A Celtic Air

Irish Air

Sometimes I have this tendency to get “literal.” And the danger in this is that I often come across as sarcastic. Without meaning to be, you must understand. Few of you have spoken with me or heard my voice before, which is probably a good thing (the old joke is that, at forty-four, I should stop thinking that my voice is going to change anytime soon), but the trouble is that even my closest friends have a hard time discerning between my “normal” voice and my “sarcastic” one. See if you can:

“Hi. This is my normal voice.”

“Hi. This is my sarcastic voice.”

Pretty wild, huh? I bring this up, as I said, because I do have this literal side to me. When someone writes to me asking how to achieve a “authentic” blues sound, for example, I am very likely to say get the cheapest beat up acoustic you can get your hands on and forget about any kind of amplification or effects, unless you happen to have a glass slide. This is simply because, to me, “authentic” blues is the sound you hear when you listen to Robert Johnson, not Robert Cray. Now don’t get me wrong, I love what we’ll call, for lack of a better term, “electric blues.” It’s just that I have a hard time willfully ignoring history.

And I bring all this up because today we’re going to discuss Celtic music. You see, if you think about it, traditional Celtic music is way older than the guitar. Really really, way, way older. So when someone is talking about playing Celtic style on the guitar, what exactly is that person talking about? Simply put, one is actually talking about playing the guitar in a way which makes your mind think of things Celtic. The guitar playing reminds you of other instruments that you would associate with Celtic tunes.

Before we get too much further, let’s take the time to dispel a few myths. Misconceptions more than myths, really. Contrary to what you might think, there is no such thing as a “Celtic scale” or “Celtic notes,” any more than there are scales or notes used exclusively by any genre. Think about this. There are only so many notes and so many ways in which they can be played. Nowadays, we pretentiously toss around terms like “blues scales” and the like without realizing that they’ve been around for a long, long time.

Certain scales and modes do, however, evoke various styles of music. A harmonic minor scale sounds Arabic to Western ears, mainly because of the use of the step-and-a-half interval between the sixth and seventh. We associate this with exotic near-eastern sounds. Likewise, a diminished scale sounds jazzy, if for no other reason than the only time we’ve probably heard it in our lives was while listening to jazz.

It’s how notes are played that is important. When we think of Celtic music, we tend to think of pipes (bagpipes or Irish fifes), harps, fiddles and voices. We also think a lot of drones. Drones, as we’ve discussed in past columns (On The Tuning Awry, But Then Again… and Sustained Tones), are a note or notes that are continually played and/or sustained while the rest of the song does what it does.

Think about the instruments we’ve mentioned. Fifes and pipes tend to be played with a lot of trills. Fiddles, having no frets, don’t always sound spot-on as far as tonality. Harps sound very resonant, which makes sense since one is essentially playing what we would call “open strings” on the guitar. And voices cover all this territory and more.

Putting On Your Disguise

Whether we realize it or not, the guitar has a distinct and identifiable sound to us simply because our expectations of its sound are based upon or past dealings with it. But we are suseptable to having those expectations challenged. Think about this. The classical guitar sounds strange to people who have only heard steel string guitars all their lives. Yet because it is tuned the same, it also sounds familiar. Something seemingly small, like playing the guitar with a slide or even using a coin as a pick, can create sounds that we do not normally associate with our instrument.

So you see, it is possible to change your guitar’s “appearance,” if you will. Or to do what Richard Thompson calls “disguising your guitar.” We want the people hearing us play to have Celtic thoughts, to be magically transported to far off Celtic lands. Our music should evoke thoughts and feelings that trigger this in our audience.

The easiest thing that we can do is to provide the droning sounds of the pipes. In Celtic music, drones tend to be in intervals of fifths. So you could play a lot of power chords, which are nothing but fifths, but that, at least to me. still sounds distinctly like a guitar.

If you tune your low E (or sixth) string down one whole step to D (and yes, you should be able to do this simply using your tuner – just set it for “D” when you tune that string as well as your normal D (fourth) string), you have now created the interval of a fifth between your fifth and sixth strings. Drop D tuning is great for creating an instant droning effect. Play your lowest three strings and listen to how they ring out. Now play a full D chord (remembering that you can now play that sixth string!) and hear how much bottom you’ve given your guitar. Very cool, huh?

