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


Andy Irvine celebrates Woody Guthrie at the NCH

Updated / Friday, 1 Oct 2021 18:21

On 2nd October, Andy Irvine presents his Woody Guthrie Project at the National Concert Hall with Rens van der Zalm. Below, Andy talks about the influence of Woody, his correspondence with the folk icon and what people can expect from his NCH show.

I spent my early youth searching for the music I knew existed somewhere, the music that would lift my soul. I didn’t find it in my mother’s cracked and scratched collection of musical comedy 78s and I didn’t find it when Bill Haley & the Comets came to Europe in 1956. I nearly found it in the early 45 rpm singles of Rhythm & Blues recorded by the likes of Fats Domino. But…not quite. I found it for a short time with Lonnie Donegan and the Skiffle bands that proliferated a little later and on the sleeve of one of Lonnie’s early EPs I first saw the name that was to motivate me through my life—Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie, pictured in 1940

I found an album, oddly titled More Songs by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston as it was the only one available. At home I placed the stylus on the first track and as the needle picked up the very first sound of Columbus Stockade a tingle went down my spine. The instrumental intro was followed by an Oklahoman voice, singing, “Way down in Columbus Stockade, want to be back in Tennessee”. And I knew I had found my treasure!

The notes on the back of the album gave nothing away as to who these two men were; I knew they were American, but the world was a much larger place in those days, and I could find no further information. Were they alive or dead?

The notes on the back of the album gave nothing away as to who these two men were; I knew they were American, but the world was a much larger place in those days, and I could find no further information. Were they alive or dead?

Not long after that, somebody introduced me to Pete Seeger and he told me about Woody being incarcerated in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey. Finally, I was able to make contact. Unfortunately, Woody was unable to hold a pen by this time as he had inherited, full blown, from his mother, the genetic disease which was at that time called Huntingdon’s Chorea and had little or no control over his limbs.

Letters were written on his behalf by a lady who would take him out of the hospital at weekends to be entertained by his friends and admirers.

I’ve always been so proud of the fact that Woody and I were friends in this fashion. I began to record songs on tape for Woody and one letter from Sid Gleason, told me how he would sing along with me.

As the years rolled by and Woody died in 1967, I discovered traditional Irish Music and also started writing my own songs, a lot of them very much in Woody’s style.

It has been one of the plus moments of this pandemic that I have had a lot of time to come back to Woody’s songs and in the last year, I have begun to record an album of his songs with the help of a grant from the Arts Council.

Watch: Never Tire of the Road – Andy Irvine salutes Woody Guthrie

I’m delighted to showcase some of these songs at the NCH with my old friend and brilliant musician, Rens van der Zalm. The repertoire that we will be presenting is largely less well-known songs of Woody’s and will represent some historic moments in American history that may well be new to the audience.

Songs about Tom Mooney, whose parents were Irish, and who was wickedly and wrongly convicted of setting off a bomb at a parade in San Francisco, Henry Wallace, who was nearly President of the USA after FDR died in 1945 and who stood for President in 1948, a song about Charles Lindbergh and “The America First” committee who wanted to keep US out of the second World War – until Pearl Harbour intervened.

Andy Irvine presents his Woody Guthrie Project at the National Concert Hall, Dublin with Rens van der Zalm On 2nd October, as part of the Tradition Now festival – find out more here.

Andy Irvine presents his Woody Guthrie Project at the National Concert Hall, Dublin with Rens van der Zalm On 2nd October, as part of the Tradition Now festival – find out more here.

Andy Irvine – Gigs aplenty! IRE / UK / GER / NL


Andy’s back on the road! Never Tire!


Fri 17.Dolan’s, LimerickGet Ticket
Sat 18.The Doolin Sessions @Hotel DoolinGet Ticket
Sun 19.Carlingford Heritage Centre, Carlingford w/Zoë Conway & John McIntyreGet Ticket
Tue 21.The White Horse, Ballincollig w/Dónal LunnyGet Ticket
Fri 24.The Hot Spot Music Club, Greystones – Reschedule to October 22Get Ticket
Sat 25.- Sun 26.Hibernacle Presents “Meet Me At The Castle” @Claregalway CastleGet Ticket



