WHEN PAUL REED SMITH CALLS TO ASK IF HE CAN PLEASE build you a guitar, and everyone from British folk legend John Renbourn to American guitar icon John Jorgenson is singing your praises—you’re clearly doing something exceptionally well. In Scotsman Tony McManus’ case, it’s playing traditional Celtic music on acoustic guitar. In his hands, the acoustic becomes a vessel capable of traversing space and time. A clever use of unusual tunings and a knack for authentic ornamentation allow the fingerstyle steel-stringer to incorporate much of the sound and feel of traditional instruments such as fiddles and bagpipes into his guitar playing. McManus’ most recent release—The Maker’s Mark: The Dream Guitar Sessions [Compass]—features him playing 15 different acoustic guitars ranging from piccolo to baritone. For example, he plays a Manzer Sitar Guitar on the Eastern European blues “Parov’s Daichevo/Doïna,” a Veillette miniature 12-string on “Valse des Bélugas,” and he somehow manages to work in every other acoustic on the grand finale. McManus is a great admirer of modern acoustic lutherie, and The Maker’s Mark is his endearing ode to the craft. Ironically, the music he plays on those modern instruments is often as old as the proverbial hills.
How do you feel about what the “Celtic” designation has come to mean?
Music marketing people have appropriated the term for some years now, and associated it with some romantic idea of mist-drenched faeries dancing in the twilight. The real deal is the traditional music of a group of people on the western fringes of Europe, including much of Scotland and Ireland, as well as Wales, Brittany in France, Galicia in Spain, and more. These areas are hard places to survive in, being battered by the Atlantic and blasted by wind. That climate is unlikely to produce the kind of soporific twaddle you often find labeled as “Celtic.” The real music has an edge born of struggle, and reflects the highs and lows of daily life.
When did acoustic guitar get a foothold in Celtic music?
The guitar appeared in the music along with the ballad boom of the early ’60s—at the same time the folk revival was happening in the States. The collision of pure tradition with the folk revival brought guitar players into contact with fiddlers and pipers, but almost exclusively in a backing role. It wasn’t until the late ’60s that the instrument was featured in a lead role, when Paul Brady and Mick Moloney recorded an Irish instrumental on two guitars. It’s worth noting that Brady is best known as a singer-songwriter, and Moloney as a banjo player.
What was the situation when you began playing?
The guitar still hadn’t really found a voice as a lead instrument. Arty McGlynn was the first guitarist whose playing was front and center, and McGlynn’s Fancy  was the earliest album of traditional Irish music on guitar. And a couple of years before that, Scottish singer Dick Gaughan recorded an instrumental guitar album called Copper and Brass. Tony Cuffe was another Scottish singer whose solo guitar arrangements were very much within the pure tradition to my ears— he just happened to be a guitar player. His fingerstyle work was a huge revelation to me in terms of ornamenting the tunes and placing them within the idiom. That’s how I see myself. I like to leave the tunes as I found them rather than turn them into guitar music.
You play the bagpipe tune “The Seagull” on your second Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar instructional DVD. Explain how pipes are tuned, how you use open tunings to approximate the drone, and how you use a capo to approximate the tonality.
There’s a PhD thesis to be had on Scottish bagpipe tuning [laughs]. Roughly speaking, the music is notated in the key of A—although it’s pitched in Bb—so I’ll capo at the first fret and “think” in A. Scottish pipes have three drones—two tenor and one bass—that are always on; whereas, Irish pipe drones can be turned on and off.
What are the scale tones that make up “the bagpipe scale” you refer to, and is there really only one?
The sole Scottish pipe scale is A Mixolydian.
How do you execute such quick triplets with your plucking hand?
The triplet technique uses three fingers—ring, middle, and index—in that order. You need to go easy on the top string, and hard as hell on the second since there’s a string either side of the target that you need to miss. The three-finger technique produces a horrible amount of rasp and squeak on the wound strings, so I came up with a way to use my thumbnail almost like a flatpick to play triplets by using my nail on an upstroke.
Can you detail the tuning you use on “The Seagull,” and how it compares to some of the others in your canon?
