Celtic Guitar Masterclass | O’Carolan’s Receipt

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Welcome to the first installment of the Celtic Guitar Masterclass here at Guitarbench.com  I will be writing a series of articles looking at the various techniques and approaches used when arranging celtic music for the guitar.  I will be using a variety of pieces as examples, ranging from beginner to more advanced level.In this lesson we will look at the harp tune O’Carolan’s Receipt, and some of the techniques that go into it.

Celtic harp tunes can make great arranging material for guitar.  The melodies are generally simpler and less notey than the fast dance tunes, and their is plenty of room for creative harmony and interpretation.  Harp tunes are also usually in guitar friendly keys, so transposing is not an issue.

For this little lesson you will want to download the PDF examples, which contains TAB/Notation to everything we are talking about, as well as the entire piece
O’Carolan’s Receipt



I like to use harp tunes as a vehicle for getting folks familiar with harp style, or cross string playing.  Basically what this means is instead of playing a melody linearly across one or two strings, you play it on as many consecutive strings as possible, so the notes ring out and overlap into each other. Check out the linear vs melodic example in the PDF, i think the melodic one, with the notes starting higher up the neck on the third string, sound much warmer and prettier.

I would not neccessarily all the time on every passage, there are times when you don’t want a flowing sound.  But its a good technique to have in your bag, its just a matter of finding where the passages lie on the guitar and in whatever tuning you use.

There are a few important right hand techniques that will make these celtic tunes flow alot easier on guitar. I draw from basic classical guitar practice for most of these. I think being able to alternate Index and Middle finger in the right hand when playing scales in important.  Check out the PDF example, and try to play the G and C scales alternating index and middle finger on the right hand.

In celtic music the main emphasis is on the melody, usually with a simple bass line and perhaps a third inner voice at times.  Take a look at the PDF Melody with Simple Bassline example.  Most of the time you are going to be playing the melody and bass note with a “pinch” using some combination of the fingers and thumb.  Occasionally a bass note might be played on the off beat.  To me it is a bit simpler than other forms of solo guitar music, where we are often juggling a melody, bass line, and middle voice all at once.

I have also notated a few appreggio exercises to develop finger independence in the right hand.  These are important for both harp style and linear playing, as well as developing overall good technique you can apply to any style of fingerpicking guitar. Be sure to follow the indicated right hand fingerings, P for thumb, I for index, M for middle, and A for the ring finger.


O’Carolan’s Receipt

So lets take a look at the tune itself.  The full name of the tune is O’Carolan’s Receipt for Drinking, i believe. I recorded it on my recent cd, Noone Lasses. It was written by Turloch O’Carolan, the great blind irish harper.  He wrote scores of well known tunes, many of which are still played today.  Known for his love of alchohol, legend has it that he drank to much one day, and this made him sick.  So his doctor takes him off the stuff, much to his dismay.  He goes to get a second opinion, and that doctor’s advice is to have a drink to make him feel better, at which O’Carolan was overjoyed.  So he wrote this tune.

This piece is divided into two parts, A and B, and in the usual tradition you repeat each part twice, so AA BB.  Playing the piece is pretty straight forward. To me the first two measures are an ideal example of melodic playing. Check out the example of playing the first two measures linearly vs melodically.  Either one is perfectly valid, but i prefer the flow of the melodic one.  There are numerous spots throughout the A and B part where I choose to go up the neck for a melody note rather than playing it on the first string.  I really like the tone of the 3rd string on my guitar higher up the neck.

One spot that may give folks some trouble is are measures 24-26 of the B part.  It requires a bit of juggling of the bass line and melody, so follow the left fingerings accordingly. Using the indicated barre will things alot easier.

One of the things that attracted me to arranging celtic music is the huge body of material available.  You can take a tune that is hundreds of years old, and give it a new and fresh voice on guitar.  I think the real fun comes with you take techniques you have learned and apply them to your own arrangements.  So find a tune you like and try applying some of the things you learned here.

Antons Biography
Antons website
Noone Lasses

©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Anton Emery ©2010.

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