Celtic Guitar Masterclass | What is Celtic Guitar?

What is Celtic Guitar?

I get asked this question alot.  I will hand someone my cd, or tell them i am a musician, and usually the next question is “what kind of music to you play”.  I usually respond, “celtic guitar” then have to follow it up with a lengthy explanation.  Obviously its a different thing than just saying jazz, blues, or rock n roll.  So i will try to explain what celtic guitar is and talk about a few examples.

To me, celtic guitar is music from the celtic countries played on the guitar.  Pretty simple.  That could be music from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Galecia, or Cape Breton. This could be a traditional tune that is hundreds of years old, or a new tune that someone wrote last week.  I think as long as it has the lilt, rhythm, and feel of the music than it is celtic.  This is not limited to instrumental music, songs would count as well.

Celtic music played on guitar is either fingerpicked or strummed/picked with a flatpick. What i do most of the time is referred to as “celtic fingerstyle guitar” in guitar circles.  All this means is that i am playing tunes in a fingerpicking style, usually playing a bass line or chordal part along with the melody. Other more famous players that fall into this genre are Tony Mcmanus, Steve Baughman, Robin Bullock, Al Petteway, Randal Bays, and the late Tony Cuffe, to name a few.  To the best of my knowledge Tony Cuffe was one of the first folks to start fingerpicking traditional celtic music, and many list him as a big influence.

Playing celtic tunes fingerstyle often requires a few different techniques to emulate the lilt and rhythm of the music that is often easier expressed on fiddle, flute, or pipes.  Alternating thumb or travis picking does not work well on the faster tunes.  Trying to play the melodies classical guitar style often results in things sounding clunky or stacatto. Various players have come up with different techniques such as the Middle Finger Thwack, playing notes on alternate strings, and banjo style frailing to more efforlessly render melodies with the picking hand. Steve Baughman’s excellent book, The Celtic Guitar Method, delves into this and other techniques.  His celtic fingerstyle guitar dvd is also a good place to learn a handful of these picking hand patterns.

The other way celtic music is played on guitar is with a flatpick.  Most player either flatpick fiddle tunes note or note, which is quite a feat, as well as use the flatpick for rhythmic backup. Artiie Mcglynn was one of the first players to demonstrate that the speedy fiddle tunes could be rendered equally as well on guitar.  Some other players that are quite amazing flatpickers are Tony Mcmanus, John Doyle, Robin Bullock, Seamus Egan, and Donal Clancy, just to name a few. Folks playing celtic tunes with a flatpick will often use rolls, triplets, strikes, and cranns to imitate the ornaments of the traditional instruments like the fiddle and flute. Its generally easier to play faster with flatpick than with your fingers, though Tony Mcmanus might beg to differ.  Hearing a good player up to speed at a session is quite a feat.

Guitar also plays a role in celtic music as a rhythmic instrument.  In a ensemble situation this is most likely the role that the guitar will fill.  To me, celtic rhythmic backup is pretty fascinating, and an art unto itself.  Its kind of the opposite from bluegrass, where the chords are fixed and the melody changes depending on the player.  In celtic music the melody is fixed and its up to the guitar player to vary the chords, voicings, and rhythm to keep things interesting.  Celtic backup players will often, (though not always) use a lighter pick, for a snappier sound, as they are generally not playing alot of bass runs. A variety of tunings are often used, from standard, to DADGAD, to CGDGCD, and beyond. Backing up celtic tunes can involve a variety of styles, from minimalist to rhythmic powerhouse.  Take Dennis Cahill, who generally plays very sparsely, often only changing one or two notes in the chord to fit the melody. On the other end of the spectrum you have someone like John Doyle, who backs the band with a strong drive, and is clearly in the forefront.  I like both styles, it just depends on the context, and more importantly, the melody player you are backing.

So there you have it, a brief summary on the world that is celtic guitar.  Check out some of the players and styles i mentioned, listen alot, and then try to incorporate some of their sounds and approaches into your own playing.

Anton Emery

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