Interview:
Danny Callaran and Alec Stone Sweet, Spring 2002
Excerpts Published in Feature on Celtic Guitar
Acoustic Guitar, September 2002


acguitar2

 

1. "If there is such a thing as Celtic Guitar, how would you define it?"

Alec Stone Sweet:

I am not sure there is anything to the label.

That said, there exists a distinctive strain of fingerstyle guitar,
developed more than thirty years ago, which came to define how solo guitar players approached Celtic music, including myself. I began playing this way in the late-1970s.

The "style" is essentially melodic: the fingers of both hands play ornamented melodies, while the thumb produces drones and moving bass lines. Most notes are produced with the left hand, as hammer-ons or pull-offs, and full or block chords are relatively rare. Irregular tunings are common, dropped-D being about as close to regular as one ever finds.

The origins of this style are European. In the late-1960s, English guitarists, including Martin Carthy, Davey Graham, and John Renbourne, began experimenting with new techniques and tunings to play dance tunes, music from the Renaissance, and to accompany traditional singing. Then came the first two recordings of the French guitarist, Pierre Bensusan. Bensusan gave the music its characteristic lilt, and mix of drive and laciness.

The bridge between Europe and the United States was a friend of Pierre's, and my favorite guitar player, Eric Schoenberg. Eric, whom everyone knows as a pioneer of ragtime guitar and as a guitar maker, plays a dozen or so Celtic tunes in the style, all of which are gems. In the 1970s, Eric recorded some of these on his two Rounder albums. His Kid on the Mountain and Green Fields of Canada are perfect exemplars of the style.

There are two problems with labelling this style, Celtic Guitar. First, the guitar has been part of Celtic music for a very long time, and it has been used for various purposes, primarily rhythmic. Second, the style I have just described can be used to play other forms of music. My CD includes an Israeli dance tune, and Bensusan's first recordings contained more French than Irish music..

2. "What is it about your arrangements or delivery that can properly be called Celtic?"

Alec Stone Sweet:

Nothing.

I have learned, from the reactions of people who listen to me play, that there is something unique about my touch and tone. I suspect that my touch simply fits Celtic music well, or, that it developed through playing Celtic music.

3. "About your alternate tunings. On Carolan's Concerto, your DADGAD seems perfectly suited to the tune, yet doesn't scream "DADGAD!" the way so many DADGAD arrangements do. How'd you do that?"

Alec Stone Sweet:

Open and modal tunings have a downside: their intrinsic characteristics tend to infuse the music with a particular and obvious sound (tonality plus licks that become clichés). The trick is to find ways to let the music govern the guitar playing, not the other way around. One way to deal with DADGAD is to deemphasize the harp sound - made naturally as the strings (especially the G and A) vibrate against one another - and then to play melody based figures, with both hands, on single strings. I play this way when I play dance music and when I clawhammer, and Bensusan made an obsession out of it because, I suspect, he came to dislike or distrust the prepackaged "beauty" of DADGAD.

My CD, Memory and Praise, however, only has one Irish dance tune, a bagpipe piece, the Choice Wife, which is also in DADGAD. Most of the CD is harp music, and Carolan's compositions are more like little chamber music than they are like Irish dance music. Carolan is more harmonically-defined, more stately, but less craggy and ornamented. These differences matter.

a. "Steve Baughman uses 17 different tunings but FGDGCD ain't one of them. It provides such a nice modal tang with the root flat 7 in G. Did you find this on your own? If not, where did you find it and how do you use it?"

Here's a subversive bit of deconstruction for you, which I mean to be taken seriously: the Celtic Guitar style I have described is clawhammer banjo without the right hand (without the "claw"). The left hand plays most of the notes, which is only possible in special tunings, and a steady drone is maintained. The harmonic potential of Celtic Guitar, however, is far greater, since multiple notes can be played by the right hand. The generic problems that fingerstyle guitar players encountered when they tried to play Irish dance music, or other ancient forms of modal music, had already been resolved by clawhammer banjo players.

The answer to your question, too, is found in Old Time banjo. FGDGCD is a 6-sting variation on the 5-string banjo tuning, GDGCD, called Mountain Modal or Mountain Minor. It is perfectly adapted to modal tunes that move back and forth from the I chord to the VII chord. Large extended families of Irish and Old Time tunes do this. Pierre Bensusan used DGDGCD and FGDGCD on his first record, and I use both tunings regularly. Eric Schoenberg also used FGDGCD on his two Rounder records, for a reel, an air, and one of his own composed tunes. DADGAD, by the way, is simply Mountain Modal (GDGCD) transposed to the key of D, and banjo players used it long before guitar players did.

4. "How do you decide what to play and how to approach it on the guitar?"

Alec Stone Sweet:

I learn tunes that stick in my head, after they've bothered me for awhile. It's just another version of falling in love. I learn the tune so that I can be with it in my own private way ... that's all.

