The Band
| Nigel Elliott | Carlos Alden | James Funke | James Hunter |

The Instruments
| banjo | bodhrán | bones | cittern |
concertina | didgeridoo | djembe | dumbek |
flute | guitar | hurdy-gurdy | panpipes |
pennywhistle | shakuhachi | uilleann pipes | udu |

[aknowledgements to Na Piobari Uilleann, Microsoft Encarta,
Ceolas Celtic Music Archive, The Bodhran Page,
Lark in the Morning, & Hobgoblin Music]

C E L T I C N O T S . C O M

Nigel plays:

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BODHRÁN (bow-rawn)

A frame drum made from wood with a goatskin head, played with a beater or stick called a cipin (pronounced "ki-peen" and meaning "kindling") . This is the heartbeat of Irish and Celtic music. It has existed in Ireland for centuries, but its introduction into the traditional music orchestra is surprisingly recent. Before the 1960s is was primarily used as a war drum and at festivals, as a noisemaker rather than as a drum. The word bodhrán means "deaf" For more information, see the bodhrán page at the Ceolas Celtic Music Archive .

DJEMBE (jem-bey)

The Djembe is undoubtedly one of the most powerful drums in existence. It is the drum of the Mandingo people, and dates back to the great Mali Empire of 12th century West Africa. A sacred drum, it has been called "The Healing Drum" for its use in ceremonies such as healing, ancestral worship, rites of passage, warrior rituals, communication and storytelling. It has an incredible tonal range, from body-vibrating bass to thunderclap slap tone, and a dynamic range from whisper soft to a lion's roar, setting it apart from other drums.


Click on the instrument to hear it.

Click on the instrument to hear it.


A middle-eastern and North African drum most commonly found in Egypt and Morrocco. Made either of tin or of clay, the body is often highly ornate. The Dumbek, or Darbouka, has existed since the Ancient Egyptians and provides the ryhthmic accompaniment to much middle-eastern music.


Bones are two curved strips of wood or bone that are held between the thumb and forefinger, and forefinger and middle finger, which produce a sharp "click" with a flick of the player's wrist. The stacatto rhythm of the bones is a perfect complement to the precise yet fluid melodies of traditional Celtic dance music, and adds wonderful complexity to its rhythmic structure.

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Carlos plays:

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The banjo is stringed instrument of the lute family, with an open-backed round body consisting of a circular wood hoop over which is stretched a drum-like skin. It has a long, narrow, fretted neck, and metal or metal-wound gut strings. The strings run from a tailpiece, over a bridge (a piece of wood that holds the strings off of the belly of the banjo) held in place by their pressure, up the neck to rear tuning pegs. The banjo typically has five strings: four full-length strings and a shorter fifth "thumb" string running to a tuning screw halfway up the neck.
The banjo originated in Africa and was brought to America in the 17th century by black slaves. Early banjos had fretless necks, a varying number of strings, and, sometimes, gourd bodies. Adopted by white musicians in 19th-century minstrel-show troupes, the banjo gained frets and metal strings. The five-string banjo, plucked with the fingers, is common in folk music and commercial bluegrass bands.
The American five-string banjo came to Ireland in the nineteenth century, losing one string along the way. It became popular in ceili bands and in ballad groups such as the Dubliners.The banjo most used in Irish music is a 4-string tenor banjo.


The Cittern is a pear-shaped stringed instrument with a wooden body and belly and a nearly flat back. The cittern was popular during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. The name and certain construction elements of the cittern probably derive from an ancient Greek instrument called a kithara. The cittern usually had four strings that were held in place by a long, flat bridge and -unlike those of the lute- were plucked with a plectrum, or pick. Modern citterns have eight to ten strings tuned in octaves (like a twelve-string guitar), which give them both harp-like brilliance as well as power. The cittern lost popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries but survived into the 20th century as a folk instrument, especially in Celtic music and folk music from central and western Europe.


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Funke plays:

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The concertina is a small, hexagonal accordion, which comes in both double-action chromatic ('English') and single-action diatonic ('Anglo' or 'German') forms. The most common form for traditional music is an Anglo, tuned to C and G, which has the keyboard is spread out on both ends of the bellows (usually two rows of five keys on either end) with no bass. The stronghold of concertina playing has been in Co. Clare, where it is particularly common among women players.


