Playalongs Reels

Cooley’s Reel – E dorian

Basic chords

This tune is in the key of E dorian. That means the available chords are E minor, F# minor, G major, A major, B minor, C# diminished and D major. These are the same options which would fit a tune in D major, as dorian is the second mode and E is the second note of a D major scale. You can find out more about how this works using the Amazing Mode Wheel or in my first book, Backing Guitar Techniques for Traditional Celtic Music.

Throughout the simple chords, I have used chord VII instead of chord V. chord V in the key of E minor is B minor, which is hard to play, and in any mode other than ionian you can always replace chord V with its related major chord. In this case, Bm’s related major is D which sounds brighter and is easier to play.

Bar three of the tune sounds very much like it needs chord VII- the notes are “F# D A D B D A G”. The majority of notes in this bar are D, F# and A, the notes of a D major chord (chord VII).

The tune has no clear chord IV sections in either the A or B parts, so I have used the same basic chords for both.


In this version I have substituted the E minor in bar two to its related major (G) for variation.

Likewise I have added the B minor (chord V) back into bar IV.

For contrast in the second line of the A part I have removed the brighter D major chord and just used B minor for a bar and a half instead. This is partly because I like the sound of it and partly because changing to Bm for just half a bar would be very difficult at speed!

In the B part I have added a D major (chord VII) in the second half of the first bar. This works well because the section contains an F# note, which is normally an indicator of chord V or VII (chord VII is D major which contains D, F# and A).

In the second half of the second bar of the B part I have added a G major chord, the related major of E minor, because the bar begins on a high G note.

In the third bar I have inverted my D major chord (by adding my thumb on the second fret of the bottom string). This is because on a guitar both Em and G have nice low bass notes on the bottom string. D on the other hand has the D string as its lowest note and consequently sounds weedy in comparison. For this reason putting the F# on the bottom string in the bass gives a fuller sounding chord and creates a nice conjunct bassline between the three, Em – G – F# . Generally speaking it is nice to try and keep the bass notes of your chord progressions as conjunct as possible- avoiding any big jumps makes your chords sound a lot more fluid, deliberate and musical.

Jazzy substitutions

When you want to add four note chords or tetrads to any tune’s accompaniment, you need to know which major key would contain the same chords as your key mode. We are in E dorian, which contains the same list of available chords as D major. For tetrads in a major key, chords I and IV become major 7 chords, chords II, III and VI become minor 7 chords and chord V becomes a (dominant) 7 chord. That means that the list of tetrads available in D major would be:

D major 7

E minor 7

F# minor 7

G major 7


B minor 7

C# ½ diminished (rarely used in folk music- we’ll replace it with chord V in the first inversion, aka A/C#).

Adding any notes from the key scale on top of the base chord will just give you a jazzier sounding version of the same chord, for example in place of G major 7 you could play G major 9, G major 11 or G major 13.

As we are in E dorian, our chord I is E minor 7, chord IV is A (dominant) 7 and chord V is B minor 7. In any mode other than ionian chord VII also becomes dominant, so our D chord would be D (dominant) 7 instead of D major 7. Chord VII is related to chord V, meaning that the two can be used interchangeably.

In the A part I have switched to high barre chords. I particularly like to use the E minor 7 barre chord on the seventh fret when playing in E dorian or aeolian, as this has a nice tinkly feel but with the low E string left in for a good solid bass note.

G add 6 is just a C major shape slid way up the neck.

D add 9 is an easier version of a D barre chord which can be played with just two fingers- useful at speed! Flatten the ring finger to fret the D, G, B and top E strings.

Using a 9 chord as chord IV in the dorian mode gives it a really nice jazzy twist- to me a IV9 chord sounds almost flirtatious!

In the B part I have used some different variants on the chord shapes, though the theory is exactly the same. If you don’t want to learn any more shapes you can use the old versions- I just find these ones easier to change between in this context.

