ‘Ringo’ McDonagh of De Danann. Ringo was one of the first to showcase a groovy and tasteful way to play, while utilizing an effective wrist technique. He most certainly has been one of the most influential players thus far, and continues to be a huge influence today. One of the most controversial aspects of the bodhrán is the technique and what is considered the “proper” way to play. If we think of other common instruments and their associated techniques, we have a fairly clear image in our heads as to how we think they should be played. There is a common technique associated with playing them, although sometimes with some variations (a good example of this is the different stick holding techniques of the drum kit: the Matched grip, the Traditional grip, and the French grip). In my travels I have witnessed bodhrán players with countless ways of playing, but what is the “proper” technique? The lack of a commonly regarded proper technical approach to bodhrán playing is probably due to its relatively recent introduction to the world of traditional music. With an instrument as young as the bodhrán, it takes a substantial period of time before a proper technique evolves and is universally realized. In my younger years when learning to play, and absorbing different styles, I was influenced by many players, both traditional and contemporary. I went through many stages of learning and experimenting with new technical approaches, and I eventually came up with an effective overall technique that I wanted to apply to my own playing as well as teaching. To put it quite simply: be a minimalist! When you watch a drum kit master (especially jazz players) move around a kit, you don’t see a maniacal motion or an “arm flailing” movement, as I like to say. You see a controlled and precise approach that emanates from muscle memory and predictability. This is the same approach I learned to take with the bodhrán. From the time of being a young lad learning the bodhrán up until the present, I can clearly see that the motion of playing should come from the wrist, and not the arm.


hat comes to mind when you think of the bodhrán? An ancient goat-skinned Irish drum? A primitive frame drum? A noise-maker? Or perhaps a unique and intriguing instrument that you just don’t know enough about. It’s difficult to say what the average traditional music lover thinks of the bodhrán, especially as it has become an increasingly popular instrument in traditional music over the years.
The bodhrán has also, sadly, been much-maligned and misunderstood, often mistakenly considered an instrument that anyone can easily pick up and play without much instruction!

It’s probably safe to say that the collective knowledge of the bodhrán and its potential is somewhat foggy. When we think of percussion as a whole, we might imagine a vast array of various drums of all shapes and sizes. Leaving aside the debated origins of the bodhrán (it’s actually less than a century old, believe it or not!), it is essentially a frame drum with an attached animal skin (usually goat). However, it is the unique technique that truly highlights the bodhrán as the sophisticated instrument that it is. In comparison with the many other types of hand drums out there, the bodhrán is capable of much more dynamic variation and subtlety in its sound, utilizing a wooden stick, called a tipper, with one hand, and the other hand manipulating the tonal range on the skin. This sort of multi-tasking can be compared to other similar percussion instruments such as the tabla, conga and even the drum kit. However, there is one main difference; the bodhrán is only one drum with a skin on one

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I always had rhythms and grooves in my head, and some of the more complicated ones were impossible to put into practice without figuring out a way to conserve energy, and apply that energy where it is truly needed. To further explain the technique and my style of playing, it essentially involves holding the tipper approximately 3/4 at the top, and balancing the tipper between the thumb and index finger.   However, the tipper is not placed closer to the hand or lower down on the thumb/index finger (as is popular with many single-ended players).  The tipper is instead held much closer to fingertips, which results in what I call “fingertip control”.  The rest of the fingers lay gently on the tipper and are there essentially used for control and stability.  When quicker speeds are needed, the tipper is allowed to move on its own momentum, without being held back by the remaining fingers.  The tipper pivots between the thumb and index finger, while the other fingers lay relaxed until they are needed for control again.  All in all this is a very energy efficient way of playing and actually can make it easier to achieve some of the more difficult modern stylistic ornaments such as top-end rolls and doubledowns.  It also allows for more control when doing some of these more difficult ornaments, as it is extremely easy to gain control again by using the remaining fingers.

achieve a tonal change, I was intrigued by experimenting with a subtle hand pressure that allows the skin to resonate a tone when the tipper strikes the skin accordingly.  In effect you can make the drum sound larger and smaller by applying “broad tonal changes” using a flat hand sliding gracefully up and down the skin with the tipper striking the skin above the hand.  This creates a very smooth and rich melodic change that is much more precise and broad than a simple bending of the skin.

responsive skins and innovative compressor tuning systems. These innovations have helped players like me to improve upon their own playing by having an instrument that truly complements their own style.  One of his most recent innovations which I have had the honour to test over the last year is the TwinSkin (two differently treated skins combined to form one extremely responsive skin).  This type of innovation has perfectly suited my back-hand technique (as I have previously mentioned). It is a true example of how an improved instrument can in fact help the player to improve as well.  

an even weight throughout and thus a predictable feel no matter what you are playing.  This suits my style and technique perfectly as I rely on a constant feel and weight, especially to achieve the more intricate aspects of playing.

