The Irish Bouzouki, Explained by Andy Irvine

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.

Andy Irvine plays an Irish bouzouki in this 1976 performance of “The Blind Harper”

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 BouzoukiTrinity 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.

source: reverb.com


 RTÉ: A salute to Andy Irvine

Updated / Monday, 22 Oct 2018 09:21

Andy Irvine performing at Imagining Ireland at the Royal Festival Hall, London in April 2016. Photo: Amy T. Zielinski/ Redferns/Getty Images
Andy Irvine performing at Imagining Ireland at the Royal Festival Hall, London in April 2016. Photo: Amy T. Zielinski/ Redferns/Getty Images
Analysis: throughout his remarkable career, Andy Irvine has remained a consummate singer, storyteller and interpreter of songsSince arriving in Dublin in 1962, Andy Irvine has been an ever-present figure on the Irish music scene, and is a worthy recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the inaugural RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards next week. Highly respected across the traditional and folk spectrum, the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is celebrated both for his solo work and for his contribution to a succession of ground-breaking ensembles, most notably Sweeney’s Men and Planxty.


From RTÉ Radio One’s Second Captains, an interview with Andy Irvine (starts 4:03)

To understand his contribution to music in Ireland, and his influence on later musicians, it is helpful to look at how Irvine encountered this music for the first time. Born in London in 1942, his Irish mother and Scottish father had both been involved in music, and he found early success in film and TV as a child actor. Like many of his generation, his first involvement with folk or vernacular music came through the skiffle boom of the mid-1950s. He had already been studying classical guitar, but after hearing some of Lonnie Donegan’s recordings Irvine abandoned this to set up a skiffle group; a common step for many budding musicians in this period.

Skiffle’s eclectic repertoire introduced these young British and Irish musicians to a heady brew of American folk and blues sources, and it was through this that Irvine first encountered Woody Guthrie, who has served as a touchstone throughout his career. The attractions of the road, the identification with workers and the oppressed, and the potential power of protest song all stem from his relationship with Guthrie. Right from the outset, then, Irvine helped shape perceptions of Irish folk music in the 1960s and 1970s as having a political dimension, even if this wasn’t always the primary focus of his groups.


From RTÉ Radio One’s Arena, Andy Irvine remembers the life and career of Woody Guthrie 

After some time in rep as an actor, Irvine moved to Dublin, where he became involved in the city’s burgeoning folk scene, and was caught up in the intensity and fervour of the folk revival. For Irvine and many others, this was a period of restless exploration and learning, whether from older singers, peers, recordings or books. The energy, camaraderie and the characters of the period are wonderfully captured in Irvine’s song “O’Donoghue’s”, named for the Merrion Row pub which was the hub of the 1960s revival.

While the folk clubs and pubs provided many opportunities for singing, there was little money in the scene, and a life of bohemian precariousness was punctuated with sometimes chaotic domestic and European tours. In 1966, Irvine joined with two of his regular partners, Joe Dolan (later replaced by Terry Woods) and the Dublin singer Johnny Moynihan, in the group Sweeney’s Men.

Sweeney’s Men – Johnny Moynihan, Andy Irvine and Terry Woods – in London in 1968. Photo: Brian Shuel/Redferns/Getty Images


Coinciding with the high point of the ballad boom, they had success with the singles “The Waxie’s Dargle” and “The Old Maid in the Garrett”, although the bulk of their material was more diverse and more exploratory in its blend of English, Scottish and American folk songs. The possibilities afforded by the combination of guitar, mandolin, and bouzouki laid the foundations for many other subsequent groups, and the occasional dance tunes pointed towards the more integrated approach of later bands, most notably Planxty.

Prior to the group coming together in the early 1970s, Irvine left Sweeney’s Men to travel and play in Eastern Europe, learning and bringing back tunes in distinctive Bulgarian asymmetrical rhythms. This encounter has left a significant imprint on Irish music, from Irvine’s own “Blacksmith/Blacksmithereens”, Bill Whelan’s Timedance” (1981), the “East Wind” collaboration with Davy Spillane (1992), and of course “Riverdance”(1994).


