Celtic Guitar

Cliff McGann

The role of the guitar in traditional music is an ever changing one. Within the Irish and Scottish tradition it is one of the main accompanying choices for instrumental music and is slowly being accepted as a melody instrument as well. It is my hopes with this article to give the reader some insight into the role of the guitar in Celtic music as well as to provide some background on several of the best practitioners of Celtic guitar. I will also briefly touch on the role of the Irish bouzouki, an instrument fast becoming standard in many Celtic groups.

Historical antecedents to the guitar have been in existence since ancient times although it wasn't until the 1300's that an instrument resembling the modern guitar came into being. That instrument evolved and by the 1600's there emerged a five string instrument with the sixth string added some two hundred years later. According to history two instruments were popular at that time which were referred to as guitars. The first of these, the Spanish guitar, would evolve into the modern guitar while the second, the English guitar or cittern, was used less frequently although it has made a comeback in recent years. Celtic music is essentially melodic and hence traditionally the music was a solo art form. Despite this accompaniment has always been part of the music either in rudimentary forms such as tapping the foot to keep time or the more intricate accompaniment provided by the regulators on Uillean pipes.

A standard tuned guitar is tuned EADGBE although within Celtic music the tuning DADGAD is quickly becoming standard for accompaniment. The lowered bass string, from E to D, affords the player a droning sound that is well suited to the tonal qualities of fiddle music as well as the pipes. I abandoned standard tuning when I discovered DADGAD through Stan Rogers and now play almost entirely in DADGAD due to its versatility. Learning DADGAD tuning has been a well kept secret a self taught trial and error process at best. Guitarist Sarah McQuaid saw a need for a book that would flesh out some of the intricacies of DADGAD tuning and give insight into the larger role of accompaniment within traditional Irish music. From this need she put together The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book: Playing and Backing Traditional Irish Music on Open-Tuned Guitar (Ossian Publications P.O. box 84 Cork, Ireland OMB 1O8).

The book begins by discussing the basics of music theory and places that theory within the context of Irish music. One of the main goals of the book is to familiarize the reader with chord structures as well as to provide chord diagrams so that the player can properly accompany traditional music in DADGAD. Seven pages of chord diagrams are included as are 24 tunes in tablature and notation, also found on the accompanying cassette, familiarizing you with melody playing. An extensive discography is also included featuring recordings of top notch Irish accompanists who utilize a wide variety of tunings including DADGAD and standard tuning. The Irish DADGAD book is essential for anyone interested in the role of the guitar as an accompanying instrument as well as for those wishing to learn more about its potential as a melody instrument.

Celtic Guitar Recordings

With Celtic music growing in leaps and bounds top notch musicians are turning up outside of the perceived hotbeds of Celtic music. One of those people is Ohio based Celtic guitarist John Sherman whose CD, So Inclined [Walhalla Park Productions-410 Clinton Heights Ave. Columbus, Ohio 43202], is a truly delightful recording. He is a fingerstyle guitarist who utilizes EBEABE tuning, one whole step up from the more common DADGAD tuning, on all of the albums 13 cuts. He is joined by a host of performers including Tim Britton (Uillean Pipes), Mark Hellenberg (Percussion), Jerry Rockwell (mountain dulcimer) and several different fiddlers although the guitar remains in the forefront throughout the album. His playing is crisp, innovative and downright brilliant. Highlights include the J. Scott Skinner penned lament Dargai as well as the 'bluegrassification' of the '79th Highlanders Farewell to Glasgow' on which Sherman lets loose on the banjo. An exceptional recording and one which won't be leaving my CD player any time soon.

Another diamond in the rough is New Hampshire based multi instrumentalist David Surette's CD Back Roads (Madrina Music-P.O. Box 4225 Portsmouth, New Hampshire). Surette is a string wizard playing guitar, bouzouki, mandolin and tenor banjo on his debut CD Back Roads. He is joined by several musicians including Jeremiah McLane on accordion and piano and flutist Sarah Bauhan. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this recording is Surette's choice of material. He has a deep love and appreciation for the music of Brittany which is well represented as are the Appalachian, New England, Shetland, Irish and French Canadian traditions. Highlights include the flute and bouzouki duet on Surette's own Trip to Dumpster, the flatpicked Chorus jig and the fingerpicked Road to Kerrigouarch/The Horse's Brawl. His sense for each piece of music is impeccable and he imbues each with the right amount of power or finesse suiting each to perfection. Many of the arrangements of his tunes can also be found in his recent publication of Celtic fingerstyle guitar music available from Mel Bay publications.