The tuning I use on “The Seagull” is D, A, A, E, A, E [low to high]. Dick Gaughan came up with that guitar tuning in the ’70s to approximate the drone of pipes. Since the fourth and fifth strings are in unison, merely looking at one will set the other off—hence the continuous drone. I picked up the idea and used some right-hand techniques to get closer to the ornamentation pipers use. It’s the first tuning you’ll hear on The Maker’s Mark. I also frequently use dropped D; DADGAD; C, G, C, G, C, D; C, G, D, G, C, D—and occasionally, even standard. These are also transposed down or up depending on the instrument. On The Makers Mark, the African anthem “N’Kosi Sikelele Afrika” is essentially DADGAD dropped down twoand- a-half steps to A on a baritone, and “The Laird of Drumblair” is DADGAD tuned up a step-and-a-half to start with F on a piccolo, or “terz” guitar made by Charles Hoffman.
How did you get the idea of recording with a slew of acoustic guitars crafted by modern luthiers?
I was teaching at the Swannanoa Guitar Week in North Carolina, and one of my students caught my eye by turning up each day with a different new guitar. It turned out to be Paul Heumiller from the Dream Guitars store near Asheville. We shared some opinions about the state of guitar making, and by the end of the week he had an idea for me to record a bunch of tunes on his guitars.
How did you go about making the dream a reality?
Paul and I conversed regularly leading up to the sessions. I would have ideas about what I wanted to record that would suggest a type of instrument, and, conversely, Paul would tell me about a guitar he had in stock that would suggest some repertoire. That process continued in Compass Records’ studio in Nashville, where I recorded some tunes I had no plan to even arrange, but a particular guitar would “speak” to me—if I can be so pretentious. The second track, “Donal Óg/The Lea Rig,” came about just like that when I picked up an Applegate SJ guitar.
What was your main instrument before and after recording The Maker’s Mark?
I’d been playing a pair of guitars made in Australia by Chris Melville since 2001—one made of Brazilian rosewood and one of cocobolo. Prior to that I played a 12-fret 00- size guitar made in Scotland by Bill Kelday, who also made me a great baritone and a tiny terz guitar for my 40th birthday. In ’06, I got involved in prototyping acoustics for PRS, and that has been a journey. I love Paul Reed Smith’s energy and passion for raising the bar. Lately, I’ve been touring with a PRS Angelus Cutaway made of cocobolo with a wide, ebony fretboard. It might become the basis of a future signature model.
How did it feel to record with 15 fine acoustic instruments?
It was an honor to have custody of such phenomenal guitars for a week or so. It was even a little overwhelming at times. I guess there was also a sense of responsibility. I’d hate to record on a $27,000 Traugott and not do it justice.
Can you describe some of the more exotic instruments, and how they ended up in your hands?
I guess the most exotic was the sitar/guitar built by Linda Manzer that I named the “Delhicaster.” The strings vibrate over flat, bone saddle blocks that make every string at every fret sound like a sitar. That was one exception to Dream Guitars’ involvement. The other came from PRS after Paul read about the project on my website. He called and said, “Hey, are my guitars good enough?” in a state of great excitement. He sent a prototype that I loved, played intensely for three hours, shipped back, and has since disappeared. The Paul McGill Picasso nylon-string was very special. It has some very strange lines including a spiral rosette around its noncircular soundhole, and an uneven neck body joint that gives the effect of a cutaway. I loved the Kathy Wingert baritone, too. The arm bevel on that guitar was just perfect.
Might the manifestation of your multiple guitar fantasy reflect some dissatisfaction in having one main instrument?
I’m a frequent flyer, so having one main instrument is par for the course. It’s very satisfying to develop such a deep relationship with an instrument that it feels as familiar as your oldest pair of jeans. On the other hand, having a roomful of the finest acoustic guitars was a real treat. The idea was to make a statement that, while vintage icons have earned their place in the firmament, the golden age of acoustic guitars is right now. These freshly handcrafted guitars stand up to any guitar from the past. There are new ways of doing things, new ideas in playability, and so on that keep the guitar world looking forward.