One of the prominent voices on the mandolin in Irish music, Marla Fibish brings a musicality and excitement to the tradition that is not often heard on the mandolin.
Her dynamic playing is featured on the 2017 Noctambule release A Sweetish Tune,the 2010 recording with the band Three Mile Stone, and The Morning Star, a duo CD with Jimmy Crowley released in 2011, an all instrumental project that features Irish music on an array of mandolin-family instruments: mandolin, mandola, mandocello, bouzouki, and dordan.
In addition to the mandolin, Marla plays mandola, tenor guitar, and button accordion. She sings and writes music and is known for her musical settings of works from a variety of poets. This work is featured in her current duo project Noctambule, with guitarist and husband Bruce Victor. Their earlier releases include Travel in the Shadows in 2013 and The Waking in 2015.
An experienced and sought-after teacher, Marla teaches private students and classes, and has been a staff instructor at many music camps, including the Mandolin Symposium, the Swannanoa Gathering, California Coast Music Camp, Colorado Roots Music Camp, Lark Camp, Portal Irish Music Week, and O’Flaherty Irish Music Retreat. Her instructional DVD Irish Mandolin Basics: Tunes & Technique has been a popular self-learning tool, focused on acquiring the foundational technique for playing Irish music on the mandolin.
Download a PDF list of all the Irish Mandolin lessons so you can keep track of your progress.
Irish Mandolin Lessons
An Irish Mandolin subscription includes:
More than 35 in-depth Irish mandolin video lessons
Notation and tab for every tune
Technical and melodic exercises for both hands
More than 30 complete traditional Irish tunes: reels, jigs, slip jigs, slides, waltzes, and polkas
High-quality video with multiple camera angles so you can see closeups of both hands in action
New lessons added every month
Play-Along Tracks so you can practice what you’ve learned
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IRISH MANDOLIN BASICS In these introductory lessons, you’ll learn about the role of the mandolin in traditional Irish music, get an introduction to picking-hand technique, and get started with your first reel.
Irish Music on the Mandolin Marla talks about the role of the mandolin in Irish music, its evolution as a traditional Irish instrument, and her own approach to playing Irish music on the mandolin.
Marla’s 1922 Gibson A-Model Mandolin For over 35 years, Marla has played the 1922 Gibson A-model mandolin that she fondly recalls her grandfather playing in the 1960s and ‘70s, and it has become a key element of her musical voice.
Picking-Hand Technique Irish music is dance music, so creating a solid rhythmic feel is essential. Marla gets you started thinking about your picking-hand technique by explaining alternate picking (or “rhythmic picking”) and showing you a good basic picking motion for your picking hand. She talks about stressing the downstrokes to get the underlying rhythm for an Irish reel, and gives you a picking exercise for practicing putting a stress on the backbeat.
Introduction to Reels This lesson builds on the picking-hand exercises by introducing you to reel rhythm. You’ll learn a “broken thirds” scale exercise as well as the reel “Anything for John Joe,” a “half reel” or “single reel.”
IRISH REELS In these progressive lessons on playing reels, Marla introduces you to each tonality or scale used in Irish music.
Paddy’s Gone to France The first part of the Irish reel “Paddy’s Gone to France” is in the key of B minor, the relative minor of D. Marla explains how to use the D major scale to play in the key of B minor and talks about how it’s common for Irish tunes to mix the relative minor with its major counterpart.
The Man of the House There are many Irish tunes in the key of E minor, including “The Man of the House.” But in Irish music, E minor usually uses the notes of the D major scale starting on the E note, the E Dorian scale, which is, however, usually just called E minor in traditional Irish music. You’ll also learn a technique for playing the E at the second fret of the D string and the B at the second fret of the A string with the same finger, which Marla calls the “E minor squeeze.”
The Beauty Spot This reel uses another variant of the D scale often used in Irish music: the D Mixolydian scale, which flattens the seventh step of the scale, making the C# a C natural. Marla shows you the D Mixolydian scale and talks about the underlying harmonic structure of Mixolydian tunes.
