The Eagle’s Whistle

In this lesson we’ll be learning a fingerstyle arrangement of the Irish tune The Eagle’s Whistle (Fead an Iolair in Irish). And to make things interesting, we’ll take a look at a few simple ornaments that will help give your playing a traditional Celtic feel.

I first heard this tune on the 1986 LP of the same name by the family-based Donegal band Na Casaidigh (The Cassidys). I’ve seen this tune classified both as an air and as a 3/4 time march (a marching tune of the O’Donovan family), but either way, you won’t want to play this tune too fast.

Before we move on to the tune, let’s take a quick overview of ornamentation. Ornaments in Irish music are used to embellish or decorate the melody. This adds variety and expressiveness to the music, which makes it more interesting to listen to. Unlike ornaments used in classical music, an ornament in Irish music is generally used to articulate a note instead of being perceived as a separate note on to itself. Irish ornaments tend to be more of a rhythmic device instead of a melodic one.

There are no hard and fast rules for ornamentation, and generally it is up to the player’s discretion and taste to dictate the number and type of ornaments to play, if any. Ornaments will be played slightly differently from instrument to instrument (mostly due to the physical differences in the instruments), but there is a known traditional method of ornamentation for the “core” instruments (fiddle, uilleann pipes, flute, and penny whistle) that most players are familiar with and other instruments typically emulate.

One of the most common ornaments used in Irish music is a single-note ornament called a “cut.” Though often notated like a grace note, the cut is played a little differently. A cut is played so quickly as to be barely perceptible and it differs from classical-style grace note in that a cut is played directly on the beat, not before it. A cut can be thought of as an articulation to the note it precedes and having no time value of its own. The cut becomes part of the “attack” of the note that follows, which will gives that note emphasis. The note used for a cut has a higher pitch than the note it is articulating, normally by one or two scale steps. On the guitar, the cut is played using a pull-off.

Another common single-note ornament is the “strike,” which is similar to a cut, except that it is lower than the note it is articulating. The strike can be played with a hammer-on on the guitar.

The main thing to remember is that the cut (and strike) should be played so quickly as not to be perceived as a separate note, but instead so that is has unidentifiable pitch and duration.

The cut comes from the piping tradition where it is commonly used to “cut” two successive notes of the same pitch. Highland bagpipes are played with a continuous stream of air and there is no way to “stop” the chanter to insert silence between two repeated notes (this isn’t true of all bagpipes, though). So to play the same pitch in succession, a cut is placed between the two notes.

Example 1

A cut can also be used to add emphasis to a particular note, regardless if it is preceded by the same pitch or not.

Example 2

Now on to the tune…

The bass line is fairly simple, with the right hand thumb playing steady quarter notes. The bass pattern changes in the B section, so that may be something you want to practice separately. Though I’ve notated several ornaments, remember, ornaments are entirely optional and it’s up to you if and when you want to play them.

The left hand fingering for this tune is fairly consistent, and once you place your fingers on the fretboard, you won’t have to move them much. I play the A on the second fret of the third string with my index finger, the D on the third fret of the second string with my ring finger, and the G on the third fret of the first string with my pinky. I play the fingered bass notes (G on the third fret of the sixth string, and C on the third fret of the fifth string) with my middle finger. I do play the F# in bar four with my thumb so I can keep my index finger on the third string. Doing this, you’ll want to play the cut (the B on the fourth fret of the third string) with your pinky. You could also use your middle finger, but that will require a little more finger movement.

Example 3 line 1
Example 3 line 2
Example 3 line 3
Example 3 line 4
Example 3 line 5
Example 3 line 6

I hope to cover Irish ornamentation for guitar in much more depth in a future lesson. However, you should be able to get a lot of mileage from the cut and strike, as these ornaments are quite useful and commonly used in traditional music.

Once again, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning this lovely tune as much as I have.

Slán go fóill.