Seán, a native of Dublin, grew up in a home steeped in the traditional music of Ireland. His parents were both traditional fiddlers and he began playing the fiddle at a young age.
He displayed his talents at an early age and was sent to the Dublin School of Music where he received classical training. However, after a number of years, traditional music began to take over his playing and he soon left the classical. He soon became one of the most talented young musicians in Ireland winning a score of awards including first place in the All-Ireland Championships and the prestigious Fiddler of Dooney competition, thus earning him the title of master fiddler.
His talents soon caught the eye of Seán Ó Riáda and he was invited in the mid 1960's to join Ceoltóirí Cualann to play fiddle alongside Martin Fay and John Kelly. He joined The Chieftains in 1968 upon invitation by Paddy Moloney and his first appearance with them was at the Edinburgh Folk Festival.
Besides his work with the Chieftains, he has also recorded a well received solo album, Seán Keane and a duet album with fellow Chieftain Matt Molloy on Contentment is Wealth. He has also recorded with Mick Moloney and his brother, James Keane, on the album Reel Away the Real World in 1980. He also joined his brother on his album, Sweeter as the Years Roll By in 1999, as they played with a number of younger artists in the Irish tradition including Seán's sons, Darach and Páraic.
Seán is best known for his fiery fiddle style and his style is often influenced by that of pipers, especially Willie Clancy and his first solo album Gusty's Frolics reflects a piper playing. Seán maintains the tradition of collecting fiddle tunes from throughout Ireland and takes the time to teach youngsters his incredible style on the fiddle.
The fiddle had evolved, or devolved from the violin, which itself had evolved from an earlier bowed instrument: the medieval fiddle. It is a beautifully made wooden box with curved sides, a neck and four strings that are pulled over a bridge. The hollow box amplifies the sound that is made when the strings vibrate over the bridge. The strings may be plucked or bowed. The box is often made of woods such as cherry and maple with and opening to resonate sound. The fiddle is held in the left hand and the box of the instrument rests on shoulder with a chin rest near the base of the box. The picture above shows the fiddle on Seán's shoulder with his face near the chin rest.
The bow is made out of a special wood that comes from Brazil called pernambuco. The other part of the bow is made out of the hair from a horse's tail. The horses that the hair comes from are hearty animals from a cold climate, so the hair is very tough and coarse. The musician uses rosin to help the hair grab the string. Rosin is a block of the sticky sap that comes from pine trees, formed into a round shape and sold at instrument shops along with strings.
The major differences between the fiddle and the violin is in how they are learned and how they are played. One learns to play the violin from trained teachers. The fiddle is typically learned from anyone or anyplace with a new tune. The violin is typically played a note at a time, while multiple strings and harmonies may be called into play on a fiddle. Fiddle playing is also influenced by the use of ornamentation and nuances to make a tune resemble other instruments or add texture to a tune. Seán's incredible playing often mimics the playing of pipes. Many Irish tunes are in the keys of A, D, C and G. There is also more emphasis on rhythmic and melodic than on harmonics and counterpoint as construed in western orchestral music. Another way to look at is a fiddle is that it is a violin with soul.
The tin whistle is a vertical fipple-flute. The fipple is the duct in the mouthpiece that directs air to produce sound. The first tin whistles of the 1800's were rolled plates of tin forming a tube, with a wooden block in the mouthpiece carved to form the fipple. Today's tin whistles are made of metals including nickel-silver, brass and aluminum. They have a range of two octaves, and are made in a wide range of keys.