The Craic Starts Here! 16 Must-Have Instruments to Master Irish Music

Anyone who’s ever been to a cozy Irish pub won’t forget the infectious energy of a traditional Irish session. The foot-stomping rhythms and lilting melodies are enough to make anyone want to join the fun! 

But there’s more to this music than just catchy tunes. Each instrument in the Irish music lineup adds a unique layer of character, creating a rich tapestry of sound. 

This guide will unveil 16 must-have instruments that’ll have you playing like a pro in no time – or at least help you appreciate the brilliance behind them the next time you catch a session. Grab a seat because the fun starts here!

1. Bodhrán 


The bodhrán is a captivating percussion instrument that injects rhythm and energy into traditional Irish music. This hand drum consists of a single goatskin stretched across a wooden hoop, which can be 14 to 18 inches in diameter. 

Unlike most drums, the bodhrán is open-backed, allowing the player to control the pitch and timbre of the sound by pressing their hand against the skin from the inside. It was initially seen as a folk instrument played at social gatherings and celebrations.

2. Fiddle


Though almost identical to the violin, the fiddle holds a special place in the heart of Irish music. Arriving in Ireland around the 17th century, the fiddle quickly became a mainstay in traditional tunes. 

Fiddle playing in Irish music is characterized by ornamentation, with techniques like rolls, triplets, and slides adding a unique and expressive quality.  Irish fiddlers favor a more relaxed bow grip and posture than their classical counterparts.

3. Harp


The Irish harp, also known as the cláirseach, is an extraordinary instrument with a rich history dating back over 1,000 years. It is a smaller, more intimate instrument with a curved forepillar and a warm, resonant sound. 

For centuries, the Irish harp symbolized Gaelic culture and played a central role in Irish society. Bards and nobility enjoyed it, and it accompanied storytelling, poetry, and celebrations.

4. Flute and Tin Whistle


The flute and tin whistle are two popular woodwind instruments, especially prominent in Irish traditional music. Both are fipple flutes, meaning they have a built-in whistle at the mouthpiece that directs airflow and creates sound. 

The flute, typically made of wood, has a more prosperous, mellow tone, while the tin whistle, usually made of metal, has a brighter, sharper sound. The tin whistle is affordable and accessible to learn, making it a great entry point for aspiring Irish musicians.  

5. Uilleann Pipes


The Uilleann pipes are a unique and expressive instrument cherished for their haunting melodies and rich history. They are inflated by bellows operated under the arm, allowing for continuous airflow and unparalleled musicality. 

A complete set of Uilleann pipes comprises a chanter with a two-octave range, three drone pipes with a constant harmonic base, regulators, and small pipes with keys adding chords and harmonies. 

6. Concertina


The concertina is a treasured instrument in Irish traditional music, known for its bright and crisp sound. Invented in the early 1800s, it quickly gained popularity in Ireland due to its portability and beautiful tonal qualities. 

The most common type used in Irish music is the Anglo concertina. Its distinctive system of buttons and bellows produces a sweet, reedy sound that perfