Over the last several lessons I’ve presented several arrangements of Celtic tunes for fingerstyle guitar. Flatpicking is another popular approach to playing Celtic music on the guitar, and in the next few lessons we’ll take a look at a few of the common types of tunes played at sessions. We’ll also continue from the last lesson (The Eagle’s Whistle) and learn a little more about ornamentation.
I mostly play Irish music, and though there are many great tunes from the other Celtic traditions, I’ll be covering traditional Irish tunes for now.
In traditional Irish music, there are several types of tunes, including reels, jigs, and hornpipes. Probably the most popular is the reel, and that’s where we’ll start.
Reels are normally in cut time (2/2), and on guitar you’ll use alternate picking (Down-Up-Down-Up) most of the time. Traditional players tend to give reels a “lilt” by slightly lengthening the first eighth note (on the downstroke) and subsequently shortening the second eighth note (on the upstroke) in each group of two eighth notes. If you’re familiar with “swing eighths” from jazz or the basic blues shuffle (which you can learn in the Guitar Noise lesson Before You Accuse Me) then you’ll have no problem with this type of rhythmic pattern.
While DADGAD is nice for playing backup, you’ll find standard tuning works great for flatpicking Irish tunes, which are mostly played in the keys of D, G, Em, and Am, and on occasion, in a few in other keys and modes such as Bm and A or modes like D or A mixolydian. Some guitarists will use dropped D (DADGBE), as it offers the advantage of a D drone in the bass without leaving standard tuning for playing the melody. Of course, you can flatpick in DADGAD or other open tunings too.
Before starting the tune, let’s take a look at Celtic-style ornaments for guitar.
Ornaments for guitar can be broken down into right hand ornaments and left hand ornaments. In the last lesson there were a few left hand ornaments – “the cut” and the “strike.” For this lesson we’ll learn a right hand ornament commonly known as a triplet, also called a staccato triplet (in reference to how it’s commonly played on the uilleann pipes).
The term “triplet” in this case is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s generally played as two 16ths followed by an eighth note. However, keeping with tradition, I’ll call it a triplet as well. A triplet can be played on a single pitch, or it can use two or three different notes. In this tune we’ll use a single-note triplet and a three-note triplet.
One note about the triplet – it’s common to use Down-Up-Down (DUD) for the triplet and then use another downstroke for the following note on the beat, giving you DUD D. There are exceptions, and feel free to use what feels comfortable for you. However, using downstrokes on the downbeats will give the tune more of the lilt. That’s one reason why I (and many guitarists) play them this way, as you’ll hear on the MP3 examples.
While trying to think of a good first tune for a flatpicking lesson, I had the good fortune to be called to do a few sessions for the Irish rock band The Elders. The title song of their new CD “Racing the Tide” features a traditional Irish session tune called The Humours of Tulla, which is very nice reel in the key of D, and also happens to fit very nicely on guitar. As a side note, I actually played this tune on penny whistle for the session, and the tune was in the key of A.
To start with, we’ll play the tune with no ornamentation. Here’s a plain “bare-bones” version.
Now we’ll add a few ornaments. In bars four, five, nine, and ten, I’ve added a B-C#-D three-note triplet (notated now as two sixteenths and an eighth), and in bars six, seven, and eight, I’ve added a single-note triplet on the F# on the second fret of the first string. To make it a bit more musical, I’ve also added a simple chord progression.
Traditional Irish tunes are not only a lot of fun to play, but they can also give you a good technical workout. Not all tunes fall so easily on the fretboard as this one, but if you enjoy this type of music, grab a tune book or two, and try working up a few arrangements of your own. And be sure to listen to as many Celtic CDs as you can – listening to the music itself is one of the best ways possible to pick up on the nuances of playing your guitar in Celtic style.
Also check out… Sean Bui – Irish Flatpicking Guitar