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Acoustic Adventures: Cascading Celtic Guitar

A medley of three Celtic tunes: "Drowsy Maggie," "The Morning Dew," and "The Cup of Tea."

Full Arrangement
Click here to check out the full arrangement with downloadable audio and PDF on page 2.

Celtic music is often misunderstood among guitarists. Many think if they can tune their guitar to DADGAD and play some triplets, they’ve got it. In fact, I hear more guitar players playing “at” Celtic music than those who actually give it its due. And believe me, it is due a lot. These tunes have been around for hundreds of years and for good reason: Like any great folk style, this music touches people’s souls. It defines a people and brings up images of their lands, whether it is the fog at the seashore or a cloudy day over a green field filled with sheep, or their thatched-roof homes and their dances. If a musical genre touches me and brings up such vivid pictures in my mind, then that is good music for me.

So let’s talk about how to play this great music and make it sound authentic. What I’m presenting here is a medley of three traditional Celtic tunes I arranged for fingerstyle guitar. “Drowsy Maggie,” “The Morning Dew,” and “The Cup of Tea” all share a “morning” theme and were suggested to me by Dave Firestine, a great player from Arizona. We will look at a few excerpts in this lesson, but for the full arrangement, look at the end of this lesson.

The thing I love about this medley is that I get to use so many open strings. Folks are always curious about the tuning I use for this medley. They’ll ask, “Is that DADGAD?” Jaws drop when I tell them it’s good old standard tuning. You’ll need to take your time working through these tunes because the picking-hand fingerings are a bit tough at first, thanks to all the cross-string playing. Just work through a couple of bars at a time and you’ll get it. I’ve added fingerings for both hands wherever I thought you’d benefit from them, and you’ll notice there are lots of them.

If you’re familiar with the medley’s first tune, “Drowsy Maggie,” you’ll notice I changed one note—the high E—that occurs at the end of measures 1, 3, 5, and 7, and is normally played down an octave. I chose to raise it an octave to give the line some momentum and separate the phrases. Notice how the high E sustains and the lower notes continue underneath. It’s very important to plant your 4th finger solidly on that high E to make this happen.

In measure 2, notice how the F# is played on a lower string (the 5th) than the D (the open 4th), even though it’s pitched higher. This kind of refingering can be tricky, but if you’ll play this phrase over and over, you’ll get it. Such cross-string fingerings come up many times in this medley, so it’s best to get used to the concept quickly. Make sure you slide from the C# to the D in measure 4. This slide gets you in position for the last three notes of the measure.

One of the longer, cascading runs is shown in Fig. 1. The slide from C# to D and the hammer-on from G to A are crucial to making this phrase smooth, and the fingerings are very important for the cascading thirds in the example’s fourth measure.

The second tune in the set is “Morning Dew.” This one has four 8-measure phrases, so it’s a bit of a longer form. The first thing to notice here is the passage shown in Fig. 2. Once again, higher notes (F# and E) are played on lower strings than the D. In the example’s fourth measure, there’s a slide from C# to D that’s immediately followed by the pull-off from B to A. This mix of slides, pull-offs, and open strings is essential to emulating the harp-like flow found in many Celtic tunes.

“The Cup of Tea” is a three-part tune with three 8-measure sections. Here’s where those pesky triplets come into play: In the first section shown in Fig. 3, the triplets appear in the example’s first, third, and fifth measures. I can’t stress enough how important it is to understand the triplet in Celtic music. They simply have to be played cleanly and evenly. To my way of thinking, if you don’t play parts like this cleanly, then why play at all? If a guitarist doesn’t care enough about the notes to make them all be heard, I just lose interest.

The passage shown in Fig. 4 is probably the most difficult to play in the entire medley. So many of the elements we’ve used up to now occur here. The picking-hand thumb plays all the way down on the 2nd string—this is important for the strength of the melody. We have ascending and descending slides in the example’s first two measures, a triplet in the second measure, and a pull-off in the sixth measure.

The last section of this tune—measures 57-64 in the arrangement—provides a nice way to wind down for both you and your listeners. It emphasizes chords, so the extended flurry of single-note playing finally resolves.

In Celtic music, so much is communicated in the ways that players approach a given set of notes. A fiddler will include slides, hammers, and pulls, and an Irish whistle player (whose instrument is also known as a penny whistle or tin whistle) will bend notes or finger a repeated pitch differently to create tonal variety. As guitar players, we should learn from them and do the same. We have so many options: We can bend up to a note, or pre-bend a note, strike it, and then release the bend. We can slide up or down. We can add hammer-ons and pull-offs. Keep all these things in mind as you play not just Celtic music, but all music. I think you’ll be amazed at what you can come up with.

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Pete Huttlinger has become widely known as one of the most awe-inspiring acoustic guitar players in the world. His unique arrangements and spellbinding musicality and precision have entertained audiences from Los Angeles to Milan. As a recording artist, Huttlinger has released numerous albums and performed at all three of the Crossroads Festivals. For more information about his latest release, Finger Picking Wonder-The Music of Stevie Wonder, visit Photo by Paul Schatzkin.