Dave’s Guitar Heroes Pt. 5 “Celtic Guitars”

Traditional Irish music has been present in my life since childhood. My Mum had tapes of The Chieftains and Planxty which she played a lot, and my Dad was a huge fan of Christy Moore, whether he was singing old folk ballads or modern songs. When I was very young I heard a lot of tin whistle as my sister was learning it. I was sent for a few lessons with the same teacher, a lovely man called Piaras, but sadly he passed away very soon after I started with him. Perhaps there was something traumatic about that as I put down the whistle then and never played it again. It wasn’t until my mid-teens when I began to listen again to traditional Irish music. My Mum spoke often about how much she enjoyed Andy Irvine’s songs with Planxty, so one year, for her birthday I bought her a tape of Andy Irvine and Paul Brady’s classic album. I ended up listening to it a lot more than she did! I soon started listening to her Planxty and Chieftains tapes and marvelled at The Chieftains almost orchestral version of The Foxhunt. Then, when I went to the Rock School in Ballyfermot after leaving school, I met Ciarán Swift and it wasn’t too long before we started playing some trad guitar duets together, with a little help from Sarah McQuaid’s DADGAD guitar book. Since then I’ve spent a huge amount of my life learning about traditional Irish music and playing it. Along the way I’ve been influenced by some great guitarists who I feature below in my “Celtic Guitars” playlists. My thoughts on these guitarists and their influence on me follows.
Paul Brady

Paul Brady is best known as a hit singer-songwriter who has written songs for, among others, Tina Turner. Before he went down that path he was a well known singer and guitarist in traditional Irish music circles. He is one of the pioneers in playing Irish trad on the guitar. I first noticed how good he was when listening to his album with Andy Irvine. On that album he plays some Reels very impressively on the guitar. I’d never heard anyone doing that before and I loved the sound. He also had beautiful guitar accompaniments to songs like Mary and the Soldier and Arthur McBride. I did some research on his playing and found out he was using the same Open G tuning that I’d learnt from some guitar parts that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page played. I started learning Brady’s Open G accompaniments to these songs and I liked the sound so much that I stuck with that tuning to accompany Irish trad, whilst most of my peers were using Dropped D or DADGAD tunings. I don’t know anyone else who uses Open G to accompany Irish trad, which surprises me as it works really well.

Dennis Cahill

In the year 2000, when I was 23, a friend of mine asked if I’d like to go to a trad gig at Dublin’s National Concert Hall. I’d not heard of the musicians but Barry told me he was sure I’d enjoy it, especially because the guitarist had a really different way of accompanying Irish music. The gig was by Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill and it was a life-changing event for me. Martin’s fiddle playing was of course magnificent, however as a guitarist I was really drawn into Dennis’ minimalist way of accompanying Martin. I loved the harmonies he used and was impressed by how he would suddenly start playing the tunes every now and again from out of nowhere. It wasn’t long before I went to learn directly from Dennis at his guitar classes at the Feakle Traditional Music Festival in Clare. A few years later I went into Martin’s fiddle class. Then by 2005 I’d convinced Martin and Dennis to work with me on a new composition which became ‘Music for the Departed’. I’ve worked with them both a lot since then, and even stepped in for Dennis a couple of times to accompany Martin when Dennis wasn’t available for Irish Memory Orchestra events. I spent a lot of time in my mid-20s working out how to play like Dennis, so I found it quite natural to write music for him and step into his shoes when needed. Overall I would say my trad guitar accompaniment style is like a hybrid between Paul Brady and Dennis Cahill.  Using Open G but a bit more minimalist in the use of chords, rhythms and harmonies than Brady is. Dennis is also a master joke teller, in fact when he speaks with you nearly every second line is a punchline!

Mícheál O Domhnaill (RIP)

I’ve never tried to learn how to play exactly like the legendary Bothy Band guitarist Mícheál O Domhnaill. I think this is because he mainly used DADGAD, a tuning I never really took to. Nonetheless I did play along to Bothy Band records a lot when I was younger and learnt some of his chord progressions. I saw him in concert a few times with the brilliant fiddle player Paddy Glackin. They were a magical duo to watch together. Last year I was hugely honoured to play with Paddy Glackin at the Farmleigh Music and Arts Festival. I was very conscious then that I was occupying a space that Mícheál inhabited for many years with Paddy. It was a humbling and wonderful experience. Mícheál’s playing is hugely influential to folk guitarists worldwide. He had a strong, innovative strumming accompaniment style which, alongside Donal Lunny and Tríona Ní Domhnaill, drove the Bothy Band’s tune players to new heights of virtuosity and creativity in Irish music. He also did some beautiful finger-picking on songs and tunes like ‘The Maids of Mitchelstown’. When he teamed up with Kevin Burke as a duo he also moved into jazz-influenced playing on tracks like ‘The Promenade’. He passed away suddenly in 2006 aged just 54. A terrible loss for Irish music. May he rest in peace.

Steve Cooney

Steve Cooney is one of the most unique and gifted musicians in Ireland. Originally from Australia, he came to Ireland after spending time living with Aboriginals. They told him he needed to go to the land of his forefathers and to learn their language, music, poetry and way of life. He took their advice and moved to Ireland in the ’80’s. Soon after he was invited to join one of the biggest Irish groups of the time – Stockton’s Wing. It was his next musical meeting that would really change the face of Irish music, when he teamed up with Kerry accordion player and singer Seamus Begley. With Begley, Cooney changed the nature of accompaniment in Irish music with an energetic, wild style that has proved hugely influential over the years. Steve has many imitators now, but none come close to his musicality. If you listen to him accompanying Martin Hayes on a piece like ‘The Crooked Road’ it is such a different style to how he plays with Begley. He’s also recorded some great music with Tony McMahon, Dermot Byrne, Sharon Shannon, Donal Lunny and many more trad greats. He was even a member of Sineád O’Connor’s band for a few years and I once got a gig in his place at the Masters of Tradition Festival, when he got called to play with Sineád instead. Though he is best known for his blistering backing style, he is also a masterful fingerstyle soloist, who has a particular genius for interpreting the harp music of Turlough O’Carolan. A lovely soul and a living legend, I’m glad to have had the chance to chat with Steve a few times and also join him on stage on a couple of occasions. The energy he brings to the stage is incredible!

Arty McGlynn (RIP)

Arty McGlynn was, alongside Paul Brady, a real pioneer of Celtic Guitar playing. He was the first musician to make a solo album of traditional Irish music on guitar, ‘McGlynn’s Fancy’ is a now legendary recording.  He also made some great recordings playing Irish tunes on electric guitar, another innovation. He is best known though as a hugely popular accompanist, not only in trad, but also with songwriters as well known as Van Morrison. Arty sadly passed away last year. He was a close friend of some very good friends of mine and though I only met him a couple of times I had huge admiration for him as a man and musician. I’ve seen him play in numerous concerts over the years with luminaries including Liam O’Flynn, Matt Molloy, John Carty, and his long-time partner Nollaig Casey. I also saw him several times in a completely different guise, playing jazz on a Monday Night in Bogan’s Bar in his home town of Omagh.  He had a great sense of humour too and his stories, like his music live on. RIP Arty, you’re sorely missed.

Ciaran Swift

Ciaran Swift is definitely the most underrated guitarist on this list. Though I count him as one of my best friends, I can safely say he’s one of the most influential trad guitarists to me, as it was Ciaran who really got me interested in exploring trad guitar when he told me about Sarah McQuaid’s DADGAD book. In the late 90’s we started learning tunes from the book together and worked out some arrangements that eventually made it onto my 2006 debut album ‘Draíocht’. There are two guitar duets on that album and often people don’t realise when they listen that it is Ciaran playing the lead melody on DADGAD steel string and me playing the accompaniment on nylon string guitar. I’m happy to set the record straight here! Ciarán has had a long diverse career working with songwriters like Fionn Regan and Roesy and touring the world in cover bands. He’s at his best though when playing trad guitar and, as well as being a great tune player, he’s a brilliant accompanist too with a really strong strumming technique as good as anyone on this list! 

John Doyle

John Doyle is, like Steve Cooney, a man with many imitators and unfortunately most of his imitators do a poor job of it! John is a really versatile guitarist, however he’s perhaps best known for his powerful accompaniment style with Liz Carroll and the band Solas. He’s a fine singer and great tune player also. The main way he influenced me is through his work with Liz Carroll on the album ‘Lost in the Loop’. I saw them in concert around the time that was released and I was really blown away by the power and chemistry of their musical partnership. I would have learnt a few of John’s chord progressions at the time, without using his Dropped D tuning. Years later I’d have the honour of touring with Liz Carroll and Mairtin O’Connor. On that tour I didn’t try to imitate John at all but I was definitely playing some of the chords he used with Liz! He achieved great things with Liz Carroll, nominated for a Grammy and even playing at the White House for President Obama. Their duo ended a few years ago and John moved into playing with American folk singers like Joan Baez and Mary Chapin Carpenter.  I’m glad to see he has made it to the big time, however I feel his duo with Liz was his finest hour and would love to see them reunite.

Dáithí Sproule & Mark Kelly (Altan)

For several years, starting in the early 2000s I made an annual pilgrimage to the Frankie Kennedy Winter School in the beautiful area of Bunbeg and Dunlewey in Donegal. It was there I first saw the dynamic band Altan. I got all their albums over the first few years and spent a lot of time playing along to them, learning the chord progressions that guitarists Mark Kelly and Dáithí Sproule laid down with bouzouki player Ciaran Curran. I was never quite sure whether I was listening to Dáithí or Mark as they tended to alternate recording on different tracks. Dáithí usually played with Altan when they were touring the USA, with Mark touring with them elsewhere. However they’d sometimes both be at the Frankie Kennedy Winter School and sometimes they’d share the stage or alternate during the same gig. With Altan they play a similar style of DADGAD accompaniment, alternating between powerful strums and intricate finger-picking. Outside of Altan Dáithí has recorded with many other artists including Liz Carroll, with whom he was in the great group Trian. He’s also a fine singer and was a member of the short lived but influential group Skara Brae with Mícheál O’Domhnaill and his sisters Máiréid and Tríona Ní Domhnaill.

Seamie O’Dowd
It was at the same Frankie Kennedy Winter School that I first saw Seamie O’Dowd when he was playing with the fantastic band Dervish. I think they were really at the peak of their powers at that time and I remember the gig being a very special night and Seamie was on fire. A couple of years later he was back playing another amazing gig, this time with Mairtin O’Connor, Cathal Hayden, Garry O’Briain and the late Mary McPartlan. The same year I was really amazed to see him take the stage at a fiddle recital and he played the fiddle brilliantly too! Seamie is something of a genius multi-instrumentalist, equally good on harmonica, double bass and he’s a great singer too. If that weren’t enough he’s regarded as one of Ireland’s best blues rock players in the mould of Rory Gallagher. Seamie is a tough act to follow as I’ve learnt by playing with Máirtín O’Connor a few times over the years. Mairtin has often asked me to play ‘The Road West’ with him, and in that I’m directly learning from Seamie as he recorded the great guitar part on that album. I can’t play it exactly like Seamie does as I’m more of a finger-style player and he’s much quicker with a plectrum than I am. Maybe it’s best I do my own version anyway! 

Tony McManus

I first saw Tony McManus play when John Feeley invited him to do a concert and workshop with his classical guitar students at the DIT College of Music in Dublin. We were all really impressed by his virtuoso way of playing traditional music from Scotland and Ireland on the steel string guitar. It takes a lot to impress a room full of classical guitarists, especially if you aren’t playing classical guitar, so that’s a testament to Tony’s brilliance. A few years later I had a one-on-one masterclass with him at the Dundee Guitar Festival and it was great to spend an hour with him learning about his unique style. He showed me an open E tuning that he uses a lot to imitate the Highland Pipes. I liked the tuning, but instead of imitating it I decided the best thing I could do was forge my own way of playing trad on the guitar by finding my own tuning. Eventually I did by imitating the tuning of an Irish fiddle. One thing he does which I did learn and keep is his way of playing a treble/triplet ornament with his fingers in a way similar to how classical guitarists play a tremolo. Though Tony is Scottish he plays a lot of Irish traditional music and does it very well!

Addendum – My own trad guitar style

I’ve mentioned how my trad backing style is like a hybrid between Paul Brady and Dennis Cahill, though in fairness to all those listed above, I’d have been influenced by them all in some way to make my style. I’m also influenced by bouzouki and mandolin players like Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine. I do my own thing though really so here’s a summary of what I do with different tunings.

Open G – DGDGBD 

I always use this when backing trad in sessions and often in concerts too. On record you can hear me use it on my first album ‘Draíocht’ on the songs/tunes ‘The Mad Magician/Mad Magician’s Daughter’, ‘Beautiful Freaks Like Us’, ‘Stone Walls’ and ‘The Magical Reel/Cinderella’s Slipper’. I also used this tuning when I accompanied Martin Hayes in Irish Memory Orchestra gigs and on tour with Liz Carroll and Mairtin O’Connor. Occasionally I’ll add some influences from African guitar styles into my backing, using this tuning.

Dropped D – DADGBE

I use this tuning when accompanying Máirtin O’Connor with the Irish Memory Orchestra on the tracks ‘The Cuckoo’, and ‘Cat Chase Mouse’. On record I use it on the Draíocht tracks ‘The Tempest in Mali’ and ‘The Monument’. When I have two guitars with me in concert, one is my Martin steel string tuned to Open G and the other a nylon string tuned to Dropped D, which I switch quickly to Standard tuning when needed.

Standard – EADGBE

I rarely use this when playing trad, but I use it in the Draíocht track ‘Drowsy Maggie/The Coming of Spring’ and also with Mairtin O’Connor sometimes.

Dave’s Fiddle Tunings – DGDGAE / CGDGAE / BbFDGAE / DADGAE

I developed these tunings in order to play Irish trad tunes with an authentic style derived from fiddle playing and piping. These are the tunings I use on the album ‘Contemporary Traditional Irish Guitar’. Each tuning has the top four strings tuned DGAE, this gives the option of playing fiddle ornaments on the same open strings as fiddle players. I change the lower two strings according to the key of the tunes I am playing in. The main reason I developed this tuning though was because I’d learnt how to play a lot of Irish tunes on mandolin/banjo and instead of relearning the fingerings in a more common tuning I figured out a way of tuning the guitar so that I could just transfer the same fingerings from mandolin/banjo, whilst adding in some bass drones like a piper would. These tunings allow me to play ornaments like a fiddle player would. As far as I know, I’m the first and only guitarist to develop these tunings and techniques for Irish trad playing! I’ve also used this tuning on electric guitar when recording ‘Christmas Eve’ from my Winter Variations album.