Explore Fingerstyle Guitar Techniques in Celtic Music with the Traditional Welsh Song “Men of Harlech”

Extract from the January / February 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Luke Edwards

Wales is home to an ancient and fascinating musical heritage, dating back to the bardic tradition of the 6th century. The influences that fuel the Welsh tradition are diverse and intriguing. Featuring harp music, violin tunes, and vocal ensembles, the overall music ethic is far less somber than that of its better-known Celtic cousins, Scotland and Ireland.

While the guitar is a relatively foreign instrument to traditional Welsh music, I believe it has fantastic potential to explore this ancient music in exciting new ways. In this lesson, we’ll explore some of the common techniques and adornments associated with styling and show how they can be put to good use in your playing. The piece ends with a fingering arrangement of a classic Welsh march, “Men of Harlech” , which is full of Celtic techniques and ornaments.

Choral harmony and picking-hand dynamics

Wales is known as the land of song, and one of its greatest cultural exports is large male choirs. Virtually every town and valley has its own local ensemble, and some of the traditional repertoire of this style is simply breathtaking. Usually conducted by a pipe organ and often comprised of a large number of singers, the resulting sound is a rich, dense wall of harmony unlike any other.

Like religious hymns, the harmony is often parallel and monophonic, rich in cadences and details. Getting that huge sound with just six guitar strings is no small feat. However, with proper dynamic and timbral control with the right hand, the guitar is capable of surprisingly efficient approximation.

Example 1 shows chords in the key of C major played as block voicings. The goal of this exercise is to change smoothly between written chords, while trying to emphasize the highest note of each chord. An easy way to do this is to bring the finger that selects the accented note higher in your hand, sometimes even to the point of touching your palm. This will naturally give more energy to the string and increase the volume of that note.

Practice the shapes as they are written, and once you’re comfortable with them, play through the exercise, stressing the highest note first, then stressing the middle note again, and finally by emphasizing once more the low note. This technique of playing a chord block harmony while bringing out the melody is widely used in “Men of Harlech”.

Another good exercise to refine this technique – and to improve your playing and your knowledge of the handle in general – is to apply the same techniques to your major scale in double plays. Examples 2a and 2b demonstrate the harmonized C major scale in two intervals common to Welsh music, sixths and tenths, respectively.

Example 3 approaches the same idea of ​​accentuating individual notes. This time, the accented notes are in a repeated arpeggiated selection pattern, rather than block chords.

The exercise repeats a picking pattern on a C major chord, but each repetition emphasizes a different note. This same idea can then be repeated with any other picking pattern you like, so feel free to experiment.

An idea to go even further: Practice the same exercises again, varying the placement of the picking hand. The closer this hand gets to the neck (on taste), the warmer the tone; closest to the bridge (sul ponticello), the brighter the sound. With proper application of timbre and dynamics control, you can achieve a much greater sense of depth in your playing and emphasize certain melodies and parts of a song at will.

What are cuts and taps on the guitar?

Much like its Irish and Scottish counterparts, Welsh music is rich in ornamentation. Violin tunes such as reels, jigs, bagpipes and songs from the Dawnsio (Welsh dance) tradition are good examples. Two of the most common and effective fretting adornments are cuts and strikes, incredibly short grace notes meant to add more character to a melody.

Quite often the way a cut or tap will be implemented is to play a note different from the intended melody note, before instantly removing or hammering the lead note. A staple of the genre, this technique can be heard widely on Celtic instruments like the low Irish whistle or uilleann pipes.

A cut is usually played a tone higher than the main note before being quickly pulled to the lower destination note, and a tap is the opposite, played lower than the main note and quickly hammered. Familiarize yourself with these ornaments while playing Examples 4a and 4b, making sure to add an appropriate amount of vigor and speed to ensure that no volume is lost and that no rhythmic value is unnecessarily added to the appoggiat.

