Tony McManus

Retuning Tradition

Celtic fingerstyle guitarist virtuoso Tony McManus to perform at Tsunami Books

In the middle of a phone call with Eugene Weekly, internationally renowned guitarist Tony McManus picks up a guitar and begins to pluck Celtic songs and one of Bach’s two-part inventions. 

McManus bridges the two worlds of classical and Celtic music — seemingly distant styles. He’s known for his arrangements of Celtic music that have flowing melodies, but he’s using some of his signature tuning when performing the works of Bach, for example. And the contribution that he wants to make to Celtic music, he says, is to elevate the role of the guitar from accompaniment to the rank of melody. He performs at Tsunami Books Sunday, Sept. 11.

Growing up in Scotland, McManus says he was surrounded by Irish music because his family had immigrated from Ireland. “Growing up, everything was ‘green,’” he says. They went to Ireland for vacation, listened to Irish music at home and his parents’ social circle was Irish immigrants.

The ’70s were a pretty bad decade for most things except rock and Irish music, he says, so it was good for a budding guitarist obsessed with those two things. Irish music and guitars were everywhere, from rock-oriented British weekly newspaper Melody Maker to TV shows. “In 1965, traditional music was played by old men in pubs,” he adds. “At the time that I started, it suddenly changed. To me it felt overnight that this music was cool.” 

McManus didn’t pursue music while in school. He jokes that his music teachers were terrible and his math teachers were better. But while enrolled in a math postdoctoral program, he decided to drop out and pursue guitar full time. “Whenever people ask if I’m classically trained, I say, ‘Yes, but in algebra,’” he laughs. 

A lack of orthodox music training means he sometimes struggles with theory, he says. Music can be learned through osmosis, something that makes it different from learning to drive, he laughs, though he says he wishes he could re-approach the guitar as a newbie. “If I could stop the clock, I would go to a good jazz guitar teacher and have them explain it to me like I was in kindergarten,” he says. 

Since dropping out of grad school many years ago, McManus has released several albums. And Guitar Player has named him one of the 50 most transcendental guitarists, joining a list that includes jazz and country guitar master Chet Atkins, blues legend Robert Johnson and flamenco hotshot Charo.  

Guitars, like any stringed instrument, follow a standard tuning, where strings are tuned low to high E A D G B E. But guitarists have experimented with various tunings that can be heard in popular songs, such as The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Led Zeppelin’s “That’s The Way” and Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” as well as Sonic Youth’s “Teen Age Riot.” 

McManus uses an alternate tuning for his music, where the strings are tuned D A D G A D. It’s a tuning that guitarist Jimmy Page also uses in the Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir,” though McManus is quick to say that Page has long been associated with stealing musical ideas from Black blues musicians, as well as the tuning from Irish guitarists. 

McManus learned the tuning from Scottish folk guitarist Dick Gaughan, a hero of his. After learning the tuning, he says he spent a year in his room practicing it and arranging the Irish and Celtic songs he heard as a kid.

“When you first encounter the tuning, almost everything you play is beautiful. You think what you’re doing is incredibly profound, but it really isn’t,” he says, then plays an Irish lick on the guitar over the phone. “D A D G A D opened a lot of doors for me.” 

Many Celtic folk songs are hundreds of years old, he says. Recent melody-carrying instruments, such as the accordion and tenor banjo, have had those parts for around 100 years, he says. With the guitar growing in popularity as a leading instrument, McManus says he hopes to move the six-string instrument to the forefront in the traditional genre. 

“My aim as a musician is to bring the guitar into the fold, the church, of traditional music, rather than following the repertoire and making guitar music out of it,” he says. “I don’t see why the guitar can’t make its voice heard in this century.”

Tony McManus performs with Larry Pattis opening 7:30 pm Sunday, Sept. 11, at Tsunami Books. Tickets are $22.50.