Celtic fingerstyle guitar has produced some of the most haunting music to float from the hollow wood of an acoustic guitar. In this unique style, players sometimes pluck the strings with their fingers in a rapid style that mimics the fervent bowing of an Irish fiddle. Other times, they fingerpick arpeggios in an elegant, melodic rhythm that powerfully evokes emotion.
How to Play Celtic Fingerstyle
There are several isolated guitar techniques you must learn and then combine before you can play Celtic fingerstyle guitar. The first step is understanding how to fingerpick the style with your right hand. You can play Celtic fingerstyle using the following technique, which is the same as classical guitar technique:
- Your thumb plucks all notes on the lowest three strings, the 4th (D), 5th (A), and 6th (low E) strings.
- Your index finger plucks all notes on the 3rd (G) string.
- Your middle finger plucks all notes on the 2nd (B) string.
- Your ring finger plucks all notes on the 1st (high E) string.
Once you have these basics down for the right hand, there are some additional guitar techniques for the fretting hand that Celtic music uses often.
Hammer-Ons, Pull-Offs, and Trills
These techniques are essential in Celtic fingerstyle.
- Hammer-ons: A hammer-on happens when, just after you pluck one note, you press a second note on the fretboard with such speed that it sounds a tone without you having to pluck it.
- Pull-offs: A pull-off is when, just after you pluck one note and hold it, you pull off it with such speed that it sounds a second note without you having to pluck it.
- Trills: A trill is a quick combination of a hammer-on and a pull-off done one after the other, and it is easy to do once you've got a feel for hammer-ons and pull-offs as the following video notes.
Tempos and Rhythms
Tempos and rhythms create the characteristic sound of the style.
- 6/8 Triplets Played to Fast Tempos: A triplet is a burst of three notes played in a fast, swinging rhythm. The triplet is often done in the time it takes to tap a single beat of the song. Many Celtic jigs have a swinging three-time feel in 6/8 time signature (six eighth-note beats in each measure) with emphasis on the first and fourth beats.
- The following video demonstrates this rhythm. The guitarist is using a pick, but he notes that the same principles can be used in the fingerpicking style.
Alternate DADGAD Tuning
A very common alternate tuning in Celtic guitar music is called DADGAD, which refers to the notes of the six strings after you tune the 6th, 2nd and 1st strings down one whole tone. As you will see in some of the videos in this article and in Celtic music in general, the DADGAD tuning is common, and it allows you to fingerpick beautiful Celtic chords and melodies more easily.
Advanced Technique - Celtic Tremolo Fingerpicking
The ultimate goal of Celtic fingerstyle guitar is not to sound like a guitar but to sound like a fiddle. Most Celtic jigs were played on a fiddle, and the rhythms and melodies reflect that. The use of the tremolo technique is meant to imitate this. It is an adaptation of the classical fingerstyle technique in which the index, middle and ring finger take turns plucking one string rapidly.
The following video will demonstrate the tremolo technique and how it relates to other techniques already mentioned. The guitarist mentions "m, a, m, i" combination in the video:
- The "a" = ring finger
- The "m" = middle finger
- The "i" = index finger.
Therefore, the fingerpicking pattern you will learn is "middle-ring-middle-index" repeated at a rapid speed on one string.
The techniques above will provide a fundamental foundation for learning Celtic fingerstyle guitar.
Examples of Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar
The following guitarists and songs demonstrate what it sounds like when you combine all the aforementioned techniques into a single work of music.
Lisa McCormick's Tutorial of Irish Song 'Little Red Lark'
The brilliant Celtic fingerstyle guitarist, Lisa McCormick has a great YouTube video that introduces the Celtic song Little Red Lark. She doesn't stop there, however. On her site, she will also show you how to play it for free.
The following video is her introductory performance of Little Red Lark you can listen to before going to her in-depth tutorial at the link above.
Tony McManus and His Instructional Resources
Tony McManus is known for being an accomplished Celtic fingerstyle guitarist, and his videos are popular on YouTube and Amazon. His many books and DVDs are not only affordable resources, they're one of the go-to guides on the topic.
Glenn Weiser's Celtic Guitar Encyclopedia
Weiser's efforts in compiling and arranging over 300 Celtic songs for guitar, complete with sheet music and historical notes about each song, is a treasure and a public service for Celtic guitar enthusiasts. His Celtic Guitar Encyclopedia: Fingerstyle Edition is well worth the $20 (give or take) for the Kindle version. Once you've got it on Kindle, you can pull it out anytime on your phone or tablet and work on Celtic songs.
Stephen Wake's Gorgeous 'Ciùil Amuigh' Album and Free Tabs
If you'd like some stunningly gorgeous Celtic fingerstyle music to keep you motivated and inspired, Stephen Wake's Ciùil Amuigh album is a must-have. Not only do you get some haunting new Celtic music, you get Stephen's free guitar tab booklet that comes with the album so you can learn his songs on the album.
A Useful Expansion of Your Skill
Learning Celtic fingerstyle guitar does more for you than just give you the chance to play beautiful Irish music. It brings your right-hand picking and left-hand fretting skills to a higher level, especially as you master the fast-moving jigs with triplets and rapid hammer-ons and pull-offs. These skills will easily transfer into many other genres of guitar playing.