I have included bass notes for these examples, both to make the exercise more musical and to highlight a common misconception when reading the appoggiatura. Although the grace note for cuts or strikes appears before the bass note on the score, in reality they occur on the same beat. Therefore, the grace note and bass note must sound at the same time before the grace note is quickly cut or tapped on its main note afterwards.

Harp Effects of Natural Harmonics on Guitar

Another technique that I really like to implement in my arrangements of Welsh music is that of natural harmonics. This is a popular technique for the harp (the national instrument of Wales), and I also think it helps achieve a harp-like quality on the guitar. It is not always possible to play an entire musical phrase using only the natural harmonics of the guitar, but when you are able to do so, it can be a very effective method of reformulating the melody in a different way and pulling it off. more out of your arrangements. . This is especially important in Welsh and Celtic music, where the A and B sections combined often only total 16 bars, so many arrangement techniques are needed to produce a performance length arrangement.

In Example 5 I wrote the melody for the very famous and beautiful Welsh song “Calon Lân” (“Pure Heart”) using only natural harmonics. If you are new to this technique, you may need a little patience for the harmonics to sound clear. Natural harmonics are most often played in frets 12, 7 and 5, but in this arrangement I have also used those found in the ninth fret. Focus on precise finger placement and picking closer to the bridge – the sound gain is well worth it! I would also recommend paying special attention to the suggested fingering I wrote for the fretting hand, as this will make it easier to transition between the different harmonics. (Note that while I’m using my middle finger on some notes, feel free to use your third finger instead if that’s more comfortable.)

Get stories like this delivered to your inbox

Another magnificent solution for reproducing the sound of the harp, the campanelle (“little bell”) technique requires finding melody notes on several strings to allow several notes to sound at the same time. Again, like using natural harmonics, this is a great arrangement technique to create a variation on a melody. It can often be a bit difficult to find the right notes at hand, and it’s not always entirely doable, but if you do, the resulting sound is enchanting.

A great way to work on the campanelle technique is to practice on the ladder. In Example 6, I wrote both ascending and descending G major scale. Pay special attention to the fingerings, because due to the stretching, there is only one manageable way to play it. Exercise slowly and do your best to hold each note for as long as possible. With careful practice, you will be able to play this scale at high speed, often faster than the traditional way, as the notes are already prepared in advance on the adjacent strings. Try working out other scales and melodies in the Campanella style yourself, and you can become very proficient with a little practice.

The men of Harlech

Written in 1794, “The men of Harlech” (Example 7) represents the seven-year siege of 1461 at Harlech Castle. It is the longest known military assault in the history of the British Isles. This coin has featured prominently in Welsh culture through films such as 1964 Zulu and 1941 How green was my valley. It is immensely popular as a patriotic song, often heard at rugby matches and at any other gathering of the Welsh, and is still used to this day as a regimental march for the Welsh Guards.

Throughout this arrangement, I have put together all of the techniques discussed earlier in the lesson to give you a chance to practice them in context. The piece begins with the use of chorale harmony in bars 1 to 4; examples of cuts and tapping are found mainly in measures 17 to 20; and the campanelle technique makes its appearance in bar 27. There are also many possibilities to use the dynamic picking hand techniques mentioned in Examples 1 to 3. A simple way to do this is to accentuate n ‘any rising stem note in the notation. I encourage you to experiment with changes in volume and timbre throughout the song by changing the placement and intensity of your right hand. It can add tremendous depth and character to your performance.

I hope you enjoy learning this cheerful Welsh tune and that it inspires you to learn more about Wales’ spectacular repertoire and heritage.

Luke Edwards, the author of Songs of Wales for Fingerstyle Guitar (Mel Bay Publications), is a contemporary guitarist and educator based in Cardiff, Wales. Edwards teaches guitar internationally via Skype and Zoom.

Traditional guitar notation tab of the Welsh song
Traditional guitar tab from the Welsh song 'Men of Harlech' 2
Traditional guitar notation tab from the Welsh song 'Men of Harlech' 1

Back To Top