Ace Bodhrans by Mance Grady
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Mance Grady - musician craftsman teacherCeltic PercussionistTop Quality BodhransBodhrán Instruction by N.E.A. sanctioned Master Player



• In the Press •

Celtic Beat - Vol. 7 No. 6 Equinox 2000
Dedicated to Traditional and Progressive Celtic Music
re-printed with permission

Mance Grady has a rich background. Musical artist, entrepreneur and artisan, he has been a member of Pendragon, Murphy's Law, Nee Ningy Band, and The Erinoids, and notable as a bodhran player who is also a bodhran maker.

Jim Fisher interviewed this Celtic Renaissance man for Celtic Beat.


C.B.: Can you start with a thumbnail of your musical biography.

Mance: I lived in Blackstone, Massachusetts and was fortunate to grow up in a house with music. There was a piano in the house, my mother played accordion and I was introduced to both instruments at an early age. I showed an interest in drums when I was 12 1/2 years old and my mother encouraged me to pursue my passion.

I studied Classical and Big Band percussion - my intention to make it my career. I took drum lessons for five years from Mr. Walter Tokarczyk of the Boston Pops Orchestra. After a couple more years though, family responsibilities prevented me from playing the drum set altogether.

In the mid-70's, a friend of mine who played penny whistle came over to my house with a ten inch plastic tambourine and a double-ended stick he had fashioned and said, "This is sort of like an Irish drum. If you can play this, we can play tunes together." The bodhrán intrigued me. Here's a part of my heritage I hadn't been aware of, and being a percussionist, it just all fit together. So, I started to research the drum and the music, and looked to see what bands were around. I found myself gravitating toward Newport and Boston because there was a fairly large contingent of Irish people there along with Irish music. I would go to listen to groups that were passing through. Did they have a drum? What did it look like? How was it being played? I never really formally had instruction on it though. I just watched from afar.

Since I was used to playing quality drums in the past, I knew what I wanted. There were very few companies making bodhráns back then and I really wasn't satisfied with the quality of them so I decided to take a crack at making my own. I went to a flea market, picked up a tenor marching drum and cut the shell in half. My first "bodhrán" didn't sound like a real Irish drum so I carefully researched how things were done, speaking to some woodworkers, etc. Once I began manufacturing drums for myself, I was also playing. I did some busking with some friends of mine, Otis Thomas and his wife Deani. I played mostly in Providence, Boston, and Newport. Around 1978, I joined the Nee Ningy Band, a progressive folk group where I got to use the bodhrán, bones, as well as bells, maracas, Cajun triangle, a conga-like hand drum, and marching snare drum in everything from Cajun to blues to medieval and Irish music. We moved to Durham, North Carolina and went on the road for about three years. While on the road we got to open for Clannad, playing with them, De Dannan, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Doc Watson and many others. That's when I first met Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh, a friend and an exceptional bodhrán player.

It was when my grandfather died, however, that I moved to Rhode Island to be near my family. I became a founding member of the Providence Ceili Band and joined The Erinoids, a band that was on the cutting edge of Celtic Fusion. By the mid-80's, we had added congas, bongos and any other percussion that felt appropriate to the music. I've been associated with quite a few bands, guested on numerous recordings, and have been involved in theater and dance projects.

Lately, I've been gathering all this info together as part of updating my web site ( It's been an interesting and diverse carreer in music covering almost forty years now. One of my favorite gigs was in the early 1980's at the Esplanade in Boston, Massachusetts. It was my birthday and I performed with Mick Moloney on banjo, guitar and vocals, Séamus Connolly on fiddle, Jerry O'Sullivan on pipes, and Mike (Skip) McKinley on flute. It was a great time. Lot's of great tunes and loads of fun.


C.B.: When did you begin to include Latin percussion and how much did it influence your bodhrán playing?