Sun 3.Laugharne Weekend Festival, West WalesGet Ticket
Tue 5.Live at the Star, GLASGOW – PostponedGet Ticket
Thur 7.Live at Sam’s, SHEFFIELDGet Ticket
Fri 8.Blaxhall Sessions, BLAXHALLGet Ticket
Sun 10.The Irish Cultural Centre, LONDONGet Ticket
Mon 11.The Garret Sessions, @TADS Theatre, TODDINGTONGet Ticket
Tue 12.Kitchen Garden Café, BIRMINGHAMGet Ticket


Fri 15.Cyprus Avenue, CorkGet Ticket
Thur 21.Spiegeltent, WexfordGet Ticket
Fri 22.The Hot Spot Music Club, GreystonesGet Ticket

ANDY IRVINE & PAUL BRADY “A Celebration Of A Classic Album”
featuring Dónal Lunny & Kevin Burke


Sun 17.Cork Opera House, Cork – Reschedule to 24th January 2022Get Ticket
Wed 20.Royal Theatre, Castlebar – Reschedule to 30th January 2022Get Ticket
Thur 21.Vicar St, Dublin – Reschedule to 31st January 2022Get Ticket
Fri 22.Vicar St, Dublin – Reschedule to 1st February 2022Get Ticket
Sun 24.Perth Concert Hall, Perth – Reschedule to 26th January 2022Get Ticket
Mon 25.Waterfront Hall, Belfast – Reschedule to 28th January 2022Get Ticket


Thurs 28.Katholische Kirche, HattingenGet Ticket
Fri 29.Heimathaus, Rotenburg/WümmeGet Ticket
Sat 30.Kleinkunstbühne, MeissenGet Ticket
Sun 31.Haus Schulenburg, GeraGet Ticket



Tue 2.Kulturmanufaktur Gerstenberg, Frankfurt/OderGet Ticket
Wed 3.Alter Gasometer, ZwickauGet Ticket
Thur 4.ufaFabrik, BerlinGet Ticket
Fri 5.Osdorf Heidbarghof, HamburgGet Ticket
Sat 6.Künstlerzeche Unser Fritz 2/3, HerneGet Ticket
Sun 7.Fletcher Hotel-Restaurant Boschoord, OisterwijkGet Ticket
Mon 8.Irish Folk Club im Stemmerhof, MünchenGet Ticket
Tue 9.360°Gasometer, PforzheimGet Ticket
Wed 10.Folk im Feuerschlösschen, Bad HonnefGet Ticket
Fri 12.Pumpwerk, HockenheimGet Ticket
Sat 13.Club Kuckucksei, NürtingenGet Ticket
Sun 14.Venue-TBA, BüdingenGet Ticket

Happy 79th Birthday, Andy Irvine!

“Happy 79th Birthday, Andy Irvine! To celebrate, we’re revisiting a classic interview with the legendary Irish musician – originally published in Hot Press in 1980.”

read the full interview over on

STREAM: Solidarity for Palestine – 31st May 2021

Musicians’ Union Of Ireland & SIPTU announce livestream gig in aid of Gaza

The concert will be broadcast on Facebook and Youtube on May 31st from 8pm, with proceeds being donated to MECA (Middle East Children’s Alliance).

Musicians’ Union Of Ireland and SIPTU have organised a livestream ‘Gig for Gaza’ concert, set to raise vital funds for children’s medical aid in the region.

Supported by the Palestinian Embassy, ‘Gig for Gaza’ will feature special performances and appearances from Palestinian rap sensation MC Abdul, Frances Black, Harry Bradley, Paul Anderson, Francy Devine, Andy Irvine, Róisín Elsafty, John Kelly, Aoife Kelly, Charlie le Brun, Sean McGinley, Sean McKeon, Niamh Parsons, Graham Dunne, Ann Russell, Ciara Taaffe, and Éoghan Ó Ceannabháin.

All proceeds will be donated to MECA (Middle East Children’s Alliance) to aid the youth of Gaza.

Details of how to donate will be carried on the broadcast and contained in a Facebook Event page.

“Thanks are due to the musicians and actors who are taken part and freely giving their talents – a tremendous commitment to the Palestinian cause. Lockdown has meant that in most cases, musicians and other workers in the arts have been denied any opportunity to perform, engage with an audience or earn any income,” a press statement says.