Highland Bagpipe Music for Fingerstyle Guitar
By Glenn Weiser

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This article is from the August 1998 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, and was accompanied by my transcription of the 6/8 march "Bonnie Dundee." 

      In addition, my arrangement of "Garryowen" may be found in my book "Folk Songs For Solo Guitar," Other pipe-style arrangements are in my "The Encyclopedia of Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar"-GW
I think of Celtic music as having four main branches: the dance tunes played on the fiddle, whistle, accordion, and other melody instruments, the harping tradition, songs, and the music of the Highland pipes. Although fingerstyle guitarists have drawn extensively from these first three categories in creating arrangements, the ancient and powerful bagpipes have been largely overlooked as a source for fresh music. In the course of adapting over 250 Celtic tunes for solo guitar, I’ve come across a way to make the six-string actually sound like a set of pipes. So for this issue’s solo, I’d like to offer you a bagpipe arrangement, tell you how I worked it out, and briefly describe the Highland pipe tradition itself.

   The Celts swept westward out of Central Asia to the fringes of Europe around 500 BC. Their migration was noted by Greek historians, who wrote of their plaid clothing and "braying horns." These may well have been bagpipes, which in one form or another were played by all early peoples west of the Urals, and through Hittite stone carvings can be traced back as far as 1000 BC. Another possibility is that the Romans brought them to Britain, but either way, the Highland pipes were in use in Scotland by at least the fourteenth century.

   At first the pipes were military accouterments and were used to terrify the enemy (similarly, one time an Irish army scared off its foe by building a giant harp, leaving it on a hill at night near the enemy camp, and finding them gone the next day-the sound of the wind whistling through the strings had put them to flight). I remember hearing Robin Williamson tell of being detained while going through customs in Scotland for having a set of pipes- "articles of war," as the agents put it.

   Originally consisting of a reedpipe called a chanter attached to a leather windbag and a single sets of drones, the Highland pipes had a second drone added around 1500 and a third, larger one added around 1700. They are so loud that they are almost always played outdoors.

   After the Jacobite uprising was put down at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, playing the Highland pipes was forbidden. It was then carried on in secret and at the risk of the necks of those who did so. The ban was lifted in 1782, and soon piping became more popular than ever in Scotland, with Highland societies forming and the pipes being readopted by Scottish regiments.

   Bagpipe music is diatonic and mostly modal. The chanter, which must be played with a steady breath pressure to stay in tune, has a nine - note range. This consists of a Mixolydian mode in A with a G below it, although the intervals of the scale on the chanter are not the same as the European tempered scale. Even though contemporary pipes are actually pitched at Bb, the music is still written in A. The tunes are also heavily ornamented by grace notes, which occur singly or in groups. Bagpipes are fiendishly hard to play, and many teachers will not even accept adult students.

   Pipe tunes range in tempo from the air to the slow march, retreat, march, quickstep, strathspey, reel, hornpipe, and jig. There are also three main categories of tunes: Ceol Mor (great music), Ceol Meadhonach (middle music), and Ceol Beag (little music). The great music, which is also known as pibroch, consists of laments, salutes, and gatherings. This is regarded as the classical music of the pipes. Highland folk songs, lullabies, croons, and slow marches make up the middle music, and marches, strathspeys, reels and jigs are the little music. If you’re looking for printed sources for pipe tunes, two good collections are The Gordon Highlanders and The Scots Guards (both published by Halstan and Co., England).

   My first attempt to arrange a pipe tune was in the early ‘seventies, when I arranged a medley beginning with "Campbell’s Farewell to Redgap" with an alternating thumb bass line. It was pretty enough as a guitar piece, but it didn’t sound much like the pipes. Harp pieces and fiddle tunes proved more inviting, so it wasn’t until about a decade later that I tried again.

   I was noodling with "Garryowen" (also known as "The Campbell’s Are Coming"), when I hit upon the idea of pinching an octave A on the fifth and third strings with my right thumb and index finger to create the effect of the drones. Staying in standard tuning allowed the bass strings to remain at full tension, which maximized their volume. When the harmony moved to the D chord, I pinched the open D and third string A. Because an octave was not really feasible as a bass for the D chord (the bass and the treble parts would have overlapped), a fifth had to do. For the E chord I used an octave E on the sixth and fourth strings. I noticed that the octaves or fifths in the bass seemed to increase the sympathetic response of all the strings (this is also cited as a reason for using DADGAD tuning to back up Celtic music).

   I now had the index finger of each hand tied up in producing the bass line-the right index was pinching with the thumb, and the left index was held down on the second fret of either the fourth or third string. The trick was then to play an ornamented melody with the remaining fingers.

   Even with a left hand finger allocated to the bass, it was still possible to play the bagpipe scale entirely in second position. In A Mixolydian, this begins on the third string open (the flatted seventh) and goes up to the octave on the first string, fifth fret. In cases where the harmony was on A and the melody was on the third string, a fifth in the bass had to be substituted for the octave. Using this scale, and alternating the right middle and ring fingers, the tune turned out to be playable with the basses.

   For ornamentation I used simple cuts, or single grace notes, played on the guitar as quick hammers or pulls. Anything more complex than this, I thought, would probably turn the improbable into the impossible. Soon I had Garryowen worked out, and it eventually wound up in my book Folk Song for Solo Guitar. Two other pipe tunes, The Atholl Highlanders and The Battle of Waterloo, are included in my   Celtic Encyclopedia - Fingerstyle Guitar Edition, published by Mel Bay.

  Bonnie Dundee is one of the most famous 6/8 pipe marches. It’s lyrics are a lusty call to battle under the generalship of James Claverhouse, from whose nickname the title comes. Claverhouse fell at the Battle of Killiecrankie, which took place on July 27th, 1689, and was the first battle of the Jacobite wars.

   Audiences always seem amazed when they hear a bagpipe arrangement for the first time. But it’s really more than just a novelty-when you play a tune like this you’ve touched upon long and proud tradition. And although the guitar’s sound is dwarfed by the pipes, something of their grandeur still comes through the strings.


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