With the exception of the clawhammer guitar medleys, all of the pieces on Memory and Praise developed in the same way. I start with melody, then gradually add the bass and middle voices. The process can takes months and even years. I am in no hurry; I have my whole life to build a relationship with a tune. In any case, I never codify an arrangement. Since I strive for simplicity, there is lots of room for the piece to grow and change, over time. Although I read music, I learn by ear, and don't write my arrangements down.

Where possible, I also add mid-range voices (moving lines between the bass and the melody). Eric Schoenberg was the first to really exploit the potential of these. At their most elaborate, they are counterpoint. At their most primitive, they function like regulators do on the pipes, giving color to the drone.

5. "A related question: you pull from the different traditions of Irish
harp literature, dance tunes, pipe tunes, and Gaelic song. Are there any differences in the way you absorb and internalize music from these different traditions?"

Alec Stone Sweet:

No.

I simply play tunes that I have fallen in love with, and I don't worry too much about the specifics of local traditions. That said, by the time I start playing a tune, I usually feel quite immersed in it, and I am fully aware of how other people have played it. Moreover, my own tastes in listening to Celtic music are puritanical and luddite: I prefer the most traditional instruments, played solo or at most in twos, without rhythmic or harmonic accompaniment, in older styles ... and I hate electrified Celtic music.

6. "You clearly love the sound of the guitar."

Alec Stone Sweet:

I wonder ... I virtually never listen to solo acoustic guitar (exceptions include people like Gary Davis and Joseph Spence, whose playing is all but unique to them). I only arrange music that I hear played on other instruments, or that I learn from people who play them on other instruments.

7. "You relish the long ringing notes. Do you spend more time looking for peppy tunes that you can slow down or wandering the under-explored hallways of Irish harp literature?"

Alec Stone Sweet:

The music I care about is structured by the space around the notes, and not just by the notes themselves. I want my playing to capture the silences in a melody, the way the decay of one note or phrase colors what comes next, and the way the box of the guitar itself creates space and color. I play guitar for myself, preferably alone, preferably late at night, and I listen closely to the way the music interacts with the strings and the wood. I play the way I do because I listen to what I play.

I spend no time looking for tunes at all; but I listen to music all the time, and listening determines what and how I play.

I never self-consciously slow tunes. Perhaps the only exception is Rights of Man, which I arranged with Eric Schoenberg, while both of us were teaching at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop in the early-1980s; the piece just sounded better as a lament than a hornpipe, to me at least. Further, I distrust "peppy" or jaunty tunes, like hornpipes; I'm drawn to the melancholy, not the meoldrama, in music.

8. "Ducks on a Pond and Shady Grove are played with a distinctive frailing technique. Steve Baughman, who's studied frailing considerably more than I have, says that only you and Jody Stecher have recorded guitar frailing tracks where the thumb hits the anticipation note rather than the downbeat. Is this true? And what would you tell interested students about your frailing and how they might apply it to their own repertoire?"

Alec Stone Sweet:

Let me back you up just a bit. I play clawhammer guitar, a style I have adapted from clawhammer banjo – I don’t “frail.”

Most Old Time musicians would distinguish clawhammer from frailing banjo. A few might classify clawhammer as a specific form of melodic, double-thumb frailing (frailing then becomes a general category), which seems to be Steve's position. I always distinguish the two, but not in dichotomous or black/white terms. I am more comfortable thinking of the difference in terms of a continuum, or spectrum, that is anchored on one pole by pure frailing, and on the other pole by pure clawhammer. I'll explain:

[There are five characteristics of the way I play clawhammer. First, every specific note played by the right hand is produced either by the index finger or the thumb. Second, no note is ever plucked; each is played either with the thumb, or by striking down on a string with the nail of the index finger. Third, the index finger never plays off the beat, and the thumb never plays on the beat. This feature of clawhammer technique gives the music a heavier – and, to my ear, more natural - drive than it would have if it were played, say, as melody over an alternating bass. There is one exception to this rule: variations on a common clawhammer banjo lick (that you can hear on the climatic high notes of the second part of Polly Put the Kettle On, and the third part of Joke on the Puppy) when the thumb plays on beat. Fourth, for any piece, most of the notes are produced by the left hand, in combinations of slides, hammers, and pull-offs; slurs can occur on or off the beat. Fifth, I play in multiple tunings, and sometimes replace the sixth string bass with a high sixth string treble (of the same gauge employed for the first string). The banjo player will realize that I use my thumb on the bass strings to obtain drones, much as a clawhammer player uses the banjo’s high fifth string; indeed, when I string the guitar with a high treble in place of the sixth-string bass, it is partly to imitate the fifth string of the banjo. In many of the tunes, I keep multiple drones going, on different strings.

To sum up, in my version of clawhammer guitar, the thumb plays off the beat, even when it plays harmony bass notes or bass lines; no strings are ever plucked; with respect to the right hand, only the index finger and the thumb sound notes, but never at the same time. What is incredible is how much full textured sound one finger, one thumb, and left hand slurs can generate.]

To play clawhammer guitar, you probably have to play some clawhammer banjo, at least at first. As important, you have to listen to clawhammer banjo, all the time. Great, relatively pure clawhammer players whose recordings are readily available include Wade Ward, Fred Cockerham, and Tommy Jarrell.

