How to Play an Irish Bouzouki

Updated April 17, 2017

The bouzouki's roots and origins are Greek. It was introduced to traditional Irish music in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Since that time the bouzouki has become an integral instrument in Irish music. The bouzouki is similar to a mandolin. Its strings are grouped in pairs and it is played with a pick. The Irish bouzouki is used for chordal and rhythmic accompaniment and also to play melodies and solos.

Tune the bouzouki to Irish tuning. The bouzouki, like any string instrument, can be tuned to a variety of tunings. Standard tuning for the Greek bouzouki is CFAD. Standard tuning for the Irish bouzouki is GDAD. The Greek and the Irish bouzouki are the same instrument; what differentiates them is the tuning. Irish players prefer GDAD tuning because most Irish songs are played in the key of G or D. This makes it possible to use the first strings (D) and the fourth strings (G) as droning strings when playing in the key of G or D. The bouzouki has eight strings paired together so it is best to think in terms of four strings. The fourth strings are G, the third strings are D, the second strings are A, and the first strings are D, an octave above the third strings.

Learn a few basic chords on the bouzouki. G major is 4th string/open, 3rd string/open, 2nd string/2nd fret, and 1st string/open. C major is played 4th string/5th fret, 3rd string/5th fret, 2nd string/3rd fret, and 1st string/2nd fret. D major is played 4th string/2nd fret, 3rd string/open, 2nd string/ open, and 1st string open. A minor is played 4th string/2nd fret, 3rd string/2nd fret, 2nd string/3rd fret, and 1st string/2nd fret. These are a few basic chords that allow you to play in the key of G major.

Practice strumming the chords with a small plectrum or pick. Irish bouzouki players play with a small tear-shaped pick. Practice strumming chords with a metronome. Set the metronome at a slow speed and practice playing 4/4 time and 6/8 time. To practice in 4/4 time, play different rhythmic patterns. Form a G chord and strum downward on beats 1-2-3-4. Repeat the down stroke with the C, D and Am chords. Repeat the exercise, alternating between down and upstrokes on each beat playing two strokes per beat, 1 (down stroke) 1& (up stroke), 2 (down stroke) 2& (up stroke) and so forth. Transfer exercises to 6/8 time. Count six with the metronome 1-2-3-4-5-6. Put the emphasis on the one and the four.

Learn the major scales on the bouzouki fretboard. Irish bouzouki players play a lot of single notes. Irish music is centred on single note melodies that are often played on the fiddle. Becoming fluent with scale makes it possible to play Irish fiddle melodies on the bouzouki. Lean the D major and G major scales. Since most Irish music is in the key of G and D, these scales are a good place to start. The D major scale is D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D. The G major scale is G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G. Purchase a book that has diagrams of the various scales for the bouzouki. Practice playing in the scale with a metronome in a series of crotchets (one note per beat), eighth notes (two notes per bear), triplets (three notes per beat) and sixteenth notes (four notes per beat). Practice using alternating down and up strokes.

Practice playing intervals, which are two notes that are often used in place of a chord. The root note and the 3rd or the 5th are the most common intervals because they imply the chord. Playing in the key of D, the intervals are D - F# and D - A. In the key of G, the intervals are G - B and G - D. The intervals are often played with a droning D or G string.

Put together an Irish music repertoire. Traditional Irish folk music is dance music that is based around fiddle melodies. The major categories or types of songs are reels and hornpipes (4/4 time) and various types of jigs (in 6/8 time). Slower waltzes and polkas form part of the repertoire as well. Develop a repertoire with Irish song books and by picking up tunes from other musicians who play Irish music.

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About the Author

Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.