Now, if I know how to play different forms of the D chord on first three strings, I can come up with all sorts of things. Here’s the first part of the melody from a traditional Scottish tune, “The Campbells Are Coming,” done with a minimum of finger movement:

The Campbells Are Coming line 1
The Campbells Are Coming line 2

Further tinkering with your guitar’s tuning can lead to other interesting effects. Since we’re already in drop D, I’m going to also lower the first and second strings down one whole step and get what we call DADGAD, or D modal tuning. Again, you should be able to do this using a conventional tuner. You see, a tuner doesn’t differentiate between octaves (which, when you think about it , is why you can use a guitar tuner on a bass guitar), so as long as you are tuning to notes that are used in standard tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E) you will be okay.

DADGAD tuning provides you with a lot of ringing notes from the open strings (the harp effect) and also the potential for lots of droning notes. Another added bonus you might discover is that it’s easier to bend strings since there isn’t as much tension on them. This provides you with nice vibrato, which helps the guitar to mimic fiddles and voices.

The use of flourishes, such as vibrato (and hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and bends (which you can all read about in Tricks of the Trade) as well), also aids in disguising your guitar and creating an air of Celtic song. These flourishes show up in often show up in musical notation as grace notes:

Grace Note

Simply speaking, a grace note is like an accident. It doesn’t really have a “timing” to it, like other notes do, because you have to get from that note to your “real” note is quickly as humanly possible. We’ll discuss this in more detail in a little bit.

First, though, I’ve taken the liberty of “creating” a Celtic piece for you as an exercise. Yes, I made this up, but please don’t be too impressed. People, especially those who write those guitar books with the CDs in them, do this all the time. One comes up with an “original” song in order to get around copyrights but the “song” (technically speaking, it’s an exercise) always sounds suspiciously like something else. But, like it as not, this is how you learn styles. And this is actually what you do when you play with your friends. Someone knows a song and teaches it to you, but it may not be exactly the way it is on th recording. You pick it up and when you pass it along, the same thing happens.

Anyway, here it is. Give it a try:

A Celtic Air line 1
A Celtic Air line 2
A Celtic Air line 3
A Celtic Air line 4
A Celtic Air line 5

Like anything we’ve done, take it slowly. Take it piece by piece, measure by measure if you have to. It starts out with two measures of the drone in order to give you a feel for it and then adds the melody on the first three strings. In measure three, where the melody starts, you see that I begin with a hammer-on the D note on the second string, followed by the D note of the open first string:

Measure 3

This gives the illusion of a “breathing” instrument, like a fife or a voice, which doesn’t always hit the same note accurately. This is a great technique to use in Celtic style playing. Likewise the various slides make you feel that you have to “find” the note instead of it simply being there.

And speaking of slides, let’s get back to that grace note business. We encounter the first of many of them here in measure four:

Measure 4

The way you play this, timing-wise, is to strike the string (finger on the fith fret) and slide up to the seventh fret at the same time. You want the first beat to fall (in this case) on the A note, but the reality is that the G is going to take up the fraction of a breath before you hit the A. This can take some practice but it is well worth it to have yet another wonderful skill to have at your beck and call.

Measure five, the first measure of the second line, contains another interesting effect:

Measure 5

In some Celtic music, it is hard to tell whether an instrument is playing the natural seventh of a scale or a flatted seventh. Often, especially again with a fife or a fiddle, it sounds kind of halfway between. A quick quarter-tone bend on the C note (which is the flatted seventh in a D major scale) provides us with the same tone. Quarter-tone bends are tricky, because you want to bend the string enough so that it is no longer, in this case, a C note but not so much that you end up with a C# (the same note as the fourth fret of this string). This trick is used a lot in lead playing of all genres, but is especially well suited to Celtic style.

The last measure combines both of these techniques:

Last Measure

Can you hear how you hit the D note three consecutive times, yet each time in a different way which provides a singular sound? It’s these types of subtleties that often differentiate one genre from another.

If you’re really interested in this style of playing, I would suggest two things: one, listen to a lot of Celtic music. And I mean old traditional stuff that doesn’t have any guitars as well as the “new” music that does. Hear the sounds, feel the music you are trying to evoke. Two, read all you can. Again, don’t limit your sources strictly to guitar-oriented material. And again, having said that, I would like to strongly recommend something extremely guitar oriented. It’s a “Guitar Listen & Learn” books with CD that is put out by Homespun Tapes (distributed by Hal Leonard) called “Richard Thompson Teaches Traditional Guitar Instrumentals.” There are pieces in there for guitarists of all ranges and you will find Richard Thompson covers a great many of the topics that we have in today’s column. One of the things he says on the CD about the style and the feel with which music is played is what often determines the “kind” of music you get (“…the feel is the music…”), pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject. And, oh yes, you also get to listen to him play which is always a delight.

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next lesson…