Bill Brennan,
Irish & Scottish Airs & Ballads for Acoustic Guitar
(Mel Bay, 1997)

My musical youth was misspent. I can now confess, the money for Miss Foster's piano lessons went on chips and Coke, consumed on street curbs -- sheet music makes an adequate cushion in these circumstances. I've learnt to play guitar the hard way -- no real theory, just trial and error which means many trials and many errors. So it was with some trepidation, I turned to Bill Brennan's book.

To an extent, I would say the title is misleading: Irish and Scottish -- true; airs and ballads -- true; for acoustic guitar -- also true. But it is not for those wishing to play in an Irish or Scottish style, even if the cover is a tartan with the ghost of an Irish harp behind the guitar.

The pages are well designed, not creating that "gosh-so-many-notes" effect that puts off novices (i.e., me). But there is a drawback in that most tunes require turning the page mid-melody -- some are as long as eight sides, and only four are contained on two pages. This can upset the flow of learning. However, as it is spirally bound, the pages are at least easy to turn and they stay open.

Psychologically, Brennan has thought much about the order of the collection. From the strings' point of view, he begins with standard tuning, then turns to DADGAD before moving into a number of other lesser-used tunings. There is less fear if you begin with what you know, though I'm not convinced the book will encourage you to continue with other tunings.

And in the main, he chooses tunes which are likely to be familiar in one form or another -- all are Scottish or Irish in origin, but some are probably best known as American folk ballads, TV theme tunes or even from rides you may have taken in elevators.

Turning to the arrangements, the material edges its way from a watery jazz to an airy new age. Brennan expects the player to use all his fingers and thumbs -- and it really is tough to teach an old dog, as my aching hands will testify. He creates a strong sound behind the melody with arpeggio effects and mellow bass runs. However, as he demonstrates on the accompanying CD, there is little trace of tradition other than with the choice of material.

I have found my ability to read in the treble clef has improved 10-fold thanks to working with the book. And I have also developed a good understanding (in fact, a love for) guitar tabs -- what a great system! By presenting slower melodies, he has enabled me to work more on ornamentation -- you should hear my mean triplets now!

However, I don't feel my understanding of Irish or Scottish music has increased in any way. The tunes I wanted to play, I played already -- and those I didn't have passed into oblivion. I still don't understand such phrases as: D.C. with Rpts. Al Coda, and so on. And I'm a little lost at times with his sense of chord accompaniment, which don't fit my understanding of the patterns of the music.

The book is probably best suited to those doing something I really should have done many years ago -- people who want to learn how to play guitar, rather than those like myself who wanted simply to play guitar. The tasks he presents are enough to stimulate without depressing.

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]