The New Mown Meadow In this lesson, you’ll review the modes and scales you’ve learned so far before learning the G major scale, along with its companion modes, A Dorian, E (natural) minor, and D Mixolydian. Tnen you’ll learn a reel that bridges the gap between D Mixolydian and G major: “The New Mown Meadow.” Marla also gives you advice on some tricky fingering, including a “lean” where you lean your finger to play notes at the same fret on adjacent strings.
The Crooked Road “The Crooked Road,” sometimes called “The Crooked Road to Dublin,” is in the key of G major. You’ll start this lesson by learning some G major scale exercises, including a “broken thirds” exercise similar to the one you learned for the D scale.
The Dunmore Lasses The E minor reel “The Dunmore Lasses” uses the E natural minor scale, unlike the first E minor reel you learned, “The Man of the House,” which is in E Dorian. E natural minor has the same notes as the G major scale. You’ll also learn about some of the minor variations you’ll find in Irish tunes.
Sporting Paddy The popular Irish reel “Sporting Paddy” is in the key of A minor, or more specifically, A Dorian, another variant of the G major scale.
The Feel of the Reel In this video, Marla talks about the “feel” (also called “swing” or “lift” or “lilt”) of Irish reels, in which the downstrokes are a little longer than the upstrokes. You’ll learn how to do this by playing with a relaxed wrist, so that the upstroke is the “return” stroke of a weighted downstroke.
The Monaghan Twig So far, you’ve learned reels using all the modes in the G and D scales, except for one: A Mixolydian, which starts on the fifth step of the D scale. You’ll learn the A Mixolydian scale and a reel using that mode: “The Monaghan Twig.”
INTRODUCTION TO TRIPLETS Learn about adding Irish triplets to tunes using “The Monaghan Twig.” Marla talks about the technique of playing triplets with the pick, as well as where to put triplets in a tune and the rhythmic implications of the triplet. Then she shows you how to put triplets in “The Monaghan Twig,” including triplets played on one note and on a “moving” phrase with two notes. You’ll also learn how to add a percussive sound to the triplet by muting it slightly with your fretting hand.
PLAYING IN SEISIUNS AND CREATING SETS Learn the etiquette and traditions of playing in an Irish seisiún (pronounced the same as “session”), and creating “sets” of tunes. Marla talks about some common sets, how to be prepared for tunes to change within a set, and how to create your own sets. Then she plays the nine reels you’ve learned in three sets of three tunes, with play-along videos to help you practice changing tunes.
IRISH JIGS The jig is the other most popular dance rhythm in traditional Irish music. It has its own challenges and picking technique. The jigs you’ll learn here illustrate common melodic patterns used in Irish music, such as “overs,” “unders,” “stairsteps,” and “delays,” for which you’ll learn exercises to help you get used to the patterns.
Introduction to Jigs To get started playing jigs, Marla shows you the right-hand picking pattern (down-up-down, down-up down) she uses to play jigs, which are in 6/8 time. You’ll learn about the importance of accenting the first and third beats of the three-note patterns and learn a number of simple exercises that will help you practice the jig picking pattern so you can become comfortable with it before you start learning jig melodies.
My Darling Asleep The first jig you’ll learn, “My Darling Asleep,” uses broken thirds in part of its melody so you’ll start by learning another jig exercise that will be helpful in learning “My Darling Asleep.”
Donnybrook Fair The melody of the Irish jig “Donnybrook Fair” uses a melodic pattern Marla calls “unders,” in which the middle note in the trio of notes is the note “under” the first and third notes. Before learning the melody to “Donnybrook Fair,” you’ll learn a jig exercise that will help you as you learn the melody to “Donnybrook Fair.” “Donnybrook Fair” also includes some “overs,” phrases in which the middle note of the jig trio of notes is the note above the first and third notes. So you’ll learn an “overs” exercise as well.
The Lilting Banshee “The Lilting Banshee” is a very well known jig that should be familiar to musicians at any Irish seisiún. It uses a broken thirds pattern Marla calls “stairsteps,” so you’ll start with a broken thirds exercise before learning the melody to “The Lilting Banshee.” Marla also talks about how to vary a jig while not venturing too far from the melody, showing you how she varies a few three-note phrases in “The Lilting Banshee.”
