Michael Gaffney

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Michael Gaffney can be considered one of the great innovators in traditional Irish music. His recordings on the tenor banjo were apparently the absolute first case of such jigs and reels being played…
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Michael Gaffney can be considered one of the great innovators in traditional Irish music. His recordings on the tenor banjo were apparently the absolute first case of such jigs and reels being played on that instrument. This four-string version of the banjo, lacking the mysterious and perhaps even obnoxious high drone string associated with Appalachia and the five-string, eventually became so accepted into the music of Ireland that many listeners assume an involvement that goes all the way back to the mother country's rolling green hills and quaint local taverns. But it was Gaffney, transplanted into the filthy urban environment of New York City in the '20s, who thought of utilizing an instrument that at the time was incredibly rare in Ireland itself.

His first performing partner of note was flutist John McKenna; their engagements were typically Irish dances and weddings but soon included many recording sessions. The actual industry of Irish music on record grew out of what producers created in New York in the '20s; by the '30s, the audience for these sides included the little Irish isles, not to mention all the rest of Europe, and commercial prospects were impressive. One thing the old-school Irish performers did have in common with Appalachian music was the legendary virtuosity of players. Besides the banjo, Gaffney burned on piano, fiddle, flute, and accordion. In addition he brought the unique mandolin-banjo into Irish music, once again finding a sympathetic instrumental voice in a hybrid axe that is also called the banjolin or mando-Joe. Modern players attempting to cop Gaffney's licks should be advised that these really ancient tenor banjoists tune the first string up as high as B or C.