Mance: I think what influenced my style the most as a bodhrán player was both my Classical and Big Band training which emphasized "dynamics" and "control." I'm also not just accompanying with rhythm. I strive to texture the phrases and match the lines of the melody, complimenting it with the various tonal qualities of the drum. That's one unique feature which I feel really makes my bodhrán accompaniment stand out. Not only for its use in Irish traditional music, but other genres as well. While my interest in Latin percussion and rhythms didn't influence my bodhrán playing very much, it did provide another means to texture the music. The Erinoids were a perfect medium with which to try new things, and the congas and bongos fit extremely well with the heavy electric sound. We were amongst the forerunners of the Celtic Fusion scene on the east coast, inspired by the more widely known Moving Hearts. The Erinoids were a band that could have gone big time, but didn't because of separate interests.

The one thing I really envy about the Latin percussionists is the overall appreciation and camaraderie they seem to enjoy amongst themselves and the melody players. That's one thing I'd personally like to see more of in the traditional Irish circles in respect to the bodhrán.


C.B.: What is your perspective on instrumentation in Irish music?

Mance: There seems to be sect of people who are trying to create the "holy book" of correctness. What is the "proper" instrumentation? What tunes are acceptable? Who's allowed to participate? To me these people are becoming very anal retentive about something that was once fun and should remain so. As to instrumentation, it's a personal choice. I'm all for keeping things open for experimentation.


C.B.: What is your definition of an ideal session?

Mance: I've been in sessions where the caliber of musicianship is very high and the tunes are high-energy all night long, which I love. I've also been to sessions were the musicians are obviously still learning tunes and the energy level is considerably lower, but this kind of session is necessary to continue the tradition through the fledgling musicians. An ideal session is one with good communication between everyone. Whether it's the more experienced players in the core group, or the less experienced musicians that sit sometimes on the outer perimeter of the circle. There has to be some coherence to the playing to make it a positive experience. And you can't forget the singers. It's a delicate balance, and sometimes impossible to please everyone. For those beginning, sit back and get to know the tunes and the players. Be conscious of who's who, and considerate of the musicians who've laid the groundwork for you.


C.B.: How about session etiquette for multiple percussionists?

Mance: Without proper communication and cooperation between the percussionists, it can be hell on earth. And that certainly doesn't help the general regard of percussionists by the other musicians. There are a lot of people that say the bodhrán does not belong. I think what doesn't belong is someone who doesn't know how to play their instrument - bodhrán or otherwise. When you have communication and cooperation happening, it can really bring a lift to the music. You really have to be aware of your level of proficiency and those around you, giving respect where it's due. It can be a real challenge if you run into one of those people who doesn't make eye contact with you, much less talk to you - and all they do is bang on the drum tune after tune after tune. It really brings down the session. That presents an obstacle to session leaders. Some who are selfless and very supportive of the music try to make it work as best they can, and I've seen the other end of the spectrum where there might as well have been a sign saying "No bodhránists Need Apply" much like the signs of an earlier era that stated "No Irish Need Apply." The bodhrán is indigenous to Ireland, and is here to stay.


C.B.: What recommendations would you make for drum selection.

Mance: Preferably a bodhrán that doesn't need a shave and deodorant so you can take it out in public. Seriously, in regards to buying a drum, there are two ways of looking at it. I always maintain that if you invest in a good, quality instrument, you're going to be able to get the tones and response happening, which is only going to satisfy you musically and you'll want to continue to play. If you do decide it isn't the instrument for you, you can turn around and sell it and get most or all of your money back.

On the other hand, some people only want to spend $50-60 on a cheap instrument just to try it out. The downside to this plan is that they're never going to get the tones and response of a quality bodhrán. Therefore, they're not going to be satisfied with their own skills. It's like buying a 12-string guitar and only having 2 strings on it. It's just not going to work. And if they do decide to go buy the professional quality bodhrán later on, the money spent on the cheap drum is pretty much thrown away.

I've been making bodhráns for over 25 years. I began making them for myself, and started selling them to others who saw me in performance and loved the sound of my drums. I've seen bodhráns from a great many makers over the years and I simply haven't found anything that sounds better than mine.

