From the March 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY STEVE BAUGHMAN
The English lawyer Frederic Weatherly wrote the words to “Danny Boy” in 1910. The lyrics were later joined to this much older, mournful melody, then widely known as “Londonderry Air,” or in school-kid humor, “London Derriere.” Despite its non-Irish origins, the tune has become the signature song of the Irish diaspora—it is often performed at funerals and was played to represent Northern Ireland at the start of the 2012 Olympic Games.
This haunting melody flows from strings in Orkney tuning (C G D G C D). In this arrangement [scroll down for notation], the melody is played entirely on the three treble strings. It starts off with a typical Orkneyism, a simple melodic (non-linear or “harp style”) sequence in which each melody note is played on a different string than the prior one. It is just three notes here (“Oh-Dan-ny”), but you immediately hear the textural difference between melodic and linear playing.
When I recorded this piece, I tried to let the melody notes live as long as they possibly could. This requires a good bit of precision on the left hand—don’t let your fingers slop over and prematurely end the life of a nearby ringing melody note.
The same goes for the bass part, although you may want to staccato up a few notes here and there when it serves the music. It is a fairly busy part with slight hints of jazz. I try to maintain a flowing arpeggiated feel on the lower strings.
The left hand does a bit of hard work in this arrangement as well, like the bass run in the 28th measure. But nothing too scary.
I encourage you to focus first on getting the melody down. Once you have that in your blood, you may feel free to explore your own bass lines and arpeggios.
One final note: Almost all the tunes recorded in Orkney play out of the key of G (or the G position if a capo is used.) In playing this arrangement, you will join the exclusive club of Orkney pickers playing in C.
Now every day can be St. Patrick’s Day!
Steve Baughman is a San Francisco-based fingerstyle guitarist and banjo player. This Orkney arrangement of “Danny Boy” appears on his album Alone and Together, with guitarist Robin Bullock.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.