When I moved to London in the late 80’s, I became familiar with the notion of the Traditional Irish Session. One such session was (and still is) on a Friday night at The Hemingford Arms in North London. It was there in the early days that I met up with the fiddle player, Robin Mc Kidd, who encouraged me to sit in on the session and play some guitar accompaniment. With Robins help, calling out the chords for the tunes with the fiddle wedged firmly under his chin, I began to develop an ear for the accompaniment.

From there I began sitting in at other sessions around London. Working with the ‘golden rule’ of keeping the accompaniment as simple as possible and using only chord inversion and moving bass lines for added depth and interest, I found a simple but effective way to accompany the Reels and Jigs as I went along. After a particularly invigorating session at Ryans Bar in Stoke Newington some years back, I was approached by someone who wanted to know if I did private tuition in acoustic guitar accompaniment. I agreed to give it a go and Jim O’ Shea became my first student. As we progressed through the tune sets and arrangements, he mentioned that I should keep notes on what I was teaching him for other students I was beginning to pick up. This tutorial is the result of all those lessons and notes scribbled down on various pieces of A4 paper. In this edited web version, you will learn the basic chords and rhythm structures needed to accompany “Cooley’s Reel” and “The Kesh Jig”.

This is a concise method for elementary and advanced acoustic guitar players who wish to explore Traditional Irish Accompaniment. Please note that this method is best suited to steel strung acoustic guitar using standard plectrum techniques. It is assumed that you have a basic understanding of the common major and minor chords and general strum patterns before beginning these lessons.

Cooley’s Reel

Cooley’s Reel MP3

Lesson 1

Here are some exercises to help you in your understanding of how a Reel is both structured and played. We will start with a Reel called Cooley’s Reel in which we will only use the chords of Em and D.

Let us begin with the first eight bars of the tune written out in chord tablature. Most of the tunes we will be dealing with are divided into two parts called the A part and the B part. The A and B parts of these tunes are generally played over 16 bars. In the tune, Cooley’s Reel, the A part is made up of two repeated 8 bar structures so we will concentrate on learning the first section of the A part i.e. the first 8 bars. Reels are played in the time signature 4/4 which means there are 4 beats to every bar counted as 1 – 2 – 3 – 4.

To emulate the natural swing of the reel, the chord in each bar is emphasised on beat 1 and 3. To show this more effectively, we will represent the chord tablature in half bar measures. This means that a full bar of the Em chord will be shown as

displayed over two cells of the table while a full bar of the D chord will be shown as

displayed in the same way over two cells of the table. We will be using this style of notation throughout the book so make sure you are familiar with this format before you move on.

Remember to strum the Em chord using the full six strings starting on the bottom E (6th) string and the D chord using only the top four strings, starting on the D (4th) string. Using only down strokes, play through the first 8 bars of the tune to determine the overall structure of the chord accompaniment.

A Part x 1

 Practice this until you are sure where the chords change across the tune. Pay particular attention to how the chords and the melody work together. When learning a new tune for the first time, it is important to develop an ear for the melody and a memory for the accompanying chord structure. Every tune has a distinctive and individual melody line although many can share similar chord accompaniments. The above chord structure to Cooley’s Reel, for instance, is a useful template for playing other Reels in Em. This is also true for other tunes in the different keys. As your ear for Irish Traditional Music develops along with your ability to accompany the tunes, this will become clearer and you will begin to notice how specific patterns work with different tunes. We will cover this at a later stage in The Tune Directory.

Lesson 2

Now that we understand the basic chord structure for the first 8 bars of Cooley’s Reel, we can fill in the silent pauses, 2 and 4, by using a standard 4/4 strum pattern across the 8 bars. A standard 4/4 strum uses a mixture of down and up strokes over one bar which can be counted in a couple of different ways.

6 in a Bar  

8 in a Bar


The ‘8 in a Bar’ pattern is a more percussive example of the generally used ‘6 in a Bar’ pattern and, used sparingly and with discretion, will add intensity and drive to the accompaniment. One other detail we need to attend to is how to deal with the last bar (Bar 8). The A part of this tune is written over 8 bars but is played twice round thereby giving a total of 16 bars. To preserve the continuity of the rhythm part and to enable the tune to turnaround naturally at the end of these 8 bars, we reverse the 4/4 strum pattern to match the ending of bar 8. This last bar is split between D and Em and is referred to as a split bar. Pay particular attention to this as it is a common feature in many of the tunes we will come across later in the tutorial. Play across the full 8 bars using the standard 4/4 strum pattern remembering to strum the Em chord using the full six strings starting on the bottom E (6th) string and the D chord using only the top four strings, starting on the D (4th) string.

A Part x 1

Lesson 3

We now have a basic rhythm pattern to play across Cooley’s Reel that works using a standard 4/4 strum pattern. We can also use the technique of Bass – Strum to emphasise the root bass notes of the chords and add variety to the 4/4 strum pattern. With this technique the Em chord is played using the bass note E on the 6th string and the D chord is played using the D bass note on the 4th string. Practice the following example and again pay particular attention to the turnaround across the split bar (Bar 8).

A Part x 1


The natural swing of the reel can be enhanced by doubling the bass line across the full bar. The bass note is emphasised twice across the full bar on the 1 and the 3 by substituting the down stroke on the 3 with the relevant bass note. In this example the Em chord is played using the bass note E on the 6th string with the second E bass note played an octave above on the D string 2nd fret. The D chord is played using the D bass note on the 4th string which is played twice across each bar on the 1 and the 3. Practice this exercise carefully as this style of playing requires greater accuracy on the bass line when phrasing across the chords. A helpful tip is to practice playing the bass note away from the guitar body instead of playing in a downward movement towards the adjacent guitar strings which should result in a clearer and more distinct tone on the bass note. This technique is especially useful when playing inversion chords using more that one bass note.

A Part x 1


Since the accompaniment for the B part of this tune is the same as the A part, we play through the above chord pattern four times, giving us two A parts and two B parts (a total of 32 bars i.e. 4 x 8 = 32). This completes a full round of the tune. It is customary to play each tune three times round.