The Gander in the Pratie Hole Before showing you the melody to “The Gander in the Pratie Hole,” a jig in the key of D Mixolydian, you’ll learn a jig exercise for “delays,” a melodic technique in which you get to the melody note an eighth note late.
Banish Misfortune The popular Irish jig “Banish Misfortune” is a good tune for working on keeping the jig rhythm moving even when the melody is a quarter note or dotted quarter note. Marla starts by giving you an exercise in which the middle note of the three-note jig rhythm is muted or stopped by a finger on your fretting hand. Once you have the basic melody, Marla gives you some ideas for playing different variations on the third part of “Banish Misfortune” that allow you to keep the jig rhythm going.
The Killavil Jig It’s in E minor, but “The Killavil Jig” doesn’t use a C or C#, so the scale is really a six-note (hexatonic) scale. It also uses the “E minor squeeze,” in which you flatten your index finger on the D and A strings at the second fret, so Marla gives you advice on getting clear notes with “the squeeze.”
SLIP JIGS Slip jigs are an important part of Irish dance music and are distinguished from “regular” jigs by their rhythmic pattern. They are in 9/8 time, as opposed to the 6/8 time used for double jigs.
Dever the Dancer “Dever the Dancer” is a good first slip jig to learn because the melody really emphasizes the 9/8 rhythm. Marla starts by explaining the slip jig rhythm and the feel of the three groups of three eighth notes, noting the slight secondary emphasis on the last group of three.
Hardiman the Fiddler The slip jig “Hardiman the Fiddler” is a good tune to work on playing triplets in jigs. You’ll learn the melody of both parts of “Hardiman the Fiddler” first, making sure you understand the picking and rhythm of the slip jig melody. Then Marla explains the difference between the two kinds of jig triplets: one that starts on a downstroke, and one that starts on an upstroke, before showing you how to play the triplet that starts on a downstroke in “Hardiman the Fiddler.”
The Humours of Derrycrossane You’ll learn to play “up triplets” on “The Humours of Derrycrossane” in this lesson. To play jig “up triplets” you start the triplet on the second beat of the jig rhythm, which is an upstroke.
A Fig for a Kiss Marla uses the beautiful E minor slip jig “A Fig for a Kiss” to demonstrate how to keep your pick in constant motion and how to alter a tune that has some awkward phrases. You’ll also learn some different ways to vary “A Fig for a Kiss,” including melodic variation, muting strings, and adding double stops and up-triplets.
The Foxhunter’s Jig This well-known slip jig has four parts and is in the key of D major. Marla uses it to show you how she uses double stops. After learning the tune, Marla shows you how to play the jig picking pattern on the D and A strings, to get used to playing two sets of strings at once with the jig rhythm, and then shows you how to drone the D and A strings on the first part of the tune by opening your pick stroke to play both sets of strings.
Margaret’s Waltz The lovely “Margaret’s Waltz” was composed in 1959 as an English country dance tune. Marla explains the waltz rhythm and how it differs from a jig and a reel, with a rhythmic pattern in the right hand more like a reel. The one and, two and, three and of the waltz is played down-up, down-up, down-up, with a continuous hand motion, just like in a reel. To get your hand moving in waltz rhythm, Marla gives you a series of exercises and then walks you through the melody of “Margaret’s Waltz” slowly, showing you some different ways to phrase the melody. Marla also shows you some ways to add double stops and drone strings to the melody of “Margaret’s Waltz.”
Mrs. Kenny’s Waltz This lovely three-part waltz in the key of D was recorded in the 1920s by Irish fiddler Michael Coleman when he was living in America, so it has some “American” influences. In addition to being a great waltz melody to play, it’s a good tune for working on playing triplets in waltzes. After showing the melody, Marla talks about adding triplets to waltzes, explaining that since your right hand plays waltzes much like it plays reels, triplets in waltzes will also be played as they are in reels. She also shows you how to add melodic variations, particularly to the descending quarter notes in the first part.
