learning backup on guitar

learning backup on guitar

Hey Everyone,

I was wondering if anyone wants to discuss how they go about backing up celtic music on guitar.

I like John Doyles style, and have started working in drop D after learning the material on his instructional video. Its coming along ok, but i wish i could vary my progressions more. I can play fine on tunes that are I-IV-V or I-VIIb progressions, but if the tune is more complicated i just get lost.

I see there being two methods of learning celtic backup. One is John Doyle’s approach, where he seems to go completely by instinct and ear, not worry about the theory behind what he plays.

The other way is that which is described in Chris Smith’s book, Celtic Backup. He basically says memorize all the modes that occur in the common celtic ksys, and the scale and chord degrees associated with those modes.

Thats alot of memorization, and personally i would rather just play and work out things by ear, especially since this an aural tradition. But up until now working by ear i just end up playing the same basic progressions. I want to learn to vary my chord choices to make things more interesting.

If anyone has any thoughts, chime in.


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Re: learning backup on guitar

There’s nothing wrong with learning more theory. Once you’ve done that, you will still play by ear but more effectively and with more skills at your disposal. After all, we all had to learn the basic chords etc to start with so none of us really play an instrument without any theory.

I can accompany most tunes on guitar but in quite a basic fashion. I’ve developed my style a bit beyond the 3 to 5 chord tricks but there’s a lot more to do and several different approaches.
It’s one thing to be able play along with the tunes but a good backer is like the "engine room" which drives the music along and facilitates the the melody players. I’ve not quite mastered that aspect of tune accompaniment yet.

As I say, there several different approaches. I learned a few ideas over the years from different people. For instance, Jack Evans of The Easy Club etc uses a lot of "swing" type chords. See this link


He also taught me different voicings and positions for most of the common chords without the need for barre chords, capos etc. Moreover, these were all in standard tuning.
There’s so many different things you can do. That’s why theory helps. As long as you know the notes of the guitar and how the chords are structured, you can experiment and make up your own.

Hope this helps. I should have been a lot better now but I’ve spent too much time on the mandolin and fiddle. Although I love these instruments too, but it’s hard to concentrate on everything.


Re: learning backup on guitar

Not sure, not being a guitarist, but you do explain the choices very well. Perhaps find someone you admire (needn’t be a guitarist, just that they seem to understand harmony) and ask them? Maybe experiment and explore by playing with someone who perhaps plays a melody instrument but who understands harmony?


Only thing I can think of, is that it’s nice to hear guitar being played with something other than root-position chords - ie 1st / 2nd inversions

Re: learning backup on guitar

1) Listen to GOOD guitar players, in different styles. Dennis Cahill (Martin Hayes) and the various guitar players that have played with Danu have different styles. You should be aware at least of these and more.

2) Learn DADGAD. It’s another very useful tool for the toolbox. Learn why it works ("those beefy drones" is the short answer).

3) The more theory you know, the better you will be able to apply it. The less you know, the less you’ll be able to apply it. You don’t always have to apply everything you know (you can’t do it all at the same time) but knowing more means more options.

4) Learn to walk. Figure out the note the tune ends on; this is a pretty (though fallible) reliable indicator of the root of the mode. Most (but not all) of the time, it will be some mode whose relative Ionian mode is D or G, since that’s what the flutes can handle. If you learn to play scales in that mode, you’ll find that you can not only play the root of the chord, but some nice passing notes to get from one root to the next, walking the scale to do it.

5) In a lot of places, playing a relative minor of a major chord (e.g. Bm, instead of G) can put some interesting new colours into a tune. But be careful.

6) Do not feel that you need to play on every tune, especially on the ones for which you can’t hear the progressions at first. Listen for the first and second turns, then play (quietly) on the third.

Hope this helps,

—-Michael B.

Re: learning backup on guitar

A friend of mine (an octave mandolin player) went to an accompaniment workshop with Dennis Cahill. Cahill’s advice was, to paraphrase, "Don’t copy me, don’t copy Miche

Re: learning backup on guitar

Yes, David, I agree. Some of the chords that Jack (Evans) showed us were actually rock power chords which can be effective if used appropriately. There’s also Bo Diddley type rhythms which you can use. All sorts of ideas, in fact.


