Learn to Play ‘The Choice Wife’: A Celtic Classic by Any Name

This arrangement makes an excellent introduction to fingerstyle Celtic guitar—and a sweet selection to add to your repertoire.

Not long ago, the editors of this magazine decided it was high time to run an arrangement of a Celtic tune, so I emailed the diverse fingerstyle master Al Petteway for suggestions. Sure enough, Petteway replied in moments with a great idea: “O’Farrell’s Farewell to Limerick.” Using an MP3 he gave me, I prepared Petteway’s arrangement in notation, then gave him a call for suggestions on how he might approach teaching it to a student. Our chat turned from the piece’s technical intricacies to uncertainty about its title, and Petteway promised to look into it.

Later that day, Petteway emailed, “It’s also known as ‘An Phis Fhiliuch,’ ‘An Phis Fliuch,’ ‘An Phis Fluich,’ ‘An Phis Phliuch,’ ‘The Boy in the Bush,’ ‘The Bridegroom’s Delight,’ ‘The Choice Wife,’ ‘Feathered Nest,’ ‘The Good Wife,’ ‘The Perfect Wife,’ ‘Pis Fhliuch,’ ‘The Ready Wife,’ and ‘The Ready Woman,’” explaining that these titles were colorful euphemisms for a state of female arousal. We settled on “The Choice Wife,” the same title Petteway used when he recorded the tune with his wife and duo partner, Amy White, on their 2011 album, High in the Blue Ridge.

Traditional Celtic melodies like “The Choice Wife” are as varied in their titles as in their interpretations. In his arrangement for solo guitar, Petteway strikes a good balance between nailing all the traditional mannerisms and putting his own spin on the music. As such, it represents an excellent introduction to fingerstyle Celtic guitar—and a sweet selection to add to your repertoire.



Petteway discovered Celtic music in the early 1990s, when he began recording for Maggie’s Music, an independent record label with a focus on Celtic music of all eras. In working with musicians like fiddler Bonnie Rideout and hammered dulcimer player Maggie Sansone, Petteway quickly became steeped in the music. “It was a great education for me,” he says. “For Scottish tunes, many of which are in the keys of E and A, I found myself playing in standard tuning, whereas for Irish tunes, I thought DADGAD worked better. Eventually I learned everything in both tunings!”

Petteway usually plays “The Choice Wife,” with its D Mixolydian (D E F# G A B C) melody, in DADGAD. The piece is a slip jig—a term that in this case refers to its 9/8 time signature and is also a type of Celtic dance. This meter is very seldom encountered in American popular styles, so it’s important to understand it before delving into the piece. In a slip jig, there are nine eighth notes per bar, but Petteway doesn’t count all nine beats. “I feel it more like in three [i.e., three dotted quarter notes to the bar], with the biggest emphasis on beat 1 of each measure,” he explains.

That said, this is a highly rhythmic tune, and it’s especially important to render the rhythms with precision. If 9/8 is an unfamiliar meter to you, it might be a good idea to first count in eighth notes, as shown in Example 1, which removes the bass line so you can focus on timing. When you come to understand where each note falls, you’ll be able to take off the training wheels and confidently feel the music in three like Petteway.


Tackling the Ornaments

In his arrangement (and in general in his playing) Petteway seeks out the least cumbersome fretting-hand fingerings, using the open strings wherever possible to make the melody sing. At the same time, he adds ornaments, both with the fretting hand and the picking hand, that lend the arrangement its Celtic flavor. Some of these ornaments, like the grace notes in bar 4 and elsewhere, are fairly easy to play—just quickly pull off from a fretted note to an open string.

But the occasional picked 16th-note triplets, which Petteway plays to maintain a sense of forward motion and excitement, can be quite tricky to pull off. To play those in bar 5, for instance, use the picking pattern shown between the staves in the arrangement. (Remember, p = thumb, i = index finger, m = middle, and a = ring.) It might be best to isolate this detail, playing it extremely slowly and gradually increasing the tempo until you can cleanly incorporate it with the surrounding music.

If it’s just too hard to play those 16th-note triplets, you could instead play a solution like shown in Example 2, which is no less Celtic in character. And don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do the triplets—they can even cause trouble for no less a player than Petteway, who freely admits, “I’ve played the piece on stage with Tony McManus at a superfast tempo and just had to throw those triplets out the window.”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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