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Can I use the traditional acoustic guitar to compose Celtic songs? Were they actually used in Celtic music history?

If not, what's the name of the acoustic guitars they actually used?

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    I thought that guitar isn't a very traditional instrument in Celtic music... more like harps, bagpipes or fiddles. But I guess it depends how far into the past you go. These days there doesn't seem to be anything surprising about it.
    – Divizna
    Sep 16, 2023 at 17:02

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The Irish and Scottish traditional musics are primarily melodic traditions, with singing being performed unaccompanied and melodies played on fiddles, flutes, pipes, squeezeboxes etc.

"Celtic Music" is a reductive generic marketing term invented (or certainly popularised) in the 1970s, originally lumping Irish and Scottish music together in the record store racks, and peripherally also admitting other Western European traditional musics of populations with historical Celtic ancestry such as Breton, Welsh, Galician etc.

None of those traditions featured the guitar as a historically traditional music; the guitar came into use in those musics in the 1950s and 60s through cross-pollination from the blues and subsequent pop/rock worlds.

The cruel twist of historical fate is of course that now to the lay-person (and to many practitioners) the very presence of an acoustic guitar is what defines a performance as 'folk' or 'traditional' or 'Celtic'. In that latter usage of the term "Celtic Music", the instrument used is indeed a standard acoustic guitar, although sometimes in non-standard tunings such as DADGAD.

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  • Oh that clarified a lot! I wanted to understand if the instrument used nowadays for "folk" "celtic" songs is indeed the standard acoustic guitar or other old kind of guitar. Because I couldn't find anything about guitars used in celtic culture music tho we listen them so often in this kind of songs. Thank you for the reply!
    – Jess_
    Sep 18, 2023 at 13:41
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    Also worth noting: Around the time that the guitar came into Celtic "folk" music, the Greek Bouzouki was adapted (and retuned to resemble a Mandolin) for use in Irish music. See: Irish Bouzouki
    – Theodore
    Sep 18, 2023 at 15:17
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    @Jess_ This is largely the answer I didn't have time to write. However, I'd add that the reductive, syncretic, "fusion" genre is itself a valid music-culture in its own right (e.g., if trad-rock fusion is played in Ireland, it's legitimately "Irish music"), and that there's already a very rich tradition of "Celtic guitar music." As noted, it's fond of drop tunings (and I feel like there's a lot of 10-string?), and typically a fingerstyle aesthetic. Sep 18, 2023 at 17:32
  • Oh interesting, don't worry I understood what I needed to ^^ Yes it makes sense, music is a creative work and all musicians are always looking for new creative ways to express themselves, new instruments and mixes of instruments, so yeah it is valid cause it's like an evolving process of the genre. Again thank you very much for your replies
    – Jess_
    Sep 18, 2023 at 22:00
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What sort of celtic are we talking about? The few modern remnants of celtic origin on the british isles? The widespread ancient celtic cultures? A romanticised, fantasy inspired pop culture thing?

We know little of celtic cultures before they were replaced and assimilated, and what we know comes from depictions or greek or roman authors. We know the celts did have access to cast bronze instruments, wooden flutes and pipes as well as percussive instruments. We also know from depictions that they had some sort of Lyra.

Now, the guitar developed in medieval times in spain from the arabic oud and the european derivate (the lute). The modern guitar only developed (again in spain) in the 19th century. Now, this means that of course the guitar does not really have a link to ancient celtic culture, and it did traditionally not have much influence in cultures of celtic origin.

This means that in the first sense the guitar is not a traditional instrument, but tradional musicians in these regions are often open to adopt popular instruments (as with traditional musicians everywhere), so we also see non traditional instruments like the guitar in such music. Listen to such musicians for inspirations.

In the second sense there is no known evidence of guitar like instruments, but we also know nothing about mode and style of ancient celtic music in the first place.

In the third sense you are of course free to do what you want.

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  • I talk about the nowadays fantasy-inspired celtic music. They have a lot of guitar sounds and as a beginner, I wanted to know if they use old kinds of guitars like the lute as you mentioned, or the standard acoustic guitars. I understand now that the truly ancient Celtic music didn't use any of them tho. Thank you for your reply!
    – Jess_
    Sep 18, 2023 at 13:50
  • @Jess_ Another point: Aside from 20th-century fusion genres, even much "traditional" Celtic music is rather young. Most of the "traditional" tunes that are played today, and they ways they're played, date from the 19th century; a very few aspects from the 18th. Despite a lot of rhetoric about ancient roots, even a lot of the "authentic" music-culture is from recent centuries. Sep 18, 2023 at 17:42
  • @Jess_ Meanwhile, check out the Balcarres Lute book, a collection of hundreds of tunes from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and elsewhere, arranged for lute, dating from early 18th century. Sep 18, 2023 at 17:45
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"Celtic music history" covers a very wide range!

And we don't know exactly what instruments were used. But guitar's in the right ballpark. When you work out what scales, melodies etc. make up the 'Celtic' sound, I'm sure you'll be able to realise them on guitar.

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