Re: learning backup on guitar

"He basically says memorize all the modes that occur in the common celtic ksys, and the scale and chord degrees associated with those modes."

Sorry, I wouldn’t agree. What I DO say (in the book and on this board) is "learn the tunes, develop your ear, understand how the modes in tunes suggest chords and countermelodies, play by ear, expand your horizons."

People who play effective improvised backup in this music DO understand the theory, whether they need/want to verbalize it or not, and they DO have excellent, highly developed ears.

"i wish i could vary my progressions more. I can play fine on tunes that are I-IV-V or I-VIIb progressions, but if the tune is more complicated i just get lost."

To get un-lost, you need to "learn the tunes, develop your ear, understand how the modes in tunes suggest chords and countermelodies, play by ear, expand your horizons."

Shortcuts lead to limited solutions.

Re: learning backup on guitar

Anton, just so it’s clear, coyotebanjo IS Chris Smith. 🙂 Keep in mind that John Doyle probably also recommends learning tunes and theory (write him and ask him, he’s a lovely man who really believes in passing on what others passed on to him and would probably be happy to tell you what he thinks) — it’s just that that sort of learning is not one that videos are really any good for.

If you have Chris’s book, then you have all this info, and this is what Michael Bolton was talking about above, but just in case it helps, here’s Will’s chart of how to identify modes and such:


As a melody player, I can get away with not having learned this stuff (sloppy and lazy of me), but as a backer, you REALLY need to know it. Be assured that John Doyle knows every bit of theory and that the reason it looks instinctual is because he’s internalized the theory to where it IS instinctual.

Have fun!


Re: learning backup on guitar

Thanks for the advice everyone. I guess its time for to buckle down and start to seriously work through Chris Smith’s book.


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Re: learning backup on guitar

Paul de Grae suggests the following ideas for guitarists to break up a simple "three chord trick" to be used with discretion -

1. Finish a part on the IV chord rather than the usual I chord. For example, for a tune in the Key in D, end on a G rather than a D chord.
2. Finish a part on the V chord rather than the usual I chord. For a tune in the Key in D, stay on an A chord rather than going to a D chord.
3. Use relative minors such as Em for a G.
4. Use passing chords. For example, G (A7) to D, or Am (D7) to G.
5. Sometimes the trend of the tune will suggest a chord sequence that appears to contract the actual notes.
6. Occasionally use more complex chords such as 7sus or 9ths.
7. Experiment with discords - Fmaj7 against an E note in the melody.

Re: learning backup on guitar

I would like to (very politely) disagree with Michael B’s suggestion to learn DADGAD. Well… actually, it is a fine tuning to be in, but should not be considered the end-all ITM tuning. Droning can be done just as easily in standard tuning as can the use of "open" chords (without the "3rd" of the chord)… all it takes is a little imagination. Just move out of the first-position chords we all learned in our guitar primers and think about string-muting.

A lot of time is spent discussing how a fat bottom-end D drone isn’t possible in standard (which is true), but that really neglects what can be done in Em, E-dorian and G (and Am is no worse than DADGAD).

I’ve heard it said that it’s almost criminal what you can get away with in DADGAD. But, I’m not so sure that’s such a good thing. DADGAD voicing are really beautiful, but they tend to have a certain "sameness" about them (Real DADGAD players, please forgive me!). And anyway, standard might push you harder to effectively place interesting chords. (Perhaps I just like making it hard on myself.) I also play a bouzouki with a lot of open chords, and sometimes I long for a full, heavily minor chord to substantially alter the mood of a certain phrase. Old-boys, purists, etc. may disagree, but I think certain phrases practically beg for complex minors, if only a jump off to another phrase. (Wow, am I rambling on… what was I talking about??)

Incidentally, I agree with Steve that dissonance, particularly just before a change from one tume Part to another, can sound great (as long as you use it sparingly). But that’s just my ears’ opinion.


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