The Road to Lisdoonvarna Because of their unique rhythmic feel, slides can be tricky to play on the mandolin. Marla introduces you to slides with the popular tune “The Road to Lisdoonvarna,” explaining the differences between slides and jigs and how to get the feel of slides on the mandolin by adopting a picking-hand approach that is more like that of a reel than a slide. She also shows you how to think of the triplet phrases in slides as ornamentation rather than as essential parts of the melody in order to get the feel of the slide. You’ll learn two versions of the melody of “The Road to Lisdoonvarna” in this lesson: the “standard” melody played as a jig and the melody modified for the mandolin so you can play it with a slide feel and tempo.
Apple Blossom The slide “Apple Blossom” fits very nicely on the mandolin. It’s in the key of D, using a pentatonic scale, and the B part differs from the A by just a single note. Marla shows you how she would strip down the melody to its most basic form to get the pulse of the slide on the mandolin, and then how she would add triplets and double stops to fill it out a bit.
An Choisir The lovely B minor slide “An Choisir” translates as “The House Party” or “The Wedding Party” and it suits the mandolin quite nicely. Marla shows you the basic melody to both parts and then shows you how and where to add some triplets and some variations to the descending B part melody.
The Star Above the Garter The well-known slide “The Star Above the Garter” is good to know for playing in seisiúns. The melody has a lot of triplet phrases that you’ll need to modify slightly to be able to play it with a slide feel on the mandolin. Marla plays it as a slide and then shows you the melody as it might be written, with more jig-style triplets, and how she takes the middle notes out of the triplet phrases to be able to bring it up to slide tempo with the right rhythmic feel. Once you’ve learned the stripped-down melody, Marla shows you how you might add some triplets back in, to enhance the tune while preserving the feel of the slide.
Going to the Well for Water “Going to the Well for Water” can be played as a slide or a jig. Marla first learned it as a jig and in this lesson she’ll show you how to play it as a jig and then how to turn it into a slide by removing the middle note of the three-note jig phrases and then adding back in some triplets from the melody if they don’t cross strings.
PLAYING IN A DUO Marla is joined for this lesson on playing in a duo by Peghead Nation Irish Fiddle instructor Dale Russ. They start by playing two slip jigs, “Dever the Dancer” and “Hunting the Hare,” and then talk about how they each approach playing with another melody instrument.
Introduction to Polkas In this introduction to the Irish polka, Marla gives you some background on how the polka found its way to Ireland as well as how to get the feel of the polka on the mandolin. Polkas have fewer notes than reels or hornpipes but they have a distinctive lift and drive with an emphasis on the upbeat that makes them fun to play. Marla shows you her right-hand picking pattern for polkas and how she sometimes simplifies some of the melodic details in order to maintain the the lift of the polka on the mandolin. You’ll also learn “Charlie Harris’s Polka.” After walking you through the melody Marla shows you how the polka picking pattern works with the melody and how to give it a polka “lift” when you bring the melody up speed.
The Little Diamond Polka If you’ve got the basic polka picking style from the Introduction to Polkas lesson, Marla shows you how to add some ornamentation to polkas using “The Little Diamond Polka,” which is in the key of D. Marla starts by showing you the basic melody to both parts and then shows you how to add triplets to “The Little Diamond Polka”. In most cases the triplets you’ll want to add start on an upstroke.
The Ballydesmond Polka No. 1 There are three “Ballydesmond Polkas” that are often played together. In this lesson you'll learn “The Ballydesmond Polka No. 1,” which is in the key of A minor (A Dorian). Marla shows you a bare-bones version of the tune, omitting some of the quick melodic lines that would make it difficult to play on the mandolin. Then she shows you some ways she fills out the basic structure of the “The Ballydesmond Polka No. 1,” including double stops, off-beat accents, and triplets.
The New Roundabout The polka “The New Roundabout,” which was written by County Cork accordion player Dave Hennessy, is played in A and/or D, so you’ll learn it in both keys. The melody has a limited range and can be played in two octaves in the key of D on the mandolin. Marla also puts three of the polkas together in a set so you can practice transitioning between the polkas “The Little Diamond,” “Ballydesmond Polka No. 1,” and “The New Roundabout.”