In bar five of the B part, I replace a chord I sounding section with chord IV. You can always do this, in any key. I then follow it up with a C major chord. This is “borrowed” from the mode of E aeolian. Only one note differentiates the dorian and aeolian modes- in dorian the sixth note is how it would be in a major scale with the same root note (in the case of E dorian it would be C# as in an E major scale) and in aeolian the sixth note is flattened, giving the mode its darker feel. As the sixth note of the scale is rarely used in Irish melodies in minor keys, you can often get away with “borrowing” chords from the other minor mode. C major makes a good substitute for E minor, because they contain two notes in common- C contains C, E and G and E minor contains E, G and B. As this bar contains neither a C nor a C# in the melody, you can get away with this substitution which provides a darker sounding progression than the C# diminished chord from the dorian mode would have done.

A part chord shapes

B part chord shapes

Playalongs Reels

Fahy’s Reel – D dorian

Basic chords

This tune is in the key of D dorian. Therefore the available chords are D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, B diminished and C major.

In the A part there are no sections which sound strongly like they need anything other than chord I. Consequently the whole part can be backed with chord I, with chord V in bars four and eight, resolving to chord I to mark the end of the section.

In the B part, the second bar contains the notes “C – G C E C G C”. As this is clearly outlining a C chord (chord VII), I have put one in.

Although it is customary to play chord V throughout the fourth bar in an Irish tune, this particular one sounds better with chord I for the second half of the bar. This is because the notes are “C B C D E D D -”. You can hear that the second half of the bar is very clearly finishing on a strong D, therefore I like to put a D minor chord here to match.

Basic substitutions

In this version to break up the huge chunk of D minor I have replaced the second bar with chord VII. In a chord I section you can more or less play whatever you want, and I like chord VII here as the second half of the bar contains a C note on a dominant beat, so sounds quite chord VII-y .

In bar seven I create a link from C down to A minor by using G/B, a G chord in the first inversion. This is a very common trick to link any chord to its related minor- play the first inversion of the chord below the related minor chord to create a nice descending bassline. For example, you could play D – A/C# – Bm or G – D/F# – Em. In this particular context G/B works well because it’s in a chord I section and you can always play chord IV (G) in a chord I section, so an inversion of said chord is also perfectly fine.

In bar three of the B part I have replaced chord I with chord IV. You can always replace chord I with chord IV in a chord I section.

I have re-used my link from C down to its related minor A minor as in the A part.

Jazzy substitutions

In this version I have replaced all chords with tetrads. The tetrads available in D dorian are the same as that in C ionian, except that now we begin on D minor7. The complete list is: D minor 7, E minor 7, F major 7, G (dominant) 7, A minor 7, B ½ diminished (we will avoid the diminished chord by playing the first inversion of chord V, aka G/B).

In bars three and seven, I have used B♭ major 7 as a substitute for D minor. This chord is borrowed from the mode of D aeolian. The dorian and aeolian modes are only differentiated from one another by the sixth note of the scale (which is flattened by a semitone in the aeolian mode) and Irish tunes in minor keys rarely feature the sixth note in their melodies. This means that if we wish to, we can “borrow” chords from the aeolian mode. B♭ major seven contains the notes B♭, D, F and A. The upper three notes form a D minor triad, so so long as the section in question doesn’t have a B♮ in the melody this will make a good dark substitute for a D minor chord.

In the B part I have used the standard trick of linking a minor chord to its related major using the first inversion of the chord whose root is one below the starting chord. In this case I am linking D minor up to F major, so I use C major (chord VII) in its first inversion, aka C/E.

You will notice that in bar four I have committed the ultimate folky sacriledge and missed out the chord V bar! You can sometimes get away with playing chord IV instead of chord V in the dorian mode- it can give a cool optimistic ending to a phrase of a tune. Just bear in mind that you HAVE to go V-I at the end of a section to make the section sound finished. In other words it is sometimes OK to play chord IV in the 4th, 12th, 20th or 28th bar of a tune in a dorian key, but not in the 8th, 16th, 24th or 32nd.

In the fifth bar I have borrowed B♭ major 7 from the aeolian mode again, which is fine as there is no B or B♭ note in the melody anywhere in this bar. I have followed this chord with Am7, even though it is not a chord V section, because it provides a nice conjunct set of chords dancing around the chord V and coming to rest on it in order to resolve back to chord I (the root notes being B♭ – A – G – A – D).