Example of a Brush Tipper The huge amount of modernisation and improvements in bodhrán technology have also helped the bodhrán break out of the traditional realm and begin to be featured in other genres of music. Throughout my own experiences of working with various artists over the years, I have been fortunate to work in several different genres such as Jazz, Pop, Rock, Experimental and World Music and even Metal. These experiences have taught me that even when playing a genre, or playing a type of groove that is not common or not yet possible on the bodhrán, with the time spent creating my style and technique as well as the advancements made in drums and tippers, it is entirely possible to do what was not possible before.

The Back Hand Lastly, another innovation that I have been working on over the last several years consists of a subtle finger-tip pressure which contacts pressure points on the skin to achieve a more precise tonal change. In actual fact you can map out the frequency response by applying a virtual grid across the skin showing where each pressure point lies. Although very effective, this technique requires an immense dedication to practice to achieve the necessary muscle memory. The ability to truly create melodic notes becomes possible, which greatly adds to the overall sound with a rhythmic and melodic component. As the technique and styles of the bodhrán continue to evolve, so does the construction of drums and tippers (we have certainly come a long way since the traditional 45 cm or 18” drum size and short bulky traditional tippers).   I have had the privilege over the last few years to work with a maker who is on the forefront of bodhrán technology. Christian Hedwitschak has introduced several new innovations over the last 10 years such as his new frame designs, incredibly

The Tuning System

Christian also works with a fantastic tipper maker named Stevie Moises and together Christian and Stevie have been responsible for coming up with some superb designs such as their new Hedrods, a series of newly designed hotrods (or “skewer tippers”), brush tippers and various wood tippers.

Holding the Tipper

Example of a Hot Rod Personally, I am a strong believer in the straight tipper design which consists of a symmetrical tipper typically around 24cm in length, 8mm diameter and most commonly has slightly rounded ends.   There of course can be variations of this, such as slightly tapered ends (starting from 2-3 cms at each end).  A good example of this is my two Signature tippers from Falconwood Tippers which are both made of Snakewood and are the previous lengths and designs mentioned (with the exception of version two having symmetrical tapered ends).  In my experience, a straight tipper is beneficial because you are given

Experimental Wood Tipper However, I believe that it is important that, no matter how many innovations are achieved in construction or playing, that the tradition of the music is not lost. Nevertheless, traditions always evolve, and so do the instruments that play the music. Contemporary traditional groups such the Scottish group Lau and the Irish group Flook (the playing of John Joe Kelly is a prime example of the bodhrán evolving with the music) have greatly influenced the evolution of traditional music by taking a more innovative and experimental approach. In addition to exploring various traditional and alternative The Living Tradition - Page 55

My back-hand technique is the other side of the equation, and was just as significant as creating the tipper-holding technique, because, just as I heard the grooves in my head, I likewise heard a melodic component.  As opposed to the more common method of bending the skin to

“...the collective knowledge of the bodhrán and its potential is somewhat foggy...”

Jacob McCauley is an award-winning bodhrán player based in Toronto, Canada and is an active recording musician, performer and touring artist, having played with many different groups of multiple genres around the world. He currently plays in the traditional trio NUA and is working on several other projects. Throughout his career he has performed and recorded with Irish band The Chieftains, Scottish band Lau, Quebec based Genticorum, 3 time All Ireland Champion Irish fiddler Maeve Donnelly, several time Canadian and US National Fiddle Champion Shane Cook, and 2 time Canadian Grand Masters Fiddle Champion Julie Fitzgerald. Christian Hedwitschak Stevie Moises Falconwood Tippers

musical genres, I also have recently collaborated with two close musical friends to form an exciting new group called NUA. Based in Toronto, Canada, NUA consists of fiddler James M Law, guitarist Graeme McGillivray and myself on bodhrán. Although we consider ourselves a traditional trio, with strong Scottish and Irish influences, we play many original compositions, in which we explore unique and catchy melodies and tasteful grooves. What gives our music its own distinctive flavour is the adventurous exploration of odd time signatures and polyrhythms, giving the music a lift and spontaneity. The close and tight interaction between the three of us is integral; each of us adds

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our own distinctive sound and influence to the music. Although we are a trio with a sole melody player, the multi-tasking abilities of each member comes through countless times with perhaps a guitar-driven flat-picked melody, rhythmic fiddle playing, or melodic bodhrán playing to add to the mix. The ability for each member to take on multiple roles is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the trio. In essence, what we have in NUA are three musicians who are all on an equal footing with the music. As opposed to the usual stereotype of the drummer in the background, the fiddle in the front, and the guitar off to the side, we simultaneously interact with each other, complementing each other musically and delivering a full

bodied sound, which you’d expect to hear with double the musicians. We recently released our first EP (full-length album to be launched in 2013) and I’m proud to say that this recording is an example of the bodhrán on an equal footing with other melody and rhythm instruments, emerging from the background into the forefront, not just a time-keeping rhythm instrument, but as an expressive instrument that speaks as powerfully melodically as it does rhythmically. After all is said and done, I think it’s just a matter of time before the true potential of the bodhrán will finally be recognized, as the remarkable, universal percussion instrument that it is.

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