But, I always believe in educating prospective customers to the drum. When I talk with them, I just don't tell them my bodhráns are the best, I tell them why. You know the saying, "An educated consumer is our best customer." Then it's up to them. Why be a lemming relying solely on "endorsements." Most people don't realize that some endorsements are purely a business relationship (i.e. give me a drum (or gig) and I'll talk you up). Just be wary of them.

As a rule, I would avoid anything with crosspieces - they just get in the way. Some people prefer to play with an open back (make sure you have a good chiropractor), but a single post in the back can be handy to use as leverage when applying pressure to the skin.

Check the skin by holding the drum up to the light - it should look even. Avoid ones with thin spots. That is not to say that a thick skin is always a good thing. For example, a thick skin on a 14 inch drum will not give you good tonality. You will be better off with a thick skin on a 16 inch or 18 inch drum.

The skin should not have an overly pungent odor. Most of the better makers will use a double row of tacks (a tip I got from Johnny McDonagh years ago). I've also heard a lot of complaints from people who own bodhráns that still have hair on the edge (mine don't) - namely that the bristles are picky and irritate their skin and catch on clothing.

The tipper should be hard wood and should be comfortable. A light tipper on a thick skin won't give you the tonality. A light tipper on a small drum with a thinner skin may be adequate.

Lot's of people like the idea of going to Ireland to purchase a bodhrán. There are some good makers over there, but beware of the "tourist" model bodhráns. Educate yourself, do your research, know what to look for and what to look out for. Learn how to recognize what a quality instrument should look like and sound like. And, by the way, a bodhrán has as much chance of being "pre-tuned at the factory" as a guitar or fiddle. That's nonsense - the skin reacts to its surroundings and will not stay in "tune" forever. In other words, don't buy into that marketing ploy. Use common sense.


C.B.: If someone wanted to learn how to play, how would you advise them to go about learning how to play the bodhrán?

Mance: Just because it's a drum doesn't mean it's an easy instrument to play. If you're interested in learning how to play the bodhrán, find a good, qualified teacher. A good measure to use is someone sanctioned by a folk or Irish arts agency. They usually prequalify artists on their rosters, doing the work for you. Check with your local Comhaltas or Hibernian organization. Get references. Check credentials. Having bad instruction can be as bad as learning on your own, especially if you've had no experience or background in percussion.

And do not rush into a session if you don't have a handle on what you're doing. You'd just be doing yourself, the session, and other bodhrán players a disservice.The bottom line is, if you're a bodhrán player and don't know how to play, you will sound terrible just as you would sound terrible if you were a fiddler or flute player and you didn't know how to play. None of them belong playing in the circle until they are proficient.


C.B.: What about teaching videos?

Mance: There are quite a few videos available. Some, like my first one, are geared for the beginner. An advantage of my video is the fact that much of it was shot in the viewer's perspective (over my right shoulder) - which makes it a lot easier to understand what the player's relationship is towards his drum. I am planning on releasing additional instructional videos to help the intermediate and advanced players as soon as my schedule permits. Nothing really replaces having good personal one-on-one instruction with a qualified teacher.


C.B.: The original playing of the bodhrán has been lost in history. Its use was reinvented in modern times and shifted from a ceremonial use to a musical use. What are your thoughts on that?

Mance: Even though the bodhrán has counterparts in cultures all over the world, it is unique in how it is played. I don't think there is any percussion instrument as versatile or capable of such expression as the bodhrán. While I have a great deal of respect and gratitude to the earlier pioneers, I am focused on the future of the bodhrán. I do believe we've only just begun to see what the bodhrán can do. I envision its use in other musics will continue to expand and flourish. Its use will not be lost like it almost was.



C.B.: Who defines who the best drummers are, and how did you receive your recognition as a "Master Bodhrán Player."

Mance: Who the best drummers are is very subjective since you also have to acknowledge that there are different styles of bodhrán playing as with other instruments. Who determines it? Just think about it. How do you know who's out there? Usually it's who's on tour, who's playing at what festival, who's teaching at what workshop, who's on what album - namely "exposure." If you've never heard a player, how can you compare them to those you have? My advise to players is not to try to "beat" another player, but to challenge yourself.