From RTÉ Archives, Planxty playing “Kitty Gone A Milking” and “Music of the Forge” at the National Stadium in Dublin as featured on a June 1973 episode of The Music Makers

In one sense, the coming together of Irvine, Dónal LunnyChristy Moore and Liam O’Flynn as Planxty marked a détente between the sometimes-opposing forces of the folk music and traditional music revivals. It also coincided with (or helped spur) the emergence of a more youth-based traditional music culture, as is evident from Planxty’s concert footage in this period.

As well as electrifying audiences with their live concerts, the band released six studio albums that still impress today in their creativity and artistry. Among these were some of Irvine’s most memorable interpretations such as “The Jolly Beggarman”, “The Rambling Siúler” and his own “Băneasă’s Green Glade”.


From RTÉ Archives, Planxty perform ‘You Rambling Boys of Pleasure” at the National Stadium in Dublin as featured on a May 1983 episode of Festival Folk

It was also during this period that Irvine forged a partnership with Paul Brady, who had joined Planxty as a replacement for Christy Moore in 1974. After the initial breakup of the group in 1975, Irvine and Brady developed the band’s unrecorded later material for one of the best-loved albums from this period.

The album’s reputation was further enhanced last year when it was commemorated through a concert tour that involved the performance of the whole album (albeit in a different order). This seems to have been the first time that a folk or traditional album has been celebrated using methods more usually associated with the production of “heritage rock”.


After Planxty’s second stint, Irvine began to focus more on solo recording and touring, interspersing this with a vast array of collaborations and membership of other groups. Included among these is a long series of albums with Patrick Street extending from 1986 until 2007 and further explorations of the connections between different folk traditions with Mozaik. Most recently, Usher’s Island brings Irvine, Dónal Lunny and fiddler Paddy Glackin together with younger musicians who emerged in the 1990s such as Mick McGoldrick(flute) and John Doyle (guitar).

The motif of travel continues to be prominent in his musical career, with new pathways being forged to Australia, where he made his most recent recording, “Precious Heroes”, with the Australian mandolin player Luke Plumb. Included on the album are songs about miners’ rights, Irish anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War and the Australian bushranger Ben Hall. Clearly, the inspiration of Woodie Guthrie on Irvine remains undimmed more than 50 years on from discovering him.


From RTÉ Archives, a Nighthawks’ piece on Andy Irvine from 1990

Throughout his remarkable career, Irvine has remained a consummate singer, storyteller and interpreter of songs. Not only never tiring of the road, his career has also shown a tirelessness in seeking out new connections, new musical experiences, and new repertoire. Perhaps it is this – and his ability to bridge the folk, traditional and wider musical worlds – which has been most influential on later generations of musicians.

The inaugural RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards will take place in Vicar Street, Dublin on Thursday October 25th

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ

sourece: https://www.rte.ie/eile/brainstorm/2018/1021/1005709-andy-irvine-profile-folk-awards/ 

Feature: Andy Irvine & Dé Danann

After the split of Planxty in 1975, Andy Irvine found himself at a looks end for the first time in a few years. It is a little known fact that for a brief time in 1976 Andy Irvine was a member of the group De Danann. There is not a whole lot known about his time with the group but here’s what I could find.

Dé Danann Early Days

The group’s debut album was the eponymous Dé Danann, produced by Dónal Lunny and recorded at Eamonn Andrews Studios, Dublin, in 1975 and released on Polydor. It featured Delores Keane on vocals. In early 1976, Singer Delores Keane left to marry multi-instrumentalist John Faulkner, with whom she subsequently recorded three albums of folk music.

To fill the vacancy left after Keane’s departure, Dé Danann brought in Andy Irvine, who recorded live with the band on 30 April 1976, during a folk festival in Germany. Irvine left soon thereafter because of scheduling conflicts but proposed Johnny Moynihan as his replacement, who participated in the recording of the band’s second album, Selected Jigs Reels & Songs.

