Arranging Celtic Tunes – The Kesh Jig

I’d like to get started showing people the nuts and bolts of arranging celtic/traditional tunes. I found it very satisfying when i started arranging pieces for myself. Playing other folks arrangements is fun, but eventually i wanted to put my own stamp on things, or arrange tunes no one else had done before.

In this blog entry we will look at arranging the standard the Kesh Jig, for guitar.

Arranging celtic music can be a bit tricky at first, especially for those used to playing traditional american styles on the guitar. The alternating thumb/travis picking technique doesn’t impart the right rhythm, and is not practical on the faster tunes. A different approach is neccessary to make the melodies flow like they would on the traditional instruments. A useful thing to remember is that these melodies are usually played on instruments like the fiddle, pipes, flute, and tin whistle. On these its easy to play to legato, not having to pick or articulate every note. Picking up a guitar and picking every single note can often times sound staccato and choppy. One of things we will look at is various ways to smooth out the melody.

There are some basic steps that i run through when arranging a tune. They are:

1. Learn the melody till you have it cold, this can be with pick, fingers, whatever

2. Learn to play the melody in several different places on the neck

3. Start to incorporate bass line/harmony

4. Practice it

Learn the Melody

I prefer to learn tunes by ear, played on traditional instruments if possible.  I feel for traditional music learning by ear is the way to go.  It may be tough in the beginning, but once you spend some time you will learn tunes qucker and retain them easier.  A lot of celtic tunes move at a brisk pace, so its useful to use software to slow them down while retain the pitch.  The Amazing Slow Downer and Trasncribe are two popular choices.  Quicktime player for Mac and Windows Media Player for Windows are two free options that will also slow down audio files.

Learn the melody till you can play it from memory.  Having a solid grasp of the melody will make it easier once we start exploring options for an arrangement.

Melodic Choices

Once you can play the melody solid you’ll want to start experiement with playing it all over the neck of the guitar.  This is the time to start using different strings for certain melody notes, which can change the texture, and to start to think about melodic vs linear playing.

Melodic technique is playing consecutive melody notes on different strings.  This allows the notes to sustain more and prevents the melody form sounding choppy.  Linear playing is voicing conecutive notes on the same string. Check out the two passages from O’Carolans Recipet and The Kesh Jig, which we will be learning in this article

Tab Notation ExamplesLinear vs Melodic

Audio ClipLinear/Melodic

One technique is not neccessarily better than the other, they are just both options to consider.  One thing i like to do when looking for melodic options is to voice a note higher up on the neck instead of on the first or second string.  For example in Orkney tuning a G on the first string fifth fret sounds alot differnt than a G on third string twelfth fret.  If you really want a nice thick tone or make a certain note cry this is a good technique to consider.

Bass and Harmony

Next we want to start filling out the melody by starting to add a bass line.  Celtic music is not very complex harmonically. Tunes are usually in one of a few basic keys, and tend to stay there for the entire time. Basic diatonic chords for harmony work great. The main challenge (or at least one of them) with celtic fingerstyle guitar is finding a way to play the melody so it flows well, and be able to add in interesting bass and harmony.

Once you can play a melody cleanly from memory its time to start thinking about a bass line.  If you learned a tune from a recording you could just play along with it strumming chords to see what fits.  Some of you may be good enough to hear in your head where the harmony should go.  Once you figure out the basic chords work out a bassline that represents those chords.  So for a simple tune like the Kesh Jig whose chords are based around G, C, and D, my bass line might just be G, C, and D notes in the appropriate places.  Alot of times a simple drone in the tonic key will sound fine, perhaps chaning to a different chords the second time around.

Celtic guitar arrangements can sound good with just two voices, the melody and a bass part.  The emphasis is on the melody, its different from travis picking where we have a bouncing bass part and syncopation going in. For now bass notes will be occurring on the beat, so a simple way to get the melody and bass is just with a pinch. One of your fingers plucks the melody on the higher string while your thumb gets the bass note on the lower string.

Tab/Notation ExamplePinch.pdf

Audio Example – MP3

Putting it all together

We’ll put it all together with a complete arrangement of the Kesh Jig, shown below.  I’ve based the bass line around the chords the tune oulines, G, C, and D.  In some places i substitute an E bass note, which represents an E minor chord i would play if i was strumming backup.  All the bass lines on are the beat, so we articulate the bass and melody notes with the pinch technique.  The carats above certain notes represent Middle Finger Thwacks, or MFT’s.  With this you are flicking the string with the back of your picking hand middle finger nail.  The finger curls into the palm, and then flicks out, striking the appropriate string.  I hope to do a full blog entry on that techniqe later.

So we have tab/notation and audio samples for the arrangement.  The slow version is as close as the notation as i can get, the faster version probably contains some different stuff, as well as a few flubs.

Tab/Notation Kesh Jig

Audio Sample Slow

Audio Sample Faster

I hope you enjoy it.  Feel free to get in touch with feedback or comments

Next Week

A full arrangement of O’Carolan’s Reciept

Comments 3

  1. I've listened to the Celtic arrangement it's beautiful and gentle and the playing is amazing. I Love those Celtic traditional tunes. It always takes me to other lands.

    If you love guitars, you'll love that video "Guitar – No More Questions"

  2. Anton, this is by far and away my favorite website for traditioanl music. I am a guitar player and am very influenced by Irish traditional music. I play some other instruments as well, but with a site like this I seem to be spending a LOT of time listening, studying, and playing my guitar. Your instruction and insite is so appreciated and I wanted to say THANK YOU!! I got you album and it is fantastic. If there are other ways to support the website please let me know because many a guitarist starting out with trad needs to be here on this site.


  3. Chris, thanks so much for your kind words. It really means alot when I hear folks are getting something out of the arrangements or posts that I put up. Some of those pieces take a while to notate and TAB out, so comments like yours really make it worth while.

    Thanks alot for buying my album. As far as support that really helps, as I am putting proceeds from album sales towards the next cd. Other than that you can spread the word about my music to friends and fellow musicians who you think might enjoy it. I am just an independent musician, and by far the biggest challenge is spreading the word and getting my music out there.

    Glad you are enjoying the blog, and please don't hesitate to get in touch if you have some specific celtic guitar questions.



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