Whelan’s Jig “Whelan’s Jig” is a beautiful E minor jig and it makes a good set with a couple of jigs you’ve already learned, “Donnybrook Fair” and “The Gander in the Pratie Hole.” It uses the famous “E minor squeeze” so before she shows you the melody, Marla gives you advice on positioning your hand and fingers to play the “squeeze” as efficiently as possible.
The Black Rogue The jig “The Black Rogue,” which is in the key of D, has a lovely, off-center feeling because it doesn’t start on the D. In addition to learning “The Black Rogue” in this lesson, Marla shows you how to create a set with it and two other jigs you already know: “The Killaval Jig” and “Banish Misfortune.”
O'CAROLAN TUNES The blind Irish harper and composer Turlough O’Carolan was born in 1670 and died in 1738. His music is a combination of Irish folk music and the Baroque music of the time, and many of his tunes are played by Irish traditional musicians today.
Planxty Hewlett “Planxty Hewlett,” sometimes just called “Hewlett,” was recorded by the Irish group Planxty in the 1970s and has become one of O’Carolan’s more popular tunes. It’s in 3/4 time in the key of D, and like a lot of O’Carolan tunes has a short (eight-bar) first part and longer (in this case, 16 bars) second part. After showing you the melody, Marla shows you how to flesh out “Planxty Hewlett” with double stops, drones, ornaments, and melodic variations. She also shows you some of the harmonic ideas often used to accompany “Planxty Hewlett” and how you might incorporate those into your playing.
O’Carolan’s Draught “O’Carolan’s Draught” is one of O’Carolan’s most popular tunes. It has a hornpipe-like feel and combines Irish folk and Baroque sounds. Like many O’Carolan tunes, the second part is longer (in this case twice as long) than the first part. It includes a tricky signature section in which you alternate fretted B notes on the A string with a descending melody on the E string.
Princess Royal It’s unclear whether O’Carolan wrote the set dance “Princess Royal” but it’s a beautiful and popular tune in the key of A minor, and the melody uses both the Aeolian and Dorian modes. Marla explains what set dances are and then walks you through the melody of “Princess Royal.” She also gives you ideas for chords you could use to accompany the tune and shows you some open-string drones and double stops you can add to the basic melody.
IRISH MANDOLIN ACCOMPANIMENT
Accompaniment in G: “The Ballintore Fancy” This lesson begins a series of lessons on accompanying Irish tunes on the mandolin. You’ll learn a tune and some variations as well as how to accompany it and tunes like it. “The Ballintore Fancy” is a two-part half reel in the key of G. Marla walks you through the melody as well as some variations, and then shows you her approach to acccompaniment, which is based on arpeggios and crosspicked partial chords. To do this, you need to know where the notes of the chord are, so she starts by showing you where all the notes of a G chord are in first position and gives you ideas on combining them. She also shows you arpeggios for the other chords you’ll use in the key of G: C, D, Em, Am, and Bm, and then shows you how she accompanies “The Ballintore Fancy.”
Accompaniment in A Minor: “Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine” In this lesson you’ll learn to accompany tunes in the key of A minor, using the march “Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine.” Marla starts by showing you the melody of “Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine” as well as some variations and ornamentation. Then she talks about her approach to accompaniment in the key of A minor, or A Dorian. The main chords in A Dorian are Am and G major, but you’ll also use the relatives of those, the relative major of A minor (C) and the relative minor of G (Em). Marla also shows you how to use the F and D major chords as substitutions.
Accompaniment in D: “Hawthorne Hedge” Marla uses the jig “Hawthorne Hedge” to show you how to accompany tunes in the key of D. After showing you the basic melody of both parts, including some subtle variations, she shows you her approach to accompaniment in the key of D. In the key of D you’ll use the three major chords, D, G, and A, as well as their relative minors, Bm, Em, and F#m.
MORE TUNES AND VARIATIONS
Lafferty’s The E minor reel “Lafferty’s” was composed by Sean Ryan (who called the tune “The Glen of Aherlow”). In addition to showing you the basic melody, Marla spends a lot of time showing you the kinds of melodic variations, ornamentation, and double stops you can play on “Lafferty’s.