Dé Danann in 1977 with Johnny Moynihan shortly after Andy’s departure.

In his own words

“Since Paul [Brady] and myself had struck up a particular friendship we decided to stick together and become a duo. At the same time my old friend Alec Finn had asked me to join De Dannan because Dolores Keane had left. So I was in two outfits at the same time, which I should have known was going to be a disaster.

Frankie Gavin rang me up one day and he says:
“Andy, De Dannan have been offered two TV programmes on RTE in June.”
Now I’d already agreed to do a tour in Brittany with Paul and Liam in June so my heart sank. I said: “Oh that’s great Frankie. Do you know what dates in June?”
And he says:   “Yes, the 15th and 16th.”

Right smack bang in the middle of the Breton tour… ‘’So I said,’’Frankie I’m going to have to ring you back’’. I sat down and I thought ‘’What the hell am I going to do? there’s no way out of this’’. Much as I liked playing with De Dannan, I considered that what I was playing with Paul was more in my line as a musician.

So I rang Frankie back and I said:
“I’m terribly sorry Frankie but I’m going to have to leave the band.”
And I think that’s the only time I’ve ever heard Frankie Gavin lost for words!

Leaving the band like that, at short notice left me feeling pretty bad and I suggested they ask Johnny Moynihan. Johnny was free and had already told me he would be interested. So he stepped into the breach and got me out of a big guilt complex. They made a great record after that, The Mist Covered Mountain*.

It’s not very well remembered now that I played in De Dannan, I even recorded with them on an Irish Folk Festival tour in Germany but I don’t think I’ve ever quite been forgiven for leaving the band. Whenever I see biographies of De Dannan, I notice there is no mention of me at all!”

* Johnny Moynihan participated in the recording of the band's second album, “Selected Jigs Reels & Songs”. He does not feature on the group’s third album “The Mist Covered Mountain”. Andy must have been mistaken here.

The 3rd Irish Folk Festival In Concert (1976)

Andy recorded live with the band on 30 April 1976, during a folk festival in Germany. This is the only known recording of the group with Andy at the helm.

Cat# Artist Title (Format) Label Cat# Country Year
INT 181.008 Various The 3rd Irish Folk Festival In Concert ‎(2xLP, Comp) Xenophon INT 181.008 Germany 1976
CM CD 040 A/B Various The 3rd Irish Folk Festival In Concert ‎(2xCD, Album) Celtic Music CM CD 040 A/B UK 1988
KIN W 2609 Various The 3rd Irish Folk Festival In Concert ‎(CD) Kingston World KIN W 2609 Germany 2005


B1 –De Danaan Martinmas Time/ Dinny O’Brien’s Hornpipe
B2 –De Danaan Maíre Rua/ Hardiman The Fiddler
B3 –De Danaan The Emigrant’s Farewell
B4 –De Danaan The Boys Of Ballysidare
B5 –De Danaan The Plains Of Kildare


  • Banjo, Bouzouki, Tin Whistle – Charlie Piggott (tracks as listed above)
  • Bodhrán, Bones – Johnny McDonagh (tracks as listed above)
  • Bouzouki – Alec Finn (tracks as listed above)
  • Fiddle, Whistle – Frankie Gavin (tracks as listed above)
  • Mandolin, Vocals – Andy Irvine (tracks as listed above)

If you have any other information on this interesting time in Andy’s career please do get in touch. Photos or recordings would be fantastic.

In Pictures: APR/MAY 2018 – SOLO TOUR in UK

sourced from the twitter community. thanks for sharing!

Fan Story: 15 year old Ed Sheeran with Andy Irvine in Kavanaghs Pub, Portlaoise [2006]

Thanks to John Shereran (Ed’s Dad) and Gary Dunne this gem was found last night!

15 year old Ed Sherran with Andy Irvine at ÉistMusic (ran by John Dunne & Vinny O’Brien) in Kavanaghs Pub-Portlaoise

Picture taken in 2006 with Credit to John Sheeran!

Here's Ed's version of Andy's classic West Coast of Clare