I frankly don't have a lot of use for titles. Never the less, I can't deny that they do open doors. It is a fact of life as far as marketing is concerned. After extensive research, it was found out that I was the first person in the U.S. to be recognized as a Master bodhrán Player through the N.E.A. Around the mid-1980's, I received National Endowment for the Arts funding through RISCA's Master/ Apprenticeship Program. They have pretty strict guidelines, so it's an honor I don't take too lightly. Basically, I was at the point where I had made a mark for myself, having just finished my time with the Nee Ningy Band, which was a force to be reckoned with, being the vanguards of traditional music, playing the whole east coast and written up in Time Magazine. The Erinoids were making an impact on the trad fusion scene in and around the east coast, even touring Chicago in 1985. And if you looked around, you would find me playing with Kevin Burke, Séamus Connolly, or other artists of that stature. They recognized that I was committed to my craft, in demand, working for the community, working for the music, working for the instrument, and working for my heritage. The Master/Apprenticeship program is great for those students who want the intensive study but wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it. I'm very proud that I could help these people advance themselves on the bodhrán, which in essence advances the bodhrán.


C.B.: I've heard you play, I've seen and heard the quality of your bodhráns - I'm just surprised I don't see you out there more, on stage or heading workshops. Why?

Mance: It's not through my choice. I love to perform, and I'm obviously more than qualified to teach. I know it's not some big conspiracy against me, personally. It has more to do with being on the "inside." A lot of people are asking, "What can you do for me?" The music biz is like any other business. Networking, connections, money - they all mean something and oftentimes take precedent over the music and determines who plays and doesn't play. When you see the same people teaching year after year after year, you need to ask yourself, "Why?" I like to ask "Why not invite different bodhrán teachers to give the students new perspectives like they do with other instruments?" Only the festival and workshop organizers can answer that, and perhaps more people should be asking them. I know from my own experience as a teacher, I advise my own students to go out and listen to as many other bodhrán players as possible. It is only going to help them hear what's out there as far as playing styles, so they can enlighten themselves and become stronger, more versatile players. I hope that if I accomplish anything, it is to get people to think for themselves and not just go with the flow. I am holding workshops and performing (I just did the Tall Ships in Connecticut with the group The Executive Session) and I'll be heading into the studio as a guest artist in August, as well as playing at concerts and weddings. I'm also considering starting a new band where the percussion and rhythm will be prominent, tastefully of course. Plus there are many other things in the works.



C.B.: How would you sum up the whole music scene, specifically to bodhrán playing.

Mance: I think there is a lot of wonderful music to be had. Even so, there are a lot of people who are still a bit stiff and need to be less judgmental. I realize everyone has a right to an opinion, although I've noticed that many of those who criticize how drummers play often don't play bodhrán themselves. I think the one thing I am most often noted for is my seriousness in regards to the bodhrán. I'm not the kind of player who's going to act the clown. Maybe it's my Classical background, but I don't personally think I'd be helping the advancement of the bodhrán if I acted less like a professional and more like a "funny man." It's just not me. Don't get me wrong, all my friends will tell you I'm all for having a good time. But the bodhrán means a lot to me. When I play, my focus is on the performance and how to make it the best it can possibly be. I think that potentially, there is a great deal of magic in the music out there. There is an audience that wants to hear the drum and they won't be denied. I think a lot of the audiences are more intuitive than many of the musicians. If you take a four piece band (flute, accordion, fiddle and guitar) that plays a 45 minute set and then brings out a bodhrán player towards the end, you can watch the crowd go nuts. Everyone becomes connected. The question you need to ask yourself is, "Why was the bodhrán not out there the rest of the time?" The bodhrán is an important part of Irish culture and music, and it does belong.




Note: For more info on Mance, his bodhráns, and recordings, visit his web site at: or he can be reached at (401) 333-2293 (EST)

Jim Fisher

Copyright ©1998-2002 Robert "Mance" Grady, Last modified: 13 August, 2001
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