My favorite living players (who make records) are Bob Carlin, Dirk Powell, Jody Stecher, and Walt Koken (Koken is so good, he occupies his own dimension). There is also a good deal of what I would call melodic frailing (which is what I think Steve Baughman means by frailing) out there, a kind of half-way between the ideal poles of clawhammer and frailing, in which melody is played mostly on the downbeat and then offbeat by the left hand, full strums are often sounded, and double-thumbing might be present, but limited. This half-way style simplifies things for guitarists, at least at first. Dwight Diller is an accessible banjo player who plays this way, and so is Kate Brislin; Bob Carlin plays this way too, at times.

All good banjo players have their own sound, precisely because each finds different solutions to common problems. The same will be true for any two clawhammer guitar players.

If you try to play in this style, you'll need patience and a willingness to experiment, sometimes with little hope of achieving much in the short run. There are no easy shortcuts. Existing banjo arrangements almost never translate onto the guitar in any straightforward way. It has taken me years to make the style work on the guitar, and I am still learning. I do it because I fell in love with Old Time fiddle music; I don't fiddle, and have no hope of learning to play like Bruce Molsky. Again, the point is that Old Time fiddle music, like Celtic music, has a life of its own, outside of the guitar; the music should shape the guitar playing as far as is possible (given one's own limitations and those of the instrument), not vice-versa.

You may not have noticed, but I use "anticipatory bass notes" in my Celtic Guitar pieces as well. Listen to the first part of Squire Woods Lamentation (the second cut of Memory and Praise). The thumb plays off the beat and then immediately into it, which I got both from frailing and from blues guitar. In ragtime blues, the technique is called a thumb-roll; Blind Blake used it all the time - Chump Man Blues being an obvious example. In his later records, Pierre Bensusan employs thumb rolls too, on Nice Feeling, for example.

Jody's lovely, virtuoso, Red Rocking Chair is the first and only clawhammer guitar piece I have ever heard, other than my own. I don't know if anyone else is trying to play clawhammer guitar.

8. "Ornamentation: While much of your arranging is relatively unornamented and deliciously ringing, you incorporated triplets into The Choice Wife. Can you describe your technique for playing triplets and any other "Celtic" ornament you use in your playing?"

Alec Stone Sweet:

Self-styled purists may not like what I will say: there is no "correct" way to ornament Celtic music (although there are wrong ways). In Ireland, ornamentation developed organically and locally, and then congelaed as taste and idiom. Not only is ornamentation always instrument-specific, but players develops their own clichés within specific idioms. Flute players can and do imitate bagpipes, but concertina players don't bother even trying. Try to play a bagpipe cranny on the guitar in the middle of a fast reel. Slurs yes. A cranny no. The importance is to get the feel of the music and develop ornaments that are appropriate for the tune you're playing, the tuning of the guitar, and your own particular style.

Memory and Praise is relatively unornamented for a simple reason: the CD has only one Irish dance tune, being mostly Carolan harp music.

The Choice Wife is a slip-jig, which is a tune structured as three sets of triplets per measure. Triplets are natural to this tune. The same can be said for Rights of Man, which is in cut-time, essentially a 2/4; triplets simply fill in the holes - listen to the variations, which are comprised of cascading triplets. The clawhammer pieces are heavily ornamented with quite complex figures. Finally, the slow tunes may be ornamented more than you might have noticed. Compare the original tunes with what I actually play each time through. Not only do I make time stretch and wobble (which I consider ornamentation), opening and closing spaces, but the left hand plays most of the notes, which are subtly ornamented. Perhaps the only exception is The Connemara Stocking, which is as straight as I can play ... I learned the tune in Ireland, from a concertina player who considered ornamentation to be kitsch.

9. "Which of your arrangements are you most proud of?"

Alec Stone Sweet:

In clawhammer guitar style, I play Tommy Jarrell's Joke on the Puppy (from the fiddle), his Tumblin’ Gap (from the banjo), and some Kentucky tunes that define, for me at this point, what I can do with Old Time music on the guitar. In the Celtic guitar style, I am probably most satisfied (or is it just relief?) with The Farewell to Music and Mabel O'Kelly, two Carolan pieces on the CD. Both are such improbable tunes; and both took years to work up, with many starts and stops. On the CD, Squire Wood's Lamentation seems to me to be the most pristine of the arrangements, and the Ducks on the Pond medley captures the range of clawhammer sounds, while keeping the lace and lilt - banjos can't do that.

10. "If there's anything I've missed, please don't hesitate to add comment."

Alec Stone Sweet:

I plan to record an all-clawhammer guitar CD next year [it came out - Tumblin' Gap - in 2005]. I know from radio playlists and communications I receive that the two clawhammer medleys have generate lots of attention. Most of the CD will be Old Time fiddle and banjo tunes, most of which will have Celtic roots. But I will also include other music. I am experimenting with using clawhammer techniques to play Celtic music, fiddle tunes from Sweden, and Gypsy songs from Eastern Europe.

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