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Irish & Celtic Instruments

Instruments Used in Celtic Music

Celtic instrumentation covers a full spectrum from the commonplace (e.g., guitar, flute and fiddle) to the esoteric (e.g., bodhrán and uilleann pipes). One of the best things about Celtic music is that it can sound as rich, melodic and complete when played by a solo guitarist or tin whistle master as when performed by a multi-piece ensemble.

Presenting a discussion of a guitar or fiddle here will probably be of limited use, since these instruments have so thoroughly permeated the western music scene. However, here are descriptions of some of the more exotic instruments used in Celtic music with which you may not be so familiar:

Tin Whistle (or Pennywhistle)

What's not to like about an instrument you can play right away but takes a lifetime to master – all for around $10 or so? The tin whistle is a simple metal tube (you guessed it – often made of tin), with six holes and a fipple, a wooden plug mouthpiece similar to that of a recorder. Don't scoff at the minimal expenditure required: Many pennywhistle grandmasters play only the $10 variety. It's relatively simple to learn, and cheap, so it may be the optimal way for a beginner to enter the world of traditional Celtic folk music.

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Recommended book: Penny Whistle Book (Penny & Tin Whistle) by Robin Williamson

Other Tin Whistle Books

Uilleann Pipes and Bagpipes

Although they may look nothing like the saxophone and the clarinet (their very distant cousins), pipes are reed instruments. Here's how a set of pipes works. The piper inflates an air bag by puffing through a blowpipe. He squeezes the bag with his arm, sending air through the reed of a chanter; by fingering the chanter, the player can control the sound.

The best-known variety of pipes are highland bagpipes, played primarily in Scotland. They are played standing up (often in large highland bands), and generate a sometimes overwhelming amount of sound. Ireland's version of these is known as Irish warpipes. In traditional Irish music, however, you are much more likely to encounter the sonically mellow, bellows-driven uilleann pipes. A set of uilleann pipes usually features keys on the chanter, three or four drones (to expand the range of the instrument), and regulators, extra pipes for executing specific chords. When you see mention of a "practice set," that refers to a set of pipes that has a chanter but lacks drones and regulators.

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Bagpipe Books


Many of us will associate harp with the pedaled, person-sized variety used in classical music. Most Celtic harps, however, are so small that they can be played on the knee, and they may be strung with nylon, gut, or wire. Harps have been around Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and Wales for centuries, so Celtic harpists have a daunting tradition to uphold. A Celtic harp is called a triple harp (three rows of strings) in Wales, and a clarsach in Scotland.

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Recommended book: Mel Bay Presents Christmas Eve 16 Solos for Celtic Harp

Other Harp Books


The bodhran is a small handheld drum popular in Irish music; the playing surface is goatskin, stretched over a wooden frame. It is played by striking the drumhead with a tipper, a double-headed stick (in percussion, two heads are better than one). If you are searching for one and run across a model that comes with a cipín or beater instead of a tipper, don't worry; those are three names for the same thing.

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Bodhran Books

Hammered Dulcimer

If you are familiar with a zither or autoharp, you're on the right track. The hammered dulcimer features a trapezoid-shaped board with pairs of strings stretched across its face. The player strikes the strings with light hammers. As far as the sound goes, many say it resembles a harp.

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DVD: Hammer Dulcimer-A Comprehensive Beginner's Course

Dulcimer Books

There's your brief introduction to some of the lesser-known instruments commonly played by Celtic musicians. And we haven't even covered the bombarde, Melodeon, Button Accordion, Concertina, Mandolin, Cittern, Irish Bouzouki, the strange hybrid Mandocello, Northumbrian pipes and all the rest.

For in-depth descriptions, tips and recommendations of Irish and Celtic musical instruments, visit