The Guitar is almost universal in Celtic music, and is so common as to need little introduction. The history, however, is interesting. Guitar-like instruments have existed since ancient times, but the first written mention of the guitar proper is from the 14th century. In its earliest form it had three double courses (pairs) of strings plus a single string (the highest). The guitar probably originated in Spain, where by the 16th century it was the counterpart among the middle and lower classes of the aristocracy's vihuela, an instrument of similar shape and ancestry that had six double courses. The guitar became popular in other European countries in the 16th and 17th centuries, and by the late 17th century a fifth course of strings had been added below the other four.

In the mid-18th century the guitar attained its modern form, when the double courses were made single and a sixth string was added above the lower five. Guitar makers in the 19th century broadened the body, increased the curve of the waist, thinned the belly, and changed the internal bracing. The old wooden tuning pegs were replaced by a modern machine head.


The versatility of the guitar (it was supposedly described by Beethoven as "an orchestra in a box") is what gives it such prominence in folk and Celtic music: in the hands of a good player, it can be a provide rhythm, chords, harmony, and melody (and sometimes all four at the same time!)

Click on the instrument to hear it.



Click on the instrument to hear it.


A mechanized fiddle in which the player changes the notes by depressing keys along the fingerboard and sounds the strings by cranking a rosined wheel at the base of the instrument. A typical hurdy-gurdy has two melody strings running under the key mechanism and four drone strings running alongside it. Large two-person hurdy-gurdies were used in medieval church music. Smaller one-person instruments survived among folk and street musicians as late as 1900. The instrument enjoyed aristocratic vogue in the 18th century., but has had its fair share of scorn - for example, this excerpt from Mark Twain's Letters to the Earth:

Let the hand wither that ceased not with contriving the noble organ and the charming harp, but must shut up an unappeasable devil in the bowels of a box, with privilege to vagrants to grind anguish out of him with a crank and name it Music. This new thing, being not yet a century invented, has yet spread to all parts like to a pestilence; so that at this day in every city shall you see vagabonds from strange lands grinding these dread boxes,in the company and companionship of a monkey. 'Twere endurable, were there variety in the Music, but alack, they seem to all play but the one tune- the new one that did come into favor some thirty years agone and seems not to go out again before the world shall drown in that silly deluge wherof overpious fools with ill digestion do prate and prophesy from time to time. 'Tis said the new excitement hath increased our horde of grinders mightily, so that there be in the city now full eighty-thousand, which do all grind, without ceasing, that one tearful ditty: "O, Kiss Haggag for His Mother."


James plays:

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The transverse flute, the typical flute of Western music, was known in China by about 900 BC. By about AD 1100 it reached Europe, where it became a military flute in German-speaking areas. Made in one piece, these flutes had a cylindrical bore and six fingerholes. The flute was redesigned in the late 1600s by the Hotteterre family of French woodwind makers. They built it in three sections, or joints, with one key and a conical bore tapering away from the player. This flute displaced the recorder as the typical orchestral flute in the late 1700s. Gradually, more keys were added to improve the intonation of certain tones; by about 1800 a four-keyed flute was common, and eight-keyed flutes were developed in the 19th century.

In 1832 the German flute maker Theobald Boehm created an improved conical-bore flute, and in 1847 he patented his cylindrical-bore flute, which is the model in widest use in the 20th century. The cylindrical Boehm flute is made of metal or wood and has thirteen or more tone holes controlled by a system of padded keys. Its range extends three octaves, from middle C upward.

Flutes of one sort or another have been played in the celtic countries for over a thousand years. The kind in use today is mainly the 'simple-system' flute with six holes and up to eight keys. This became popular in Ireland during the nineteenth century, when classical musicians were abandoning them for the new Boehm-system flute. Modern traditional flutes are usually copies of these early instruments, and almost always made of wood. Their cylindrical bore and wooden construction give a hollow, airy tone, softer than the classical flutes and much smoother than the tin whistle.

TIN WHISTLE (pennywhistle)

This is the simplest and cheapest of traditional Celtic instruments. It is a simple metal tube made from rolled nickel or brass, with six holes and a mouthpiece like a recorder. The instrument has a range of just over two octaves, and comes in several different keys to facilitate playing with other musicians. Some makers have developed a "low whistle", which has the pitch range of a flute but the tonality of a whistle.

Although the pennywhistle is a very easy instrument to get started on, mastery of the instrument takes as long as with any other: ornamentation, breathing techniques, and improvisation have to be developed over time to give the whistle a dynamic and tonal range far beyond what might be expected of so simple an instrument.


Click on the instrument to hear it.


Click on the instrument to hear it.