A part jazzy chords

B part jazzy chords

Playalongs Reels

The Boys of 25 – A dorian

Basic chords

This tune is in A dorian. That means that available chords are A minor, B minor, C major, D major, E minor, F# diminished and G major. If you’d like to fully understand the modes and why certain chords fit certain keys then you’ll need my first book Backing Guitar Techniques for Traditional Celtic Music, or an Amazing Mode Wheel from Finale Guitar.

In bar two I have used a G major chord, which is chord VII within the key of A dorian. This fits well because the melody notes are “B A B D G – A G”. The notes of a G chord are G, B and D so this chord is an obvious fit for this bar.

Chord V appears on every seventh foot tap (or fourth bar) as usual. In most tunes I would resolve to chord I at the end of the first play through the A part. In this particular one I prefer not to, until the end of the repeat of the A part (either is fine).

The B part’s harmonic structure is basically the same as the A part’s, so I have used the same chords.

Basic substitutions

In this version I have replaced the E minor in bar four with its related major, G major. In any mode other than ionian, you can replace the minor V chord with its related major chord. A minor chord’s related major is always the one whose root note is two notes above it in the key scale- in this case E (minor) – F# – G (major). As well as this substitution, I have added an approach chord to the G- I approach it from a semitone below.

As G is chord VII in the mode of A dorian, you might expect me to approach it using F# diminished, the chord in the key whose root is one below G. However folky guitarists tend to avoid diminished chords as they sound rather unpleasant. Instead I use the first inversion of a D major chord, which in practical terms is just a D major chord with your thumb looped round the back to fret an F# on the second fret of the low E string. This substitution works because D major contains the notes D, F# and A, and F# diminished contains F#, A and C- the two chords share two notes. In any key you can avoid the diminished chord by using the first inversion of the chord whose root is two notes lower in the scale, eg F# dim becomes D/F#, C# dim. becomes A/C#, B dim. becomes G/B etc.

In bar seven I have replaced A minor with its related major, C.

In the B part, inverting the G chord in bar two creates a nice walking bassline from A up to its related major, C. A G chord contains the notes G, B and D, so its first inversion has the B at the bottom pitch within the chord.

Jazzy Substitutions

When we begin to introduce tetrads into the dorian mode, the available options are I minor 7, II minor 7, III major 7, IV (dominant) 7, V minor 7, VI ½ diminished and VII (dominant) VII. In this case, our options are A minor 7, B minor 7, C major 7, D (dominant) 7, E minor 7, F# ½ diminished and G (dominant) VII. Notice that as dorian is the second mode, these are the same jazzy options which would be available in the key of G ionian, with the addition that in the dorian mode chord VII is also a dominant 7 chord.

If you recall that you can play chord I, chord IV or any chord related to either of those two in a chord I section, you should have no trouble decoding why the first line works well.

In bar seven of the A part, I have “borrowed” an F major chord, as if we were playing in A aeolian instead of A dorian. In Irish music in minor keys, the sixth note of the scale (in this case F) is rarely used in the melody. This means that you can often use chords from either mode- you only have to stick rigidly to the “right” chords for the dorian mode in bars which contain the sixth note. As this bar contains no F#s in the melody, I have used the darker sounding F major chord. I then use D/F# (a substitute for F# diminished) to create a chromatic link up to a G (chord VII)- F – F# – G.

This chromatic link is continued by using G# diminished to link G back to A via G#. You can always use a diminished chord whose root note is on the semitone between two other chords to create an ascending chromatic link. If you want to create descending chromatic links then use a dominant 7 chord instead.

In the B part I switch to shapes which are higher up the neck, as shown below. I invert the G chord in the second bar, to set up an A – B – C bassline between the first three bars. C major add 13 is a valid substitute for C major, because adding any extra notes from within the key scale to a chord will just give you a jazzier version of the same. C major add 13 is a C chord with an A note added so this sounds great in the key of A dorian.

Remember I said that you could borrow chords from the aeolian mode in a dorian tune if the melody didn’t contain the sixth note in the bar in question? Well, bar five of the B part actually DOES contain an F#, but it’s right at the end so I think the guitarist can get away with a dark, moody F major 7 chord there. I like to play the first four bars of the A part using light tinkly chords a way up the neck, and for contrast play the second half low down using the dark brooding chords of the aeolian mode.

Finishing on an Am13 gives the tune a cool, gypsy jazz style flourish!

A part jazzy chord shapes

B part jazzy chord shapes

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