Many guitarists would be a little intimidated when confronted with arranging a tune originally played on a 9-string Norwegian instrument. Don’t count Scottish guitarist Tony McManus as one of them. On his newest album, a collaborative effort with Breton fretless bass player Alain Genty entitled Singing Sands, McManus takes such challenges in perfect stride.
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On the album’s ten tracks, which are a mix of traditional tunes and original pieces, McManus’ playing weaves complex, harmonically rich patterns with the flowing lines of Genty’s bass. McManus’ guitar style is chameleon like: It can bring to life an Irish bagpipe tune on one track and then just as easily channel the Scandinavian hardanger fiddle on the next. This is no easy feat, and it’s even more difficult considering the effort McManus makes to capture the soul of the original instrument.

Is there an example on Singing Sands where you use specific techniques to imitate traditional instruments?
I did it on a set of three tunes for Irish bagpipes: “The Dusty Miller/The Silver Slipper/Willie’s Fling No. 2.” They are great piping tunes because they involve loads of triplets on the low D on the pipes, which corresponds to the open-D string on the guitar. I imitate an ornament on the pipes called a cran, which is basically a way of playing a triplet. The way I do that on guitar is I play it with my thumbnail, so the thumb goes down, up, down. Using the thumb on the way up is fairly unique. There aren’t many people who have cottoned on to the idea that you can use your thumbnail on the way up. I get lots of emails from guitar players asking, “How do you do that?”

How do you go about finding songs to play?
That’s a good question because the tradition is absolutely vast. There are tunes all over the world and the more I’ve traveled with the music, the more traditions I’ve been exposed to. On the new album, there is a song called “Fønix (Phoenix),” which is composed by a Norwegian hardanger fiddle player named Annbjørg Lien. The hardanger is an instrument that really only exists in Scandinavia. It’s a fiddle with a bunch of sympathetic strings. It’s tuned much higher than a normal fiddle. So “Fønix” is an example where I’ve heard a piece of music played on an instrument that I’m not familiar with and then hammered away at it on guitar trying to find a way of expressing the same thing. It’s easy to take these melodies and play them on guitar but, to me, the aim should be to leave them as traditional tunes, not turn them into guitar pieces.

Do you feel like you’re actually trying to mimic the instrument?
Yeah, but not in a slavish way. “Fønix” is played in DADGAD tuning, so there’s a lot of droning going on, and that’s exactly what you’ll hear if the tune is played on hardanger fiddle. The sympathetic strings just ring the whole time. They also do a lot of playing on two strings at once, with the melody on one string while the other string is just an open drone.

My aim, in the bigger artistic picture, is not so much to bring this repertoire into the guitar world; it’s to bring the guitar into the traditional idiom. I’m trying to play these tunes within the tradition. So I listen very carefully to other instruments, and I think that’s an important aspect of my style on acoustic guitar.