There is arguably no more demanding test of a guitar’s quality than putting it in the hands of a skilled Celtic player, and following along with your imagination in tow. A fine instrument in the right hands will evoke sounds that blur the lines between string and wind instruments, drawing forth bowed, plucked, and percussive sounds, and you might even hear voices singing at times.
Celtic music is far older than the modern guitar, having been forged into our collective conscience over centuries by fiddle bows, pipe bellows, human breath passing over vocal chords and through flutes, all anchored by deep harp resonances. And so the very definition of Celtic music has become inextricably linked with those and other traditional instruments, and the particular sound colorations imparted by them.
It’s only in the last few decades that the guitar has been used as a melodic solo instrument for playing Celtic music, and that evolution has happened hand-in-hand with the so-called “modern” sound that many contemporary guitarmakers have begun to define. That sound, in a nutshell, consists of a balance that tips toward the upper midrange, “fat” trebles, clarity and focus across the entire frequency range, and an airy, complex tone.
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Celtic music played on a pre-war Martin Dreadnought, but as wonderful as those instruments are for styles like Bluegrass, I would argue that they wouldn’t be capable of producing believable Celtic music. I say “believable” because ultimately, any guitar playing Celtic music is to a great extent pretending to be another more traditional instrument, such as a fiddle, pipe, harp, or human voice.
The desire to imitate subtleties like changes in bowing or bellows direction, trills and drones, etc. has given rise to all kinds of new playing techniques, and those techniques put particular demands on guitars and their makers.
One such technique, the “harp effect,” consists of never playing consecutive notes of a phrase on the same string, allowing each note to ring out much like the open strings on a harp. The technique can obviously be used on any guitar, but it’s much more believable and “authentic” on a guitar that manages to maintain consistency of tone between open and fretted notes, and affords seamless transitions between wound and unwound strings. Other techniques are aimed at imitating the trills produced by pipes and flutes, which requires an uncommon responsiveness and clarity or else it sounds muddy.
That responsiveness is also required in order to replicate the vibrato of a fiddle or voice through bends. Another challenge is replicating the drones from pipes, fiddles, or harps, which typically consists of low notes that need to be present and sustain for long periods of time at a consistent volume, all the while being in balance with the rest of the strings. Frequently, moving bass lines will also be played over open ringing strings which again calls for a precise balance.
So what’s a luthier to do when faced with this seemingly impossible list of demands? The short answer is to build the right thing, and build the thing right. Building the right thing means starting with a a body size that makes sense, which for most purposes means an OM-sized instrument. As usual I’ll attach an asterisk to that and say that the most important thing for any player of any style is to be physically comfortable with the instrument. So by all means, if you’re small, a small guitar is probably a better fit, and if you’re big, a bigger guitar might be more comfortable for you.
A skilled luthier should be able to draw the sound you want out of just about any size body (within reason of course). So, all things being equal, an OM-sized guitar is a good starting point, as it provides an optimal surface area to emphasize those upper-mids so crucial for that bell-like and balanced tone ideal for Celtic music. Building the thing right means considering some design and material choices that will evoke the best sound and provide the best playability given how it will be played.
Most Celtic guitarists will use altered tunings to a great extent, typically DADGAD or Orkney (CGDGCD), both of which lower the tension on the guitar, which impacts both tone and playability. And so sticking to a scale length that’s with the standard range of 25 3/8” to 25 5/8” makes the most sense. I’m not one to fuss over that 1/4” range too much, because I’ve found that the variability in each luthier’s guitars more than makes up for the difference in tension. And the math confirms my hands-on impressions. In standard tuning, with D’Addario Light Gauge Phosphor Bronze strings, the difference between a 25 3/8” and 25 5/8” scale is 161.64 lbs. vs. 164.84 lbs. That amounts to a 1.9% difference.
