Wales is home to a fascinating and ancient heritage of music, dating back to the bardic tradition of the sixth century. The influences feeding into the Welsh tradition are diverse and intriguing. Heavily featuring harp music, fiddle tunes, and vocal ensembles, the general ethos of the music is far less doom and gloom than that of its more well-known Celtic cousins, Scotland and Ireland.
While the guitar is a relatively alien instrument to traditional Welsh music, I believe it has fantastic potential to explore this ancient music in exciting new ways. In this lesson, we will explore some of the common techniques and ornaments associated with the style, and show how they can be used to great effect in your playing. The piece culminates with a fingerstyle arrangement of a classic Welsh march, “Men of Harlech,” that’s packed with Celtic technique and ornamentation.
Chorale 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 in this style is nothing short of stunning. Customarily led by a pipe organ, and often featuring great numbers of singers, the resulting sound is a rich and dense wall of harmony unlike any other.
In a similar manner to religious hymns, the harmony is often parallel and monophonic, rich with cadences and detail. Achieving this enormous sound on just six guitar strings is no easy feat. However, with the correct right-hand dynamic and timbral control, the guitar is capable of a surprisingly effective approximation.
Example 1 shows the chords in the key of C major played as block voicings. The aim of this exercise is to smoothly change between the written chords, while trying to emphasize the highest pitched note of each chord. A simple way to do this is to bring the finger that is picking the accented note higher up into your hand—sometimes even to the point of touching your palm. This will naturally impart more energy into the string and give that note a volume boost.
Practice the shapes as written, and once you are comfortable with them, play through the exercise first accenting the highest note, then again accenting the middle note, and finally once more accenting the bass note. This technique of playing block chordal harmony while making the melody stand out is used extensively in “Men of Harlech.”
Another good exercise to help refine this technique—and to improve your playing and fretboard knowledge in general—is to apply the same techniques to your major scale in double-stops. Examples 2a and 2b demonstrate the C major scale harmonized in two intervals common to Welsh music, sixths and tenths, respectively.
Example 3 approaches the same idea of accenting individual notes. This time the accented notes are within a repeated arpeggiated picking pattern, rather than block chords.
The exercise repeats a picking pattern over a C major chord, but each repetition accents 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 take this even further: Practice the same exercises again with varying picking-hand placement. The closer that hand plays to the neck (sul tasto), the warmer the tone; the closer to the bridge (sul ponticello), the brighter the sound. Through proper application of timbral and dynamic control, you can achieve a much greater sense of depth in your playing and can accentuate certain melodies and parts of a piece at will.
What Are Cuts and Taps on Guitar?
Much like its Irish and Scottish counterparts, Welsh music is rich with ornamentation. Fiddle tunes such as reels, jigs, hornpipes, and songs from the Dawnsio (Welsh dance) tradition are especially good examples of this. Two of the most common and effective fretting-hand ornaments are cuts and taps—incredibly brief grace notes intended to give a melody more character.
Quite often, the way a cut or tap will be implemented is by playing a different note than the intended melody note, before instantly either pulling off or hammering on to the principal note. A staple of the genre, this technique can be extensively heard on Celtic instruments like the Irish low whistle or the uilleann pipes.
A cut is generally played one scale tone higher than the principal note before being quickly pulled off to the lower destination note, and a tap is the opposite, played lower than the principal note and quickly being hammered on. Familiarize yourself with these ornaments by playing Examples 4a and 4b, making sure to add an appropriate amount of vigor and speed to ensure no volume is lost and no rhythmical value is unnecessarily added to the grace note.
I have included bass notes for these examples, both to make the exercise more musical and to highlight a common misconception when reading grace notes. Although the grace note for either the cuts or taps appears before the bass note on the score, in reality, they occur on the same beat. Therefore, the grace note and bass note should sound at the same time before the grace note is quickly cut or tapped to its principal note afterwards.
Harp-Like Effects of Natural Harmonics on Guitar
Another technique I am very fond of implementing in my arrangements of Welsh music is natural harmonics. This is a popular technique for the harp (the national instrument of Wales), and I also feel that it helps achieve a harp-like quality on the guitar. It’s not always possible to play an entire musical phrase using only the natural harmonics on the guitar, but when you are able to do so it can be a very effective method of restating the melody in a different way and getting more mileage out of your arrangements. This is especially important in Welsh and Celtic music, where the A and B sections combined often total only 16 bars, so many arrangement techniques are necessary to produce a performance-length arrangement.
In Example 5 I have written out the melody of the very famous and beautiful Welsh song “Calon Lân” (“Pure Heart”) using only natural harmonics. If you are new to this technique it may take some patience to get the harmonics to sound clearly. Natural harmonics are most commonly played at frets 12, 7, and 5, but in this arrangement I’ve also used those found at the ninth fret. Focus on accuracy of finger placement and picking closer to the bridge—the payoff in sound is well worth the effort! I would also recommend paying close attention to the suggested fingering I have written for the fretting hand, as this will make getting between the different harmonics easier. (Note that while I use my second finger on certain notes, feel free to use your third finger instead if that’s more comfortable.)
Another gorgeous solution for replicating the sound of the harp, campanella (“little bell”) technique requires finding melody notes on multiple strings to allow several notes to ring out at the same time. Again, like the use of natural harmonics, this is a great arrangement technique to create variation on a melody. It can often be a little challenging to locate the right notes within reach, and it’s not always entirely feasible, but if you get it right the resulting sound is enchanting.
A great way to work on campanella technique is through scale practice. In Example 6, I have written out a G major scale both ascending and descending. Pay close attention to the fingerings, as due to the stretches there is only one manageable way to play it. Take the exercise slowly and try your best to sustain every note as long as possible. With careful practice you will be able to play this scale at great speed—often faster than in the traditional manner, as the notes are already prepared in advance on the adjacent strings. Try working out other scales and melodies in campanella style for yourself and you can become very proficient at it with a little practice.
Men of Harlech
Written in 1794, “Men of Harlech” (Example 7) depicts the seven-year siege of 1461 at Harlech castle. This stands as the longest known military assault in the history of the British Isles. This piece has featured prominently in Welsh culture through films such as 1964’s Zulu and 1941’s 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 packed in every technique 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 1–4; examples of cuts and taps can be found most prominently in bars 17–20; and campanella technique makes an appearance in bar 27. There is also ample opportunity to make use of the picking-hand dynamic techniques mentioned in examples 1–3. A simple way to do this is to accent any up-stemmed note in the notation. I encourage you to experiment with volume and timbral changes throughout the song by altering your right-hand placement and intensity. This can add a tremendous amount of depth and character to your performance.
I hope that you enjoy learning this joyful Welsh tune, and that it inspires you to delve deeper into the spectacular repertoire and heritage of Wales.
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.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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