Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

Acoustic Adventures: Cascading Celtic Guitar

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

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.

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.

On her new record with her trio, Molly Miller executes a live-feeling work of structural harmony that mirrors her busy life.

Photo by Anna Azarov

The accomplished guitarist and teacher’s new record, like her lifestyle, is taut and exciting—no more, and certainly no less, than is needed.

Molly Miller, a self-described “high-energy person,” is fully charged by the crack of dawn. When Ischeduled our interview, she opted for the very first slot available—8:30 a.m.—just before her 10 a.m. tennis match!

Read MoreShow less

Featuring enhanced amp models, a built-in creative looper, AI-powered tone exploration, and smart jam features.

Read MoreShow less

RAB Audio's new ProRak SRS Guitar Studio Racking System offers customizable configurations for organizing guitar gear in the studio.

Read MoreShow less

Featuring FET instrument inputs, "Enhance" switch, and innovative input stage, this interface is designed to solve challenges like poor feel, setting levels, and ease of use.

Read MoreShow less