About Celtic Guitar
By Glenn Weiser
Glenn Weiser is the author of three volumes
of Celtic fingerstyle guitar arrangements.
|Celtic guitar probably began in America when Irish immigrants of the
late 1840s picked it up the instrument, learned some chords, and
strummed along with the old songs of home. In Ireland,
it was not used until a century later, according to Dublin fiddler James Kelly, and then
only for accompaniment.
But research done by scholar Anne Macaulay and published in the the journal The Lindisfarne Letter suggests that the cruit, a lute-like instrument which Roman historians observed Celtic bards playing, may have had its four strings tuned like the top four string of the modern guitar. Celtic guitar could in fact go back a long way.
Although the Spanish region of Galicia is historically Celtic, there is no longstanding tradition of Celtic guitar there (I understand the music is played primarily on pipes and the harp). But classical guitarist Andres Segovia did write a lovely arrangement the Scottish air "Loch Lomond" in the 1940's, and Narcisso Yepes later would record "Brian Boru's March" under the tile of "Irish March" for Duetchgrammophone.
In 1962, two major developments occurred: British guitarist Davy Graham went to Tunisia and invented DADGAD tuning after listening to the music of the oud, a fretless, lutelike instrument, and Doc Watson debuted at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles flatpicking old time fiddle tunes descended from Celtic sources on guitar. DADGAD was to become a favored approach to Celtic accompaniment, and flatpicked traditional tunes started to attract notice with Doc's work and later that of bluegrass guitar pioneer Clarence White.
As a result of the folk boom of the 1960s, many acoustic guitarists also became interested in fingerpicking styles, and English players like John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy began to experiment with Celtic and English folk music. Even rockers Led Zeppelin recorded the traditional Irish song "Blackwater Side," featuring Jimmy Pages fingerstyle guitar work.
By the 1970s, Celtic guitar was off and running. Around 1978 I saw Eric Schoenberg, with whom I had studied ragtime guitar, fingerpick Turlough O' Carolans "Planxty Irwin." I had previously worked out fingerstyle arrangements of "Scotland the Brave" and "The Minstrel Boy" in 1974, but hearing Carolan on guitar was a fresh inspiration to explore the music further. I eventually arranged and wrote out around 300 mostly Celtic traditional tunes for fingerstyle guitar-the largest such collection I know of. Almost 190 of these are now in print in three volumes (see my Celtic guitar books and also reviews), and a fourth will be published later this year. The collection encompasses the music of Carolan and earlier harpers, dance tunes, slow airs, Highland bagpipe tunes, and songs. Although open tunings are popular among Celtic players, I have chosen to stick to standard tunings with harmonizing bass lines in my arrangements so that they might appeal to classical guitarists as well as steel string players. I am also currently working on a CD of this material.
Other guitarists have done similar work. Duck Baker, Stephan Grossman, John Renbourne, Pierre Bensusan, David Surrette and others have recorded and/or have written their own books of Celtic fingerstyle arrangements (see my Celtic guitar discography), while Cape Breton's Dave MacIssacs has become a leading Celtic flatpicker. The guitar's potential as a backup instrument in Irish music has also been developed by players like Andy Irvine, Paul Brady, Michael Ni Dhomnail, and John Doyle. DADGAD or dropped D tuning are almost always used for this.
Today, as Celtic music moves towards the mainstream and enters a new millennium, the guitar has become one of its most eloquent voices.
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