Arranging Celtic Music In Orkney Tuning
By Anton Emery
When you think of celtic music what do you hear? Perhaps it’s a mournful slow air on the pipes, or a foot tapping reel played by a group of fiddles and flute players. Celtic music is largely categorized as music from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cape Breton, and Galecia. It has been played for hundreds if not thousands of years in monophonic form, all the instruments playing a single line melody, with no harmony or rhythmic backup. The music is traditionally played on instruments like the flute, pipes, fiddle and whistle, as well as the button or piano accordion. The tradition consists largely of dance music, but also includes slow airs, songs, and marches.
Arranging this music provides a bit of a challenge, but is also very satisfying on solo guitar. For one, solo guitarists usually don’t play for dancers, so you can combine different tunes together, or play tunes at different tempos or keys then they are not usually played in.
The typical Celtic dance tunes such as jigs, reels, and hornpipes are a lot of fun to play solo guitar, and often require some fun right hand techniques to get the melody and groove flowing correctly. We can possibly look at those in a future article. For this piece I want to look a classic harp tune called Princess Royal.
Princess Royal was written by the most famous harper in the celtic music tradition, Turlough O’Carolan. It also goes by the name Miss MacDermott. I have heard several different versions, some major, some minor, with different variations.
I am playing this tune in G minor in the Orkney tuning, which is CGDGCD. I got the tuning from Steve Baughman, but a number of other players use it as well. It has nothing to do with Orkney islands in the north of Scotland. Steve just called it Orkney, as unlike DADGAD the tuning is impossible to pronounce. I use Orkney for most of my fingerstyle arrangements, and it works well for rhythmic backup as well. When playing backup I usually use a capo at the second fret.
Technique wise Princess Royal is pretty straightforward. Unlike other styles of guitar music where there are often several parts going at once, with celtic music the main emphasis is on the melody. Often a simple bass part is just played along with melody in a “pinching” motion with the thumb and finger. The bass part is usually on the beat, though some notes here in Princess Royal are off the beat.
One of the tough things playing celtic music on guitar is getting the right flow and groove. These tunes are generally pretty notey, and standard fingerpicking technique can often leave them sounding overly staccato. Not being a fiddle tune Princes Royal does not present many of those problems, but there is one passage that uses a favorite technique of mine, the harp technique. Check out measures eleven and twelve. With the harp technique instead of playing consecutive notes on a single string you play them on adjacent strings, allowing the notes to ring out and flow into each other. Another nice thing to combine with the harp effect is to play notes higher up on the third and fourth strings as opposed on the first string. I find those strings give a warmer and fatter tone versus the first string, which can work well for certain tunes. Measures eleven and twelve take advantage of this as well.If you are guitarist looking for some new music try your hand at arranging a few celtic tunes. Its an age old tradition, and being able to give it a new and unique voice on guitar is very satisfying.
Anton Emery lives in Portland Oregon and plays celtic music on guitar and wooden flute. He is currently working on his debut cd of solo celtic guitar arrangements.
His website is http://www.celticfingerstyleguitar.com