This article originally appeared in: Acoustic Guitar Magazine, April 2010

It is possible to follow Celtic guitarist Dennis Cahill’s career for years and not hear him say a word on stage.  Not that his long-time duo partner, Clare fiddler Martin Hayes, spends that much time talking during the show either.  The two sit there, leaning toward each other, weaving subtle, mesmerizing, and often explosive arrangements of Irish tunes—long sets that build and develop power that can take the breath away.  So why bother talking?  But offstage, Cahill proves to be a wry and articulate teacher, one who has given a great deal of thought to his approach to traditional Celtic guitar.  And he has plenty to say.

Born and bred in Chicago, Cahill started out soaking up the lively folk scene, hanging out at the Chicago Old School and studying classical guitar before forming a jazz/rock fusion band with fiddler Hayes in the ‘80s.  The band eventually split up and when Hayes committed himself to a trad career track, Cahill did the same.  “I got more interested in the “trad trad” stuff.  Since I was destroying a genre I figured I should find out just what I was destroying.”

The Cahill and Hayes partnership has produced three CDs, the most recent being the just-released “Welcome Here Again” (Compass Records).  Their 1997 début, “The Lonesome Touch”, was followed in 1999 by “Live in Seattle”.

We caught Cahill between a sold-out show at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse and a workshop to chat about the singular way he works the guitar into established Celtic tradition.

Were you nervous at first joining in with the Celtic trad players on guitar?

I don’t really know what trad guitar is, because I don’t think there is an actual definition.  And I came into it wondering, because Martin now had an established career and I thought ‘I don’t know if they’re gonna buy this.’ But he says, ‘Don’t worry about it.’  So I went and was quite amazed that some of the older players didn’t mind at all. They liked it cause I wasn’t interfering.  But I got a pretty good base in how the core stuff works. As much as people worry about the chords, it’s the rhythm that’s the problem—the groove they call the ‘lift’.

So, is this ‘lift’ crucial to getting a Celtic feel?

The tunes are circular—phrases go into phrases go into phrases and if you start doing this ‘four’ thing, you’ll murder it.  It’s like speed bumps.  You can’t ever get any traction on the tune.  Good players will bend time.  The groove will be there but it flexes like a good drummer.

But your unexpected chord voicings seem to do as much to build tension in your arrangements as does your rhythmic groove.

Yeah, harmonic stuff is about tension, as opposed to just volume and speed.  You keep your ears open, swipe stuff you like from anything, and then work it out.  I have a very piano-like approach.  I don’t really look in terms of chord forms.  I look in terms of voicings.  I use three-note voicings and then move one of them.  I might hold one as the root, create tension that way, then instead of using a regular triad, if you want it to sound a little less sweet, you move the third down to the ninth, and let the melody fill in the third.  It’s a little subversive.”

Who inspired you to try these voicings?

I think the king of it on guitar was Bill Frizzell… all this stuff going on underneath.  And pianist Bill Evans was master at moving voicings in the middle instead of the edges all the time.  In Irish stuff I use a lot of middle voicings because you can change faster, get the chords quicker, imply the chord change rather than slam it.  I’m very big on implying chord changes.

Care to give an example of implied chord changes?

Something I’ve been goofing around with is a Scottish tune called ‘Hector the Hero’.  The deal was to make it depressing.  I say if we’re going to be depressed, let’s go right in there.  [Example 1]  It’s a very simple thing, really, just using the melody line, but you have that one suspended harmony note and then you resolve it. [Example 2].  It’s just a matter of figuring out what you want the tune to do and then shading everything around it. Then you carefully pick what big notes you’re going to use to make it what you’d like.

So, when all’s said and done, which is more important for you: the chords or the rhythm?

You’ve gotta figure out the lift.  That’s the tricky part—to keep the thing moving and not getting in the way.  If you ask what it is in sixteen years I’ve worked on the hardest, that’s it.  And we still work on that. We’re always trying to be able to float the rhythm and not get in each other’s way.


Acoustic Guitar:  Early 1990s Ramirez Model C86CWE, designed for French jazz guitarist Marcel Dadi, with mahogany sides, red cedar top, single cutaway, bought used about 5 years ago and left unmodified.

Tuning:  Standard.  “I do that not because I think it’s the greatest thing on earth, but because I can find things.  If I go into different tunings, I find myself looking for the fifth chord.  Where’d my D go?”

Amplification:  Cascade Fathead II Bi-Directional Ribbon Mic on a boom stand.  While the guitar came with a built-in Baggs pickup, “I never use it except at home.”

Strings:  D’Addario Pro-Arté hard-tension nylon.

Pick:  Medium Fender for accompaniment, sometimes a heavy for soloing.