It’s not every day that a slow harp instrumental carries a biting political message. Turlough O’Carolan, the blind Irish harper who lived from 1670 to 1738, pulled it off with “Squire Wood’s Lament on the Refusal of His Halfpence.” Squire William Wood represents the English overlords who in 1722 attempted to impose a particular halfpence coin upon the Irish. The scheme was widely unpopular in Ireland and the coin was eventually recalled. O’Carolan played his part in the resistance by composing this exquisite tune—and it is a truly wonderful melody for the guitar. Allow me a few general arranging comments before we get to my interpretation of this classic Celtic harp piece.
In arranging Celtic harp tunes for guitar, I generally look for a tuning that does not place the melody too low in the bass strings, and which allows for a bunch of melody notes to be played on the open strings, to facilitate harp-like effects. So I play “Squire Wood’s Lament” in open G, with a low C (from standard tuning, strings 1 and 5 are lowered a whole step, to D and G, respectively, while string 6 is lowered two steps). In addition, I use a capo at the third fret, for a more dulcet sound; this transposes the music from the key of G major to Bb.
Within this or any other open tuning, I generally want maximum flow. Welsh guitarist Luke Edwards had an excellent Woodshed lesson in the January/February 2022 issue of AG, where he discussed a flow-enhancing technique called campanella. I use the technique extensively in my harp-tune arrangements and am tickled to learn that it has a fancy foreign name.
Campanella comes into play when we want the hypnotic effect of feeling notes blending into each other. By choosing a different string for our next melody note, we allow the prior note to live on even after it has left center stage. This is ubiquitous in harping. Take the first three notes of the melody to “Squire Wood’s Lament”—do, re, and mi. Sure, I could have played these all on the same string, the open G, followed by the second and fourth frets. The notes would have been correct, but the do would die before the re appeared, and the re would have been snuffed out upon entry of the mi. There is, of course, a place for such violence in guitar music. But not here. So my solution is to play those three melody notes on adjacent strings, as shown in Example 1.
Mind you,campanella is not always the easiest way to deliver the melody. In learning “Squire Wood’s Lament”you may find that your fretting fingers sometimes cross over the double yellow line and collide with what should have been a ringing string. Prior to recording the arrangement for my most recent album, Once Upon a Harp, I had to do lots of left-hand practice before I could avoid such collisions.
Another thing I do to help the flow in Celtic harp arrangements is not have my bass strings always fall squarely on the beat. For instance, in the second bar of Example 2, a bass note is found not on beat 1 but its “and.” If the thumb is constantly playing notes on the beat, you run the risk of sounding like you’re playing a march, which wouldn’t be appropriate for this style. You also don’t want to overdo playing on the offbeats, as that can be disorienting—and, in the worst cases nausea-inducing—for the listener.
Bad News Barres
In C G D G B D, you might be tempted to play the C chord as a full fifth-fret barre. And that sure would be the easiest solution, rather than to scrunch up your first, second, third, and fourth fingers at the fifth fret, as I do here. This brings me to a general pet peeve of mine—using barre chords in arranging harp music for guitar. If you don’t believe me, give it a try. In Example 3, ignore the fingerings and bar the C chord at fret 5. A barre here not only sounds wrong but prevents you from executing those gentle ornaments that I demonstrate in the video.
Subtle Woven Textures
My harp-style arrangements tend to feature a good amount of what I call the Scottish snap—a very fast but smooth pull-off from a fretted note to the primary melody note on an open string. Try this technique, shown in Example 4, repeatedly until you get the hang of it.
Those of you who know my work will be familiar with the call-and-response texture I often use in Celtic arrangements. Example 5 shows a brief example. Notice that I maximize the ringing of the open treble strings while I add runs on the lower strings. This is not a bold interruption, but something that is subtly woven into the texture of the piece.
Another textural device I use in arranging this music is fretting-hand tapping, in which I sound certain notes by hammering them on, while doing nothing with my right hand. As shown in Example 6, I first pick the open third and fourth strings, then hammer on to the second fret with my second and third fingers, sliding those notes up to the fourth fret and then pulling off to the open strings. I also hammer on a couple of bass notes without picking them, as indicated by the curved lines in the notation. The benefit of this technique is that it provides a nice, gentle sound for harp-style arrangements.
Once you’ve got all of the above techniques and concepts under your fingers, try my arrangement of “Squire Wood’s Lament,” an abridged version of which is notated in Example 7 and demonstrated in the video. Bear in mind, this being a slow tune does not make it an easy one, at least not the way it is presented here. Also, the piece wants to breathe, so be free with rhythmic deceleration when the mood suggests it. And remember that this a lament, not a march; accordingly, avoid anything close to a robotic feel.
Take your time in learning “Squire Wood’s Lament,” as the interplay between melody, counter-melody, and bass make this a challenging arrangement. But the payoff—a very special 18th-century harp tune that will soothe you and your listeners for years to come—will be huge if you put in the hours to make it truly flow from your fingers.
Steve Baughman, the author of Celtic Songs for Fingerstyle Guitar and Gospel Songs for Fingerstyle Guitar, is a San Francisco Bay Area–based fingerstyle guitarist and banjoist. His new album, Once Upon a Harp, is available at celticguitar.com and Bandcamp.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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