Published July 22, 2021 by Tony Bacon
Andy Irvine first recorded with an Irish bouzouki in 1968 on the debut album of his band Sweeney’s Men. It was an exotic and unusual instrument back then, an adaptation of the traditional Greek bouzouki and something like a large mandolin. Since those pioneering days, the bouzouki has established a secure place in Irish music and has been adopted by many players outside that field. And for Andy, it has long been his main instrument.
Back at the end of the ‘60s, Andy travelled in the Balkans, and soon after his return to Ireland in 1970, he founded the great Irish folk band Planxty alongside Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny, and Liam O’Flynn, with subsequent personnel changes, breakups, and reformations. He’s had a long solo career, too, as well as a successful duo with Paul Brady and a number of other bands including Patrick Street, Usher’s Island, and Mozaik.
He first saw a bouzouki in 1966, when he and Galway Joe Dolan were residents in a hotel and planning the formation of Sweeney’s Men. Johnny Moynihan, who became the third member, would come at weekends, and on one occasion he turned up with an instrument that a friend had brought back from Greece as a souvenir. It wasn’t much of an instrument, but it pointed to the musical potential of a bouzouki.
Next, Johnny happened to visit the London-based instrument maker John Bailey, who had made a flat-back bouzouki—the bowl-shaped back of Greek bouzoukis could make them hard to hold. It was reputedly made for the guitarist John Pearse, best-known for his early British TV show on which he taught budding guitarists how to play. “John Bailey told Johnny that the person he’d made the bouzouki for never came back for it, and so Johnny bought it,” Andy says. “And that was the first flat-back Irish bouzouki.”
The John Bailey zouk was a six-string converted to eight strings. Some Greek versions have six paired strings, but the Irish version would be based on the more popular Greek variety with eight strings in four pairs—the kind of layout a 12-string guitarist would be familiar with.
This early converted instrument had its drawbacks. “It was almost impossible for anybody else to play,” Andy adds with a smile. “Eight strings on a six-string neck were kind of tight. But it did become one of the first bouzoukis used in Irish music.” It was the instrument that Johnny and Andy used among the mandolin, harmonica, guitar, tin whistle, banjo, concertina, and vocals on the Sweeney’s Men album in ’68.
The following year, Andy acquired his own bouzouki in Greece. “It was during the time the fascist Colonels ruled there, and I didn’t really want to enhance the economy in any way. I was traveling in Bulgaria at the time, and I hitchhiked down to Thessaloniki. I sold my blood and bought the bouzouki with some money from that, then hitched back to Bulgaria, kind of congratulating myself that I had not spent one penny in Greece.”
In 1971, just prior to the formation of Planxty, Dónal Lunny came over to Andy’s place and started playing the blood-money bouzouki Andy had brought back from Greece. “Dónal had never played a bouzouki before, but he got the hang of it so quickly, and I said, ‘Take it, take it!’ And Dónal had a lot to do with popularizing the so-called Irish bouzouki.”
Andy began to develop the bouzouki’s potential for song accompaniment. Up to this point, his main instrument was guitar. “As far as I remember, we always tuned the guitars in the normal Spanish style then,” he says. “There were too many thirds available on a guitar, but the bouzouki cut that out—you could play just ones and fives if you wanted to. And the bouzouki really took over for me in 1977, when I had a car crash.”
He knew a woman who had a music shop in Dublin, and she gave him a bouzouki built by the English maker Andy Manson. “As a result of the crash, I had to cancel a tour in Germany, and I was unable to actually go out and play for about two months. That’s where I began to really get the hang of the bouzouki. Dónal Lunny and others would use it very much as a percussive accompanying instrument, a rhythm instrument, whereas I used it to accompany songs—and I’m delighted that I did, because it’s meant a lot to me ever since then. Dónal in bands would play mainly chords, sometimes with connecting runs in the chords, whereas my style of playing it was more complicated, I think, than his.”Trinity College TM-375 Irish Bouzouki. Photo by Jake Wildwood.
He reflects on some of the musical situations he’s experienced in his long and varied career and points, for example, to the choice he made to never or very seldom to play a note on a bass string to match the note he was singing. “I played a lot of harmony and counter-melody, and I had this ability to play one thing and sing another, where you have to not concentrate on either and do a kind of trigonometry in your head, you know? That would take a deal of practice, but then I could do things that made people go Wow, how do you do that? And I would beam with joy at my success,” he says, beaming with joy at the memory.
Andy and some of the other pioneering Irish bouzouki players tuned their instruments to GDAD. “That comes from the way that people like Johnny Moynihan and myself would sometimes tune mandolins to GDAD. I think a lot of my early input into mandolin playing was based on American Old-Time music, where I’m sure GDAD is a well-known fiddle tuning.”
The D as the top string also presented advantages. “It’s amazing how many chords can be enhanced by having a D at the top,” he says. “All the way from A-minor to C, they’re all plus 9s and plus 4s, which are always acceptable to me. So not having to necessarily think about the top string, which you’d have to do if it was tuned to an E and you were playing in G or D, almost gave you the feeling of the fifth string of a five-string banjo.”
Any tips for someone aiming to try an Irish bouzouki, Andy? “You should really start with a good one,” he says. “When I started playing the guitar, for instance, when I was 13, my brother-in-law knew Julian Bream, and I went to Julian’s with my first guitar. The first thing he said was, ‘Well, I think you’re going to have to buy a better guitar.’ So I agree with that entirely. And I would suggest looking up a Facebook group called The Irish Bouzouki. It’s run by Seanie McGrath and extremely good. That would be the place to find locally a good maker who wouldn’t cost the earth.”
Since the ‘70s, Andy’s prime bouzoukis have been made for him by the English maker Stefan Sobell—and his current mainstay has a guitar-shape body and is fitted with a Highlander under-bridge pickup, though Andy often adds an LR Baggs M1A pickup in the soundhole when necessary. He also likes a bouzouki made for him by the Japanese firm K. Yairi, and sometimes he reaches for his bass bouzouki by the New Zealand maker Davy Stuart, tuned down to CGDG and with a Sunrise pickup.
On electric gigs he goes direct, usually with a combination of pickup and mic, while on acoustic outings he has a Fender Champion 30 amp, though you might not notice. “I set it at volume 1 or less, just to bolster the bass bouzouki, and I put it under the chair I’m sitting on—so I don’t think people notice that the instrument is amplified.”
Andy is drawn daily to playing bouzouki, and also his Fylde mandola, a similar but slightly smaller instrument. “I’ve been practicing daily for the last 18 months,” he says, adding with a lockdown-weary sigh: “And even with that daily practicing, I don’t feel confident. I haven’t enjoyed any kind of live streaming I’ve done, which is not much, but I have not enjoyed that at all. Something psychological, maybe. But I’m hoping an audience will give me back the confidence I’m lacking at the moment.”
Andy is 79 years old, and I venture the opinion that some musicians at that age might feel like slowing down, enforced or otherwise. “I think I’ll only get slowed down once I begin to not be able to do it. And god knows when that will be. Hopefully it hasn’t arrived yet.” So your song “Never Tire Of The Road” is accurate? “Oh absolutely, yeah,” our bouzouki pioneer replies with another laugh. “I’m forced by the pin of my collar not to get tired of the road now, having written that song. No choice.”
Keep up to date with Andy at his official website here.
About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Electric Guitars: Design & Invention and Rickenbacker Electric 12-String. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.