No review of Celtic guitar would be complete without including Halifax, Nova Scotia native Dave MacIsaac. He is a brilliant fiddler, mandolinist and dobroist but it is on the guitar that he has excelled and been a trailblazer in the field of fiddle tunes on the guitar. He was recently awarded album of the year at the East Coast Music Awards for his latest album Nimble Fingers and for good reason. On Nimble Fingers [Pickin Productions P.O. Box 46043 Novalea RPO-Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada B3K 5V8] the listener is introduced to fiddle tunes played by MacIsaac on solo acoustic guitar, dobro and mandolin. The album also includes his magnificent old time fiddling as well as full blown Celtic rockers featuring Dave's sizzling fender strat. MacIsaac is a brilliant musician as well as a walking historian on traditional Cape Breton music. He is bar none the most impressive musician I have ever come across. Do yourself a favor and get yourself a copy of Nimble Fingers you won't be disappointed.

The East Coast of Canada is a seemingly endless breeding ground for wonderful musicians whom remain virtually unknown despite being equal or better than many of their more well know counterparts. Newfoundland native Paul Wadden is one of those people. His CD, Walter the Penniless [Daydeen Records 198 Duckworth Street St. John's, NF Canada A1C 1G5], is one of the most impressive fingerpicked guitar recordings to come across my desk in quite some time. His arrangements of traditional tunes like the Stack of Barley, Carolan's Draught and Sally Gardens are dazzling but the standouts on this recording are his own compositions. He utilizes a dizzying array of guitar tunings imbuing the album with a wonderful variety of textures. Like no other guitarist I have heard he possesses the ability to paint a picture of a specific place and time without the use of lyrics. I look back fondly on my time spent living in Newfoundland and Wadden's compositions Humours of Rabbittown and Horse Islands make me feel like I never left. This recording is a gem.

San Francisco has always had a reputation for being a haven for traditional Celtic musicians and also happens to be the home of the newly formed Tall Tree Records (PO Box 423328, San Francisco, Ca 94142-3328). Jon Hicks is a fine flatpicker whose talent is displayed on his Tall Tree debut entitled Chasing the Bear. Liner notes were written by Irish guitarist Arty McGlynn who thinks a lot of Hicks playing and for good reason he is one of the finest flatpickers on the scene today. The pairing of Hicks's guitar and Paddy Keenan's Uillean pipes on a set of jigs nearly set my CD player ablaze. He is also joined by a bevy of talented musicians including percussionist Peter Maund, fiddler Athena Tergis and bassist Dee Moore. Steve Baughman, founder of Tall Tree Records, also happens to be an extremely talented fingerstyle guitarist. His talent is abundantly displayed on his CD A Drop of the Pure. One of Baughman's greatest assets is his ability to bring out the best in each tune. He knows when to be playful and also when to let loose. His arrangement of the Athole Highlanders as a two part hornpipe complete with dumbeck and didgeridoo as well as the Celtic/Punjabi feel to his own Dushanbe Gathering are inventive and musically rewarding. The true sign of a Celtic guitar player is his ability to take a piece of music and play it unencumbered by other instruments and this is where Baughman truly shines. His renditions of two O'Carolan compositions as well as the traditional Bony Crossing the Alps and Bill Malley's Barndance are inspirational. If these first two releases are indicative of the quality that we can continue to expect from Tall Tree this is one label to watch.

In Scotland when one mentions Celtic guitar two albums come to mind Tony Cuffe's When First I went to Caledonia (Iona 011) and Dick Gaughan's Coppers and Brass (Green Linnet). Now a third, Tony McManus's solo debut (Greentrax Records-Cockenzie Business Centre, Edinburgh Rd., Cockenzie, East Lothian EH32 0HL), can be added to the illustrious list. In the last few years McManus's name has been associated with some of the best music to come out of Scotland. His debut CD consists mostly of traditional Scottish and Irish material although Louis Armstrong's 'What a Wonderful World' sits well alongside two traditional tunes. His playing is fluid and graceful especially on the well known piece Hector the Hero. He is joined by former Battlefield Band member Brian McNeill on fiddle, Jim Sutherland on bodhran and several others. The opening track is a great example of ensemble playing with McManus's guitar driving the arrangement home. A scintillating debut from a musician from whom we will be hearing much more.

For those seeking a more relaxed collection of Celtic and Celtic inspired music played on the guitar you will likely not find any better than Al Pettaway's CD Whispering Stones (Maggie's Music P.O. Box 4144 Annapolis, MD U.S.A 21403). Voted best recording in 1992 by the Washington D.C. Area Music Association it is a collection of traditional material like The West Wind, The Blacksmith and Sidh Beag Sidh Mor alongside Petteway's own compositions inspired by his Celtic ancestry. The sparseness of the arrangements allows Petteway's lyrical guitar playing to take centre stage. It is an exquisite recording and his laid back style is deceptively intricate and challenging.

While Whispering Stones has a new age feel it bellies the current trend of hiding the music under lush arrangements. Petteway's exceptional musicianship and beautiful compositions make this a subdued yet satisfying musical experience.

In the last few years the Bouzouki has taken root within traditional music and spread like wildfire. A traditional Greek instrument the bouzouki was introduced to Ireland by Johnny Moynihan in the late 1960's and through people like Donal Lunny, Alec Finn and Andy Irvine it has achieved popularity within the tradition. Since its introduction it has lost much of its original Greek design and today what is referred to as an Irish bouzouki more closely resembles members of the mandolin family. The spiky sound and tonal quality of the instrument endeared itself to the likes of Lunny who felt it ideally suited to accompany traditional Irish dance music as well as to play melody. Despite the bouzouki having gained wider acceptance in traditional Celtic music their exists, to my knowledge, only one tutor for the instrument. The Irish Bouzouki by Niall O'Callanain and Tommy Walsh published by Walton's Music (P.O. box 1505 Westfeild, MA-U.S.A. 01806) deals with the two most common tunings, GDAD and ADAD, utilized by the majority of bouzouki players today. It also provides the reader with some background on the instrument as well as biographies of its most important players. At the heart of the book are tunes for the bouzouki with a very helpful tape demonstrating those tunes. An essential book for those interested in playing Irish music on the bouzouki or other members of the mandolin family.

As a member of the Irish group De Dannan, Alec Finn has long been at the forefront of traditional Irish music. His first solo album, Blue Shamrock (Celtic Heartbeat/Atlantic), is a collection of Irish Airs played on the guitar and bouzouki. No driving jigs and reels here just simple and poignant slow airs executed with brilliance.

The familiar Down by the Sally Gardens and The Water is Wide are found alongside lesser known tunes like Micky Finn's Air and Sea/n O/ Duibhir An Ghleanna. Finn is joined by some of the best musicians Ireland has to offer like whistle player Mary Bergin, uillean piper Tommy Keane, cellist Claire O'Donaghue and violinist Dearbhaill Standun. His playing has influenced a generation of new musicians and although he has the ability to let loose this is a subdued album of simple brilliance.

While the term bouzouki remains the most commonly used to describe the Irishization of the Greek instrument the English term cittern is used by some including American multi-instrumentalist Robin Bullock. His CD Green Fields (Dorian Discovery 8 Brunswick Rd.-Troy, New York 12180-3795) is a vibrant collection of mostly traditional Irish music played on the cittern and guitar. Bullock, a member of the world folk music trio Helicon, plays every instrument on the album through a multitracking process. He concludes that it is a strange way to record music that is for the most part social but hopes the result is worth it and indeed it is. His flatpicking of the dance tunes is awe inspiring as are his fingerpicked arrangements of the Phil Cunningham penned Donna's Waltz and the Burns air Gae Bring to me a pint o' Wine. A great collection of inspired guitar and bouzouki playing.

I must admit that I had trouble finding enough adjectives to describe the wealth of talent that can be found within the music reviewed for this article. I chose what I felt were the best available examples of Celtic music played on the guitar and bouzouki as well as recordings which provided the listener with some variety. In my mind the CD's reviewed represent not only the best Celtic guitar music available but also some of the best Celtic music available.

Copyright 1996, Cliff McGann

Originally published in Celtic Heritage, reproduced by permission.

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