Top thickness, bracing, material choices, frets, body and bridge shapes, truss rod variability, builder karma, etc. all have way more impact than that 1.9%. So go with what the builder finds works for him or her. For me, 25 3/8” works great, and I routinely play in both DADGAD and Orkney tunings, as do my customers, without any complaints whatsoever. I have found that depth of the body has quite an impact on the guitar’s ability to support lower notes, though, so I encourage you to consider that as a design feature.
Material choices are plentiful and can be confusing. But as always, I encourage you to trust your luthier to extract the sound you want from the materials you find aesthetically pleasing, and hopefully he or she will be honest in telling you whether or not he or she can do it. But all things being equal, some type of rosewood for back and sides is a sure bet. The darkness in tone afforded by rosewood species is particularly desirable in producing those low drones, and when I know one of my customers is going to be playing Celtic music on their guitar, I select a set that is on the denser and stiffer end of the spectrum to broaden the tonal palette towards the upper mids and those fat trebles.
For me, Spruce is the only choice for tops to produce a quality sound for Celtic music. You just can’t get the clarity and separation from Cedar, and although you get complexity from Cedar, it’s the warm and fuzzy kind. What I go for is the crisp and clean kind, which I get most often from European or Sitka Spruce. The difference between the two is that European is perhaps not as versatile when it comes to strumming, so for players that plan on doing both Celtic solo and accompaniment, Sitka may be the better option.
Celtic guitar also tends to incorporate lots of grace notes, be they hammer-ons or pull-offs, which puts demands on the design of the fingerboard and string spacings. I always leave more room between the high string and the edge of the fingerboard to allow for pull-offs without actually pulling the string off the fingerboard. And I highly recommend going with a string spacing of at least 1 3/4” at the nut, and 2 1/4” at the bridge to allow for those bends, and those right-hand trills.
Perhaps the last thing I would mention about design is to let your luthier know if you’re planning to keep the guitar in an altered tuning, because there are some intonation issues that can come up if you don’t. A lowered tuning may call for some minor modifications at the bridge and/or nut.
Ultimately, a guitar designed for Celtic music is not much different than a quality guitar designed to produce that “modern” sound – ironic, given that Celtic music is anything but modern. But as much as the guitar will continue to evolve and players will find new styles of playing, one should never lose sight of the fact that it’s just an instrument. And as inspiring as it may be, it relies primarily on inspiration from the player to convey the music. The feel is the music.
I’ll tell you a story that illustrates this point. A dozen years ago, I attended a workshop given by Pierre Bensusan one afternoon in Goderich Ontario of all places. A keen student and huge fan of Pierre’s got there early and sat front row centre, eager to be up close and personal with her idol. Of course, she brought along her Model O Lowden guitar, virtually identical to Pierre’s 1978 Lowden, which is both very deep (almost 5 “) and very wide (over 16 1/2”) at the lower bout. Pierre gave a truly inspiring workshop that I will never forget, and we spent the first hour and a half with the guitars laid flat on our laps, strings facing down. He led us through several exercises where we tapped out rhythms on the backs of our guitars, driving home the point that if you don’t feel the music in your heart first, it doesn’t matter what instrument you play; it will never make that ethereal journey to the listener.
When came time to actually put our guitars in playing position, the young lady in the front row looked up to Pierre with an expectant smile of recognition and approval. Instead, Pierre had one look at her small frame holding that huge guitar and said, “oh my… that guitar is much too big for you! Look at your arm struggling to get over the lower bout. You will never be comfortable playing that guitar, and you will always struggle to get the music out of it.” Sure, she was shattered, but it was an important testament to Pierre’s integrity, and a vital lesson for everyone in attendance. As it turns out, Pierre has followed his own advice, and his new Signature Lowden features a 15 7/8” lower bout which is 4 23/32” deep, because he too was finding his O model guitar to be a bit lacking in the comfort department.
©2009 Terence Tan.
Alberico guitars courtesy of Fabrizio Alberico © individuals 2010
Old Celtic Cross by Petr Kratochvil
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