Celtic Guitar Masterclass | Celtic Backup


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This month, we are going to look at topic very near and dear to my heart, celtic backup. When playing rhythm the guitar plays a secondary role, accompanying a melody player. This is usually with a flatpick, but a hybrid pick and fingers approach, or even fingerpicking, are sometimes used.
You will want to download the pdf sheet music to follow along with the chords.

sheet music pdf here

There are many different ways to back up celtic tunes, and no one way is absolutely correct. In the end it comes down to supporting the melody player. Listen to how the melody player drives the tune, where the rhythmic accents are, and try to emphasize those with your rhythm playing. Playing with a good backer feels effortless, like the music is just floating along. Playing with someone that does not understand the lilt and rhythm of the music makes it very difficult for the melody players.

There are a variety of tunings to choose from when backing celtic music, and these vary from player to player. Rhythmic powerhouse John Doyle is best known for his propulsive work in Drop D. Daithi Sproule of Altan used DADGAD almost exclusively. Dennis Cahill uses Standard tuning to employ his jazzy and understated style. Ged Foley uses CGCGCD, often with a capo at the second fret. I like to use CGDGCD, or the Orkney tuning, which is very similar. To me, the open tunings create a more droning approach, while with standard its easier to find jazzy voicings. I do not think any one tuning is better than another, it just depends on the sound you are looking for.

The format is the opposite of bluegrass, where the chords are fixed and the melody is open to interpretation. In celtic music, the melody is generally fixed and the chordal players are free to harmonize the tune as they see fit. As a rhythm player you can take a very conservative approach, utilizing just the obvious chords, or it can get much farther out, using different choices each time through the tune. Let your ear be the judge, and be sensitive to what the melody players want.

I generally like to use a fairly thin pick, usually 1mm or less. When I play rhythm I am usually trying to hit all the strings at once, and want a little more zing and presence to my attack. I will often some sort of palm muting on the bass strings. It’s different from bluegrass or other types of rhythm playing where you are doing more of a bass and then strum approach. There are exceptions of course, but when most folks backup celtic music they are hitting all or a majority of the strings together.

So let’s go ahead and look at the tune, The Mountain Road.  It’s a simple reel in the key of D, and is a good place to start with rhythm playing. You can use simple chords, or more complex variations, as we will see in later articles. We will look at some chord choices, and also rhythmic considerations with the strumming hand.

First, you must know the key of the tune. If it’s not a tune you know, the best bet is to quietly drone on a bass string note until you find the key. Celtic tunes are usually fairly straight forward, and often in the key of D, G, Em, or Am.  Once you have found the key of the tune, even just droning on the root chord can be effective, while you listen and try to figure out the other chords.  Sure, it may not be the most exciting thing, but at least it works with the tune, and later on you can expand what you are playing.
Major key tunes like the Mountain Road often revolve around a I, IV, V chord change, or the “three chord trick” as I have heard it called. In the key of D, that gives us chords D, G, and A. I will use the Orkney tuning with a capo at the second fret. Folks can use that, or transfer these ideas to their tuning of choice.
Here are our chord voicings.

Remember these are all with a capo at the second fret. I tend to play modal chords a lot of the time, leaving out the third. The D chord is a nice big one, letting you strum across all the strings. For the G chord we are just using the three bass strings. I like to employ some palm muting on this one, and try to keep a relatively light fretting hand touch, or else the strings seem to go sharp. The A is another nice big chord, just make sure not to hit the 6th string. The B minor is an easy chord, leaving the 1st and 6th strings. Technically I think its a Bm7 chord, but it works well in this context. All in all those chords are pretty easy, and I don’t think they will pose any trouble for folks.
For now I am keeping the chordal choices to those four, though feel free to experiment. A good way to do this is to list the chords for a given key, and just try them all in various places. Your ear will tell you what works. For the key of D we have:

D, Em, F#min, G, A, Bm, and C#dim.

I will often play the F#min as a D, with an F# in the bass, and the C#dim as an A, with a C# in the bass.
The Mountain Road uses the D, G, and A chords where indicated. In the B part, I have chosen to start it with a B minor, which darkens things up a bit. That is probably the most common chord substitution in celtic music, using the relative minor in place of the I chord, in this case, a B minor instead of a D.

Celtic music is dance music, and at its core, rhythm is the most important thing. As the guitarist you need to keep a steady rhythm above all else. The best way is to listen to a lot of good rhythm players, and try to emulate and absorb what they do. It is hard within the context of a written article to describe right hand strumming patterns. One thing I try to do is listen where the melody is accenting the beat, and try to emphasize that with my strumming. I am also strumming on other beats, but generally it is with a lighter up/down motion. Take a listen to the flute and guitar tracks to hear an example. Two patterns I like to start my students off with are below.

On the first one you are strumming down on the beat, and up on the “and” of the beat. On the second one you are dropping the “and” of beat one. These two strumming patterns usually get my students going, and then from there we tackle it on a tune by tune basis. This technique is something you learn more by listening and doing.

Putting it all together take a look at the sheet music and indicated chords, and listen to the slow and faster mp3 of flute and guitar.  Try to especially pay attention to where I accent the rhythm on flute and how the guitar emphasizes it.

Playing celtic backup in a hot session where the music is just flowing is such a great feeling. You are providing a solid rhythmic foundation for the melody player(s), and get to contribute your own chord substitutions and variety to spice things up. Practice these techniques on some of your favorite tunes, and next month we will take a look at some more variations, chordal substitutions, and techniques.


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