Learning to play Irish acoustic guitar is a wonderful journey. Whether it is a jig, reel, slip jig or a hornpipe, it is almost certain that toes will be tapping and bodies swaying when those infectious rhythms get moving. While these songs were originally made for fiddle, whistle and pipes, you can learn to play them on the guitar. Irish, or any Celtic folk music, has the distinctive beat and rhythm that is at once primal and yet somehow almost spiritual; read on…
Maybe it is the Celtic soul coming out in the tunes that makes them so enchanting. Playing these tunes with other musicians is totally enjoyable and provides ample opportunity for improvisation and ornamentation.
The easiest way to begin playing traditional Celtic,Irish and Scottish music is to learn the chords and rhythms. Once you get the hang of the reels, jigs, airs and hornpipes, you will be able to figure out other songs with relative ease.
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One thing that is different is the use of flatted notes, such as the 7ths. This can be a bit confusing at first, because it is different than traditional western music. When the 7th is flatted, it is called the Mixolydian mode. This gives the music that haunting sound, tinged in loneliness and thoughtfulness.
For example: in the key of D (very popular, by the way), the notes would be D,E,F#,G,A,B,C. The difference between a “normal” D scale and the Mixolydian Mode or scale is simply the one note: C instead of C#. The way I figure it is that anything that endures for hundreds of years simply can’t be that complicated, otherwise your average person couldn’t learn it and pass it down.
Why bluegrass players struggle with Celtic guitar
Most flatpicking is done by using the down-up, down-up method. This works great for tunes in 4/4 time, but when a tune has extensive triplets you need to use a different method: down-down-up, down-down-up. Or, my preferred method, is to still use down-up-down-up, but emphasis the changing emphasis in 3/4 or 6/8 time. I find the down-down-up method difficult at faster tempos, though it is nice to use both in the same tune for the sake of variety.
This requires a little re-wiring of the brain and hand, but it is worth the effort. Not only will you be able to play the traditional acoustic Irish music, but it will enhance the rest of your playing as well.
Bluegrass has it’s roots in Celtic music and has developed over time into the amazing genre that it is. Very often you can hear the exact same melody in a Celtic tune and a bluegrass tune played quite differently. Here is a wonderful example done by Alisdair Fraser and Natalie Hass. It’s fiddle and cello, no guitar, but shows the evolution from Scotland to Ireland to Appalachia.
One difficulty bluegrass encounter is that the chord changes in Celtic music are seemingly random, especially compared to traditional bluegrass I,IV, V chord changes. This can be overcome by listening and forgetting what you think you already know.
Tony McManus is a good example of a very good Scots guitarist who is creative, yet stays within the traditional structure of the tune. He plays fingerstyle, which lends itself nicely to quieter tunes, such as airs. You can find one of his recordings here: The Maker’s Mark: the Dream Guitar Sessions
How to learn Celtic Irish music on guitar
Unless you are especially clever, you will need some tablature or written music to follow. A better method is to learn from a fiddler, but not everyone has that option. You can also figure it out from recordings, which works great as well.
The first thing is to learn the melody so you can whistle, hum or sing it. This makes all the difference and will greatly speed up the process and make it sound like music instead of notes. Acoustic Irish guitar music is quite improvisational and can be played more than one way correctly.
Next, break the song up into phrases and learn them one at a time. You will see that most tunes are made up of an A and B part, and sometimes a C part. Typically these all repeat once then move to the next part, and return back to the A part; as in AA, BB.
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It is far easier to learn if you can sing the melody and play the chords along with a recording or a friend. Once you get the song in your head you can begin with the melody, there are only so many notes to choose from. Most Celtic Irish music is rather simple in essence, but do not be fooled by that!
Use a metronome and play it slower and slower until you think you cannot go any slower.
Then reverse the process and play it faster and faster until you crash. Go back a bit and repeat this process until you can play it. If you do this over a period of time, you will never forget the fingering and melody.