Ear training

How to pick Irish guitar chords by ear for complete beginners PART 1- tunes in major keys

This week’s free Irish guitar lesson from Folk Friend is for complete beginners who want to learn how to accompany Irish traditional music on the guitar by ear. I’ll be showing you which chords fit with a tune in a major key and how you can train your ears to recognise where those chords should fit. I’ll also be giving you some examples using my free playalong video with on screen guitar chords for a classic Irish reel called Maid Behind The Bar. You can find that video here:

Here are the other videos in this series:

Part 2 (dorian)

Part 3 (mixolydian)

Part 4 (aeolian)

Playalongs Polkas

Ger The Rigger – A ionian


I love this bouncy little number in A major. I’ve always believed A major to be the brightest and most joyful of the folk keys, and although this tune is simple there’s something about it which makes me want to sit and play it for hours on end, building the dynamics and layering up jazzier and jazzier chords!

Basic chords

Bars 5 and 6 are very clearly chord IV bars. The section begins on the 4th note of an A ionian scale (D) and then runs up the scale from there (D – D C# D E F# G#). Bars 13 and 14 are also a chord IV section as the following notes are played: “D – F# D A – C# A”. The first half of the bar plays the lower two notes of a D major triad (D, F# and A) so ths part is very clearly a chord IV section, but the second bar (A – C# A) could just as well have been chord I. However in order to keep a constant range of harmonic change and make life easy for the beginner guitarist I have stayed on chord IV for this section. This still works because chord IV can always be played instead of chord I in any chord I section (but chord I can not replace chord IV in a chord IV section).

In a polka you only tap your foot once per bar. The “seventh foot tap” rule, that chord V goes on every seventh foot tap, for two taps the first time and one followed by chord I the second, still applies as normal. By this token, bars 7 and 8 are a chord V section. In the second line, the last two bars (or “the second seventh foot tap”- 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8) resolve from chord V back to chord I (E back to A) to mark the end of the A part.

The B part takes similar chords to the A part, for similar reasons.


I have replaced the third and fourth bars of A with A in the first inversion, otherwise known as A/C#. This chord still sounds like an A major chord and contains the same three notes piled up (A, C# and E) but with A removed from the lowest pitch of the chord, and C# at the bottom instead. This provides a nice walking bassline from A – C# which then leads nicely into the D at the lowest pitch in the following chord.

In this version I have also reinstated the chord I in bar 14, which I previously omitted for the reasons stated above.

In the B part’s second line, I have started out by replacing an A major chord with its related minor, F# minor (a major chord’s related minor chord is always the minor chord whose root note is two notes down the root scale from the starting chord, so for A; A – G# – F# minor).

If I have started a section with a minor substitution, I like to use further minor substitutions afterwards as to begin a section with a minor but then convert back to standard major chords feels to me like starting a sad story but then giving up half way through. For this reason I have followed my F# minor with B minor. This works in a chord I section because you can always replace chord I with chord IV in a chord I section and chord II (Bm) is chord IV (D)’s related minor, meaning that they can be used interchangeably.

Jazzy substitutions

Don’t be put off by all those numbers… These chords are actually very simple to play using my “cheat” slidey A major jazz chord scale! I have included diagrams for the whole scale’s worth of easy chords below. You can also find a complete video guide to these shapes on the Folk Friend Youtube channel here.

In the final line of both the A and B parts, I use a standard D major 7 chord instead of the D major 13 chord. This is because it is easy to switch from this shape to A/C#, otherwise known as A in the first inversion. This provides a nice little “D – – – C# – – – E – – – A – – -” bassline, which matches the notes of the tune in that section, “D – F# D C# – E C# B A B C# A – – -”.

From the A/C# chord, I like to slide my ring finger (which frets the A string) all the way up to the 7th fret to give a cool, joyful slide into the E7 chord.

I have begun the B part on A in the first inversion (A/C#), which I finger using the final shape shown on the list below. Beginning a tune’s B part on an inversion of chord I is a nice way to create tension and drama, so experiment with this in other contexts!

The F#m7 in the third line is A major’s related minor in jazzy tetrad (four note chord) form. I then continue to C#m7, which is another substitute for A major (recall that you can substitute a major chord for the minor chord whose root is two notes below OR two notes above it in the key scale). As I said before, I usually like to follow one minor substitution with another as to play one minor substitution but then revert to major chords feels like you started to tell a sad story but then got bored half way through and never finished it. This progression is also satisfying as C#m is a fifth below F#m and resolving down a fifth is always a guaranteed pleasing chord progression.