This is a clay pot with an open hole at the top of the neck and one or more additional holes somewhere on the body. The resulting "drum" is played by hitting the body of the pot, producing a high-pitched, percussive sound, or by hitting directly over the holes, which produces a bending, low-pitched sound akin to the Indian tabla.

The origins of the udu are uncertain, but the drum has doubtless existed since the first musician befriended the first potter. The drum is common in Africa, and has traveled to Brazil and several other Latin American countries. It is not in any way a traditional Celtic instrument, but is very well suited to certain styles of playing.


The didgeridoo (also spelled didjeridu), or Yidaki, as it is called in the Yolno language, is the traditional instrument played by the indigenous tribal people of Australia (one of the oldest intact cultures surviving on this planet, tracing their known origins back 40,000 years) to accompany singing and dancing in rituals and entertainment.

The Didgeridoo is made from an irregular eucalyptus (or "stringybark") branch about 1 to 1.5 m (about 3.25 to 5 ft) long and has a conical bore that is hollowed by termites. The entire length of the tube is often decorated with totemic designs. At the smaller end there is a mouthpiece fashioned of pliable beeswax. Players produce the fundamental note by loosely vibrating their lips against the mouthpiece. To avoid pausing for breath, players inhale through the nose and store air in their cheeks, a technique known as circular breathing. This technique permits the production of a continuous drone that can be altered by the lips, by the tongue, and by diaphragm pressure to vary the pitch and texture of the instrument's sound. Vocal sounds are integrated to create buzzing, growling, humming, and croaking effects that imitate birds and animals. Traditionally aboriginal children are given the Didgeridoo and encouraged to take it out into the Bush to let nature be the teacher. After a few hours, it is said, the Didgeridoo itself teaches them how to play it.

The didgeridoo is once again hardly a Celtic instrument, but the drone it produces is analogous to that of the uillean pipes, and it is thus appropriate in many contexts.

Click on the instrument to hear it.

Click on the instrument to hear it.


A Japanese end-blown flute made from a length of bamboo with four finger holes and one thumbhole. Its name is derived from the Japanese measurement for the length of the basic instrument: one shaku, about 30 cm (about 12 in), and eight sun, about 24 cm (about 9.5 in). The player blows against a slip of horn, ivory, or plastic set into the tube's beveled end. The opposite end incorporates the slightly curved root section of the bamboo stalk, which is decoratively trimmed.

The shakuhachi was originally played in the Gagaku court in the 8th century. Centuries later, the delicate instrument was played exclusively by monks and samurai. Buddhist monks believed the shakuhachi represented the breath of life, leading to the path of illumination. Many of the solo works for the instrument were composed by disciples of the Fuké sect during the T'ang dynasty in China. Today these compositions are part of a large classical repertoire.


A set of tuned pipes, often stopped at the lower end and joined together in either a raft or a bundle shape. Panpipes made from a variety of materials - cane, wood, clay, metal, and stone - are found worldwide and have been known since antiquity. They include the ancient Greek syrinx, the modern Romanian nai, and the yupana of the Andes. The name panpipe refers to the god Pan of ancient Greek mythology; fleeing his pursuit, the nymph Syrinx was turned into a bed of reeds, from which Pan made his pipes.


Click on the instrument to hear it.

Click on the instrument to hear it.


This is probably the most elaborate bagpipe in the world. It was developed from roughly the 1700's to the present time in Ireland, with contributions from the U.S. and European countries. Today it is widely known as the "uilleann" (ILL-en) pipe from the Irish word for "elbow".

Unlike many types of bagpipe, the uilleann pipes are not blown by mouth but are inflated by bellows. Perhaps the most important feature of the instrument is its melody-pipe or chanter, which plays more than 2 complete chromatic octaves (most forms of bagpipe can play little more than one octave).

The chanter is essentially a primitive oboe and is very quiet, about as loud as 1-2 fiddles. Like the Scots Highland bagpipe the uilleann pipes have 3 drones but they are very quiet. One of the most unusual features of the instrument is the set of (typically) 3 more oboes in the form of 1-octave, 4- or 5-note stopped harmony pipes with keys operated by the wrist (while the piper fingers the melody on the chanter) to provide several simple chords for accompaniment. These pipes have the peculiar name of "regulators" although they are purely musical and do not in any way "regulate" air pressure or behavior of the instrument. If you want to learn about health products check out

The instrument must be played seated with one leg lowered. The chanter bottom is placed onto this leg to seal the opening shut, so that the piper can play either continuously or, as desired, can stop the chanter to play interrupted or stacatto notes.


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