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Celtic Fingerstyle Banjo Overview and Tips

Posted by Tom Hanway on Tuesday, December 24, 2013

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Living in Ireland for the past ten years, I have been developing Celtic Fingerstyle Banjo, working on my fourth Celtic tune collection, and planning on doing a DVD this time, along with a book of transcriptions, a commercial CD and digital downloads. 

Last Sunday, while at Paddy Reilly's Bluegrass Jam – New York City’s longest-running jam that I founded in the mid-90s – BHO's Old Hickory played me an Irish jig that he had worked up. It was beautiful, articulate, and very impressive, inspiring me to start a new Celtic thread on BHO.  He thanked me, crediting my first collection for helping him to get started in Celtic Fingerstyle Banjo: Complete Book of Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo.  (Thanks to BHO for introducing us!) 

I wrote him earlier today, and this has prompted me to share some observations and tips about contemporary Celtic Fingerstyle, for example, how it combines “melodic” and “single-string” techniques without being a slave to either technique, in part because Celtic Fingerstyle requires being adept with the fretting-hand (or “left-hand” for right-handed people). 

In Celtic Fingerstyle, employing “melodic” or “single-string” style is not a simple either-or choice, and playing Irish and Celtic tunes is not predicated upon or limited to bluegrass banjo techniques, though it is essential to be informed by such habits.

What distinguishes Celtic Fingerstyle techniques from bluegrass techniques?   I am convinced that the fretting-hand and picking-hand work in a way that goes beyond standard bluegrass (Scruggs/melodic/single-string) techniques.  It doesn’t make sense to rely on Classic or Classical banjo traditions either in seeking an Irish or Celtic musicality.  What’s more, one can learn from a variety of local traditions, styles and techniques in playing Celtic tunes, and these don’t even have to come from the banjo (tenor or five-string).  The banjo can imitate tin whistle, flute, fiddle, e.g., birlin’, even uilleann pipes especially some of the less complicated piping ornaments.

I’ve said this in threads over the years: Depending on the tune, one can go with either a more legato or staccato route, which loosely translates into "melodic" and "single-string" style, though bluegrass techniques can superimpose a different cultural paradigm on Celtic music. This happens quite often with amusing results, sometimes with amazing results too, but it can create a sloppy hybrid, a conflation of poorly perceived traditions, progressive gobbledygook, an unwieldy mess of clattering notes, clashing chords and awkward rhythms.  Such mixing and matching of styles would surely be vexing to purists in the bluegrass and Celtic camps, because it is an obvious chimera, an alien creature with no allegiance to a single unified tradition.  (Some people would like this idea, and would rock on anyway!)  I tend to view all this from the living traditions that we know collectively as Celtic music, which includes but is not limited to Irish traditional music (ITM).

Music is listening and knowing about context and style.  There are many musical considerations to be considered, such as making tunes playable at standard Irish (or Celtic) tempos, and most importantly, having them sound traditional by Celtic sensibilities, e.g., not a country or bluegrass crossover or adaptation being squeezed through either Scruggs, melodic, or single-string technique, though all of these techniques can be used to Celtic tunes.  Technique is not enough.  It's about evolving a personal style and really feeling the music, getting inside it.

Let’s take melodic or “arpa” technique. If, for example, a lot of unwanted resonance occurs because each successive note is played on a different string, especially where minor-seconds (notes that are a half-step apart), or other unwanted intervals or partials are being heard, then there is probably a better way to get these notes, killing undesirable resonances.  Classical and jazz and players know this, and they can transpose all over the neck and not be trapped by rigid melodic patterns that change from key to key.  That’s handy knowledge for Celtic Fingerstyle Banjo players, perhaps more important than being fluent or fluid in so many OT tunings, though I wouldn’t rule these out either.  There are many useable tunings out there, especially for Celtic concert pieces, and more can be invented.  

What about tuning and re-tuning to play in different keys – is that Celtic?  No, but it can work, obviously.  I am quite happy with standard G tuning and avoid switching tunings (as in Old-Time), because it’s not practical at Irish, Scottish or Celtic sessions, and might actually disrupt them, turning people off to the five-string banjo at sessions (because it’s constanlys Celtic or British Isles tunes being played in the Celtic diaspora, say in New England or somewhere in Appalachia.  Of course, there’s a Celtic connection, but then we can find Continental, African and Native American connections in Old-time, and then some.

Where can we look for inspiration in playing Irish or Celtic tunes? I have always listened to fiddlers, pipers, flute and whistle players, the box (button accordion), melodeon, piano accordion, and all the Celtic instruments that came from previous European traditions.  The five-string banjo is just another instrument in the evolving Celtic traditions, and its use goes back to antebellum times, even before the tenor banjo.  But that’s another story. I suggest that Celtic banjo players pay more attention to their fretting-hand work, and not be lazy about moving their fingers to play notes on the frets, and in the process, thinking more like fiddlers, mandolin and guitar players (across idioms).  Make every note count and sound as clean as every other note.  That doesn’t mean that one cannot employ hammer-ons, slides, pull-offs, and the like.  Play it like you mean it, not how others think you should play it based on an outside culture’s playing techniques and musical sensibilities.  This is easier said than done.   Okay, sorry again for the length. 

I have learned a lot from playing sessions on both sides of the Atlantic, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, across the UK, and in Australia, and much of that knowledge has been conveyed in my three Mel Bay collections, the first being Complete Book of Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo (1998).

The last two Mel Bay collections have further evolved Celtic Fingerstyle Banjo, especially the Jigs and Reels collections (for intermediate/advanced players); the second collection of Airs and Session Tunes (for all levels, especially beginners), has some very popular tunes in it, e.g., The Stack of Barley, Whiskey in the Jar, Raglan Road, and more!

Best-Loved Jigs and Reels

Best-Loved Airs and Session Tunes

Last, I’ve been busy with various recordings and a couple of bands, playing banjo in an Alternative Pop band (please find The Carnival Brothers’ channel on YouTube.  It's been a very exciting year for me.

Wishing all my BHO Friends a Merry Christmas and blessings to all!  Feel free to contact me over the holidays.

Best – Tom

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