Watch the Common Celtic Rhythms online guitar lesson by Tony McManus from The Celtic Journeyman
It’s about time we discussed the various tune types that occur in this music. This is often dance music so we are into rhythms in a big way. The basic in Irish and Scottish music is 4/4 and the tunes in that rhythm are “reels”. So you count 4 in a bar. Here’s a tune called The Humours of Tulla- a town in Co Clare in the west of Ireland. So you hear the 1,2,3,4 rhythm.
Let me play it a bit slower...actually, let me play just the melody. So that’s the tune played slightly slower than would be played for dancing. And I arranged this, after listening to Tony Cuffe, with a simple bass line and what you’re listening for is the straight 4/4 rhythm.
So that’s “reel” rhythm and the big distinction in Scottish and Irish music is between a reel and a jig. Now what’s the difference? One way of memorising the distinction is in terms of British football clubs! Reel time goes “Glasgow Celtic, Glasgow Rangers, Glasgow Celtic, Glasgow Rangers.....” and that’s 4/4 rhythm. Now, 6/8 time in terms of football clubs goes “Liverpool, Everton, Liverpool, Everton.....”
Let me play a jig. Listen for 1,2,3- 1,2,3. That’s jig time. Now the most complex it will get in Scottish and Irish music is 9/8. I talked earlier about teaching bluegrass players and when you mention 9/8 the colour can drain from people’s faces. 9/8 can be tricky but also very beautiful. With 9 beats in the bar you have huge scope for syncopation. In 2s you have an on beat or an off beat. With 9 beats in the bar there are all sorts of places you can put a bass not, places you can lean on a note.
That’s a slip jig called Catherine Kelly’s. Nine beats in the bar- 1.2.3-1,2,3-1,2,3 is one bar. I love the slip jig rhythm and it’s a complex as it will get in traditional music. People have written tunes in more complex rhythms and some are great and some are done just because you can! You’ll find the odd tune in 5/4 and a couple in 11/16 but within the body of traditional music 9/8 slip jig rhythm is a complex as it’ll get.
Then in Scotland there’s a rhythm called a Strathspey. The strathspey is usually written in 4/4. But it’s very definitely not a reel. The Strathspey rhythm is very syncopated, very dotted. If you can do hammer on and pull off you can do strathspey rhythm.
There’s a tune called the Ewie wi the Crooked Horn- good Scottish title! A ewie is type of sheep but here it refers to a whisky still. Listen to what I’m doing- lots of hammer on and pull off but listen to the rhythm. There are a few things to notice there. First- it’s in the mixolydian mode- not major or minor but with a flattened 7th. I’m using mostly left hand! And you get that nice percussive noise.
So that’s a strathspey. Usually you’d play a bunch of them and then change from the syncopated 4/4 to straight 4/4- that’s the change from strathspey to reel. That change is really beautiful. It’s like discovering you’re driving with handbrake on and then releasing it. It’s a rush of energy as you change rhythms.
In Brittany the basic rhythm is a “gavotte”. It’s in 4/4 but it’s more to do with the structure of the tune. It’s a 2 bar phrase which is repeated and then a 4 bar phrase which is repeated. This is getting into the territory that a lot of “Celtic Guitar” doesn’t reach. So a gavotte has a 2 bar phrase- repeat. Then a 4 bar phrase which you repeat.
So that’s a Breton gavotte and variations of that structure- 2 bar, 2bar, 4 bar , 4 bar- occur throughout Breton music.
So there’s some dance music from Ireland, Scotland and Brittany and those time signatures 4/4, 6/8, 9/8 will cover a lot- doesn’t exhaust the genre but covers enough to give you a firm grip on traditional Celtic music.