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