Celtic Melodies vs. Guitar Melodies

An essay by Jim Earp

About the Author

Art Edelstein recently, while commenting on my latest CD,  noted that he likes to be able to hum the melody in guitar music.  Which is why he likes Celtic music so much; its so very melodic.    I responded to him about the difficulty of translating "defineable" melodies on solo guitar, because for the most part I agreed with him.  I will candidly admit that I view myself as a player easily lacking the chops of say, Doyle Dykes or Pierre Bensusan, so I've always relied on simple themes and song structure to deliver my pieces; usually verse-verse chorus-verse or a variation of the standard "pop song" format.  Pat Kirtley wrote me a while back after hearing Rosewood and commented specifically on the melodic content and complexity of my compositions- so I know that each listener will have a subjective feeling about any given individual artist- and so I welcome anyones impressions of my music just as I welcome Pat's.  I can tell you that the trouble with an emphasis on technique, especially with solo guitar, is that it can obfuscate melody to a degree.  Celtic music doesn't often seem to have this problem, because most of the beautiful O'Carolan melodies and such are first and foremost vocally based, timeless and familiar- and usually in Celtic ensemble music, the melody is delivered on pipe, whistle, fiddle, or voice, with the guitar providing harmonic support.   Straightforward, with little variation on the theme; simple, beautiful, linear, and uncluttered.

When you translate those wonderful melodies to guitar, the pieces seem to work best when they retain their straightforwardness with little embellishment (Martin Simpson's "Leaves of Life" comes to mind).  Most non-Celtic players however, are not subjugating modern non-traditional techniques and playing styles to traditional, vocal-based melodies; they are using these new techniques and approaches to create new, guitar-based melodies, ideas, and moods.  That is why it gets to be so hard for so many of us "contemporary" guitarists to find things that are hummable- frankly we aren't working from a "vocal" perspective!   When a guitarist is employing the rhythmic funk of Leo Kottke and the percussive slap of Michael Hedges, he or she just isn't likely going to get the same kind of "vocal quality" melody of a classical Irish harpist or a traditional Spanish dance.  The melodic line may be more harmonically intricate- such as a jazz player's- or modal or idiomatic, such as some of Billy McLaughlin's work.  I think that the best way to deliver melodies on guitar is first to possess them, obviously; and then to stay with a simple, non-technical and traditional approach to the arrangement of the melody.  Albeit, it can make for "quiet" solo guitar- but more often than not, this is where Celtic music shines.

Ultimately the bottom line, is that your heart shines through whatever it is you are doing, whether you are a disciplined traditionalist or some avant-garde two-handed tapping "new age" player. Each type of music has different expectations- and limitations- but it is the musicality of what is being done that matters.  It really is about heart. With no heart, there is no music- and even the most beautiful melody sounds strained and tired when it is delivered dispassionately.   BB King once said that "playin' guitar is like tellin' the truth". I have to agree...


About The Author

Jim Earp is a contemporary fingerstyle guitarist from San Diego. Jim's 1996 instrumental album "Rosewood" was nominated for two San Diego Music Awards and winner of the Southern California city's coveted Guitar Wars contest.  His latest work "Smiles To Go" has been nominated for "Best Local Recording" for the 2000 San Diego Music Awards.

Instrumental contemporary acoustic may be Earp's bread and butter but it's not the only type of music he performs. He is not only an accomplished singer-songwriter, Earp also playes lead electric guitar in the San Diego group Modern Peasants.

Earp began studying guitar design and manufacturing in Podunavac's luthiery school and built his own instrument in the Podunavac style in 1981.  Earp began playing guitar in 1973 and for the last 17 years has played the same handmade guitar.

A civil servant for the U.S. Department of Defense, Earp is married to wife Cathy.   Jim and Cathy have 14-year-old twin girls, Terra and Rianne.