Watch the Tonal Considerations online guitar lesson by Tony McManus from The Celtic Journeyman
I’m going to finish up this section talking about how I get my tone and how you might get yours. I’m playing a signature model guitar made by PRS Guitars in Maryland. It’s a stock production guitar but I wanted a wider fingerboard and that’s what it has. The operative word is “I”. It suits me and it might not suit anyone else. Here’s a good exercise- list all your favourite guitar players and list what they have in common in terms of gear- and the answer is probably nothing. I use medium strings- 13 to 56, heavier than most acoustic guitarists use. I use mediums because often I will tune the low string down to C. This is Csus2 tuning- CGCGCD.
There are even strings gauged specifically for DADGAD tuning and it’s great that they paid attention to players but I find that the standard medium set plays in DADGAD just as well.
So it’s obviously a steel string guitar- rosewood back and sides. But none of that is how it has to be. The nylon string guitar was brought to the fore in Irish music only in the last 20 or 30 years by an Australian! My friend Steve Cooney turned up with a cheap nylon string guitar and burrowed his way into the Irish music scene and is now one of the most important musicians in the country. He plays nylon strings with a pick which is just WRONG but it works!
The properties I need in a guitar are sustain and balance. I don’t want the low string to overpower the top string. I’ve become used to playing a 14 fret neck however when I started playing professionally I had a much smaller guitar styled after a Martin 00 size. So there’s no one type of guitar that’s suited to this music. It hasn’t generated a type of guitar in the way that, say, Hawaiian music created the Hawaiian guitar. There is no such instrument as a Celtic guitar. So what I’m giving you in this course is my personal approach but hopefully the approach will bring rewards.
Fingernails: There’s lots of ways to attack guitar strings from nails to teeth. I once saw Fred Frith play a Gibson 335 with nail files and a shoe brush. That’s one approach- I use fingernails. When I started getting serious I’d find my nails would wear out and split so I now coat the nails in acrylic and go to a beauticians once a month. It’s a white powder that gets put in alcohol and it turns to a gloop that is painted on the nail and under a light it sets rock hard very quickly.
It’s a major commitment as they don’t come off at the end of the day. They grow out and you get them back filled every few weeks. If you decide to go down this route you are stuck with it as it weakens your natural nails.
One other issue is that they get smooth after a while and I have to keep filing them- analogous to putting rosin on a fiddle bow. If you don’t use rosin the bow becomes smooth and bounces off the strings. I do the same with the nails. I rough them up to get grip.
Now, where on the string do I hit? For me the bottom end of the soundhole is the sweet spot. Go too far up and the sound is muddy, too close to the bridge and it’s too harsh. So I split the difference.