So What is "Celtic Guitar"? What is DADGAD?


Celtic guitar, simply put, is that body of music arranged for guitar that includes the traditional musical repertoire of the Celtic regions of Europe (primarily Ireland and Scotland, but also including Wales, Brittany, the Isle of Man and Galicia) or that can claim to be influenced by it. Most guitarists employ modal tunings to capture the flavor of this music-- I use the D-A-D-G-A-D tuning, one of the more common, which I'll be describing my own approach to on this page.


Arranging Celtic Tunes in DADGAD Tuning-- An Introduction


Obviously, this is a subject that would be beyond the scope of your average Web page to address comprehensively. There are some principles, however, that I've found very useful to apply in coming up with my own arrangements of Celtic music:


If your guitar is tuned to D-A-D-G-A-D, you will find that about two and a half octaves of a D-scale can be rendered on the six strings of the instrument without entailing much left hand movement. 


If you practice this scale, you will notice that a player also has the option of letting some of these notes continue to ring while subsequent ones are being played, allowing the guitar to achieve a harp-like effect.


Many Celtic melodies can be effectively rendered largely within this register-- the bottom two strings also can be used for rhythmic accompaniment, or to provide a droning effect similar to that achieved with the pipes. The opening bars of "The March of the King of Laois" illustrate this nicely: 


Note that I exploited the technique of allowing the 4th string to continue ringing by playing the last note on the 5th string.


Another powerful technique is to mimic the ornamentation used by other instruments in Celtic music. In the example above, I play a fast triplet in the first measure by rapid alternate plucking of the 5th and 4th strings with the thumb and forefinger. This mimics the "cran" and "birl" movements used in piping, or a fiddler's use of a bowed triplet.


Fast hammer-ons and pull-offs can be used, much as fiddlers use them, to get the sharp mordants, grace notes and rolls that appear in Celtic music. 


For example, the guitar would play a grace note as shown in the first measure below, and a fiddler’s roll can be executed as shown in the second measure:


Listening to what other instruments do to Celtic melodies, as well as reading the sheet music for them where possible, is a great way to spice up your own guitar arrangements. In the example below (the A part of  “Have a Drink on Me”), the guitar uses grace notes to emulate the “swing” a fiddler might employ in a jig: (capo 5th fret)


The works of the Irish harper and composer Turlough O’ Carolan have been among the most widely arranged and recorded by Celtic fingerstyle guitarists over the past several decades. This is no accident, as his compositions are readily amenable to the modal tunings (especially DADGAD) employed by Celtic guitarists, and often feature  the extended scalar runs that are an idiosyncratic hallmark of Baroque music. A very good example of  this, and an excellent introductory piece for beginning fingerstylists, is his “Planxty George Brabazon” (capo  5th fret):  


Fingerstyle guitar, like the harp or piano, shares the virtue of being able to provide it’s own counterpoint and accompaniment while executing a melody. Sometimes this can take an exquisitely simple turn—a tune I often use to introduce beginning fingerstyle players to Celtic music is the Irish waltz “South Wind”. The arrangement is basically comprised of simple arpeggios, with a lot of  unfretted (open string) notes and very simple one and two finger chord shapes, yet manages to convey rich counterpoint and harmony when the right melody notes are emphasized: (capo 5th fret)


A Few Words About Chords


This website is mainly about Celtic guitar as a melody instrument, but before I leave the subject I’d like to say a few words about the use of the DADGAD- tuned guitar as an accompanying instrument with other melody players. DADGAD of course is not the only tuning used in this context—even “standard” tuning has found favor with some very able accompanists—but all good players are sensitive to the modal nature of most Celtic melodies and will choose chords and counterpoint notes that affirm the character of the melody and don’t clash with it. It’s a bit of a sweeping generalization, but chords that are “open” (not explicitly major or minor) and that have sixths and ninths and other more complex tone clusters have found favor and, at this remove, become part of the “style” of presenting Celtic music. These chords (again, no accident in retrospect) are very often easy to execute from the DADGAD tuning. Here is a list of eleven chords a beginner can play with and try out with some melody players:





The general character of the chords (e.g. D or Em)  are in the body of the table and are ordered with respect to capo position and the root note tonality of the chord (e.g. Roman numeral I denotes the tonic chord, where the chord and the key of the music are the same, II signifies the chord a full step up from the key of the music, and so on.) If you play some of these chords, you’ll notice that some of them contain the sixth and ninth tone clusters I mentioned earlier.


Other Celtic Guitar Sites


At this point there are many Celtic guitar related sites on the Web, many of them sites maintained by accomplished professional musicians. Rather than try to keep up with them all, I will stick with referring you to one that, over the years, has provided a very good introduction to and overview of the state and history of the art. It will be very easy to branch out on your own explorations from here:


Dr. Alfredo Di Pietra is an internist based in Palermo, Sicily. This English language portion of his website has some interesting historical information and useful links to contemporary players.