Backing up Celtic music on guitar

In the next few weeks i will be posting a series of standard dance tunes, showing how i might back up each one in the Orkney tuning, and then finally stringing them together in a set.  For folks that done use Orkney, i think the concepts will be applicaple to any tuning, you’ll just have to find your own chord shapes.

Backing up celtic  music on guitar is an interesting thing.  For starters, the music has existed for centuries (at least) without any rhythmic at all, except for the goatskin drum called the bodrhan.  Guitar didnt enter the picture till the early 1900’s, and didnt really start getting refined as a backup instrument till the 60’s.  So you get melody players occasionally on the traditional instruments (flute, fiddle, pipes, etc) who don’t like any rhythmic back at all.  Fair enough, i think there is room for everyone in this type of music.  Plus then folks who only play guitar can learn to play a melody instrument.

Being that alot of folks play guitar, and celtic sessions are often held in public places, you often get pepole from other styles wanting to join in, and more often than not it doesn’t go over very well.  Celtic tunes have their own specific rhythms, and certain types of chords sound more appropriate than others.  For someone wanting to bring their guitar down to the local pub to play along, a certain amount of studying at home is first neccessary, and even then you might go to the session and just listen for a while.  I am not trying to dissuade anyone from playing this wonderful music, but i wouldnt go to a jazz session expecting to be able to sit right in.  Celtic backup may seem simple at first, and in a way it is, but its also not.

I’m going to list a few things that i think someone should have a grasp on before they wander down to the local session with their guitar.  These are not in order of importance neccessarily.

1.  Be able to figure out what key the tune is in.  Obviously quite important.  Its nice on guitar because you can sit and quietly pluck a string or chord till you figure out the key.  Most celtic tunes are either in G, D, Am, Em, Dm, Amaj, or Bm.  Ideally you would be able to figure out the key, and know from memory what chords work in that key.  So for the D you would have D, Emin, F#min, Gmaj, Amaj, Bmin, C#dim, and D.  For the C#dim i usually play an A with a C# in the bass.

2.  Learn your rhythms.  Rhythm is probably the mostly important thing in celtic music.  I would rather play with someone who had good rhythm and used simple chords vs someone who knew alot of chordal tricks but didnt not have good rhythm.  Its dance music after all.  Reels are in 4/4, not unlike bluegrass, but the boom chuck of bluegrass often does not work with celtic music.  Celtic music emphasizes the beats 1 and 3, and bluegrass 2 and 4.  So when a good bluegrass player comes to an irish session and decides to play rhythm tne boom chuck often tends to drag the rhythm.  Not good.  I can’t explain a formal method to backing up reels.  Get a bunch of cds with players you like and try to emulate their rhythm.  For me it was just alot of trial and error, and strumming along in my bedroom.  It helps to find cds relatively sparse instrumentation and perhaps only one backup instrument, so you can play along and hear everything.  Here is a list of a few artists/cds that i like to play along to.

Josh Dukes –  Far from Home

Chris Smith –  Coyoete Banjo

Alan and John Kelly – Four Mile House

Anything by Randal Bays

These cd’s feature alot of standards and have clean instrumentation.

Jigs are in 6/8 and present a challenge to people not used to them.  There are a few different strumming patterns one can use.  Here is a quick example of one.  There are six beats to the measure and an eighth note gets one beat.  We will be strumming on each beat, and the pick pattern is down-up-down, down-up-down.

Jig Audio


I am in the Orkney tuning, with a capo at II, and fingering the big D chord shown below.










3.  Alot of patterns used to backup one tune can be appled to other tunes.  A good starting point is I IV V and I VII.  Many major key tunes revolve around the I IV and V chord.  So in D that is D, G, and A.  In G its G, C, D.  I certainly would not pigeonhole all major sounding tunes into this category, but its a good place to begin if you are unsure of what to play.  Minor key tunes often go from I to VII.  So Eminor to D, Aminor to G, etc.

Some good resources

Musician Chris Smith has an excellent book out by Mel Bay called Celtic Backup for All Instrumenalists.  It goes into the theory behind backing up the music, and has alot of nice tunes to play along to, with notation and chords written out.  You may or may not be into all the theory, i memorized some of it then kind of forgot about it.  The way my mind works its easier to just play and figure things out.

John Doyle has a nice DVD on Homespun detailing his backup style.  Its a few years old now, and his style has evolved even more since then.  I think his playing is pretty unique, and his rhythm is very driving.  Everyone may not be able to emulate his strumming hand rhythm, but you can learn alot about chord choices and substitions.

Thats all for now.  Hopefully some stuff to think about.






Comments 2

  1. Hi Anton, just found that you had put an entry in on backup on your blog, I didn’t catch a post from you at CGT saying you had a blog entry up on this subject, so I’m late to the game, cool stuff, looking forward to further material!

    Best wishes,

  2. Yea,, i want to do post soon about backing up reels, just have not had the time to sit down at home and record all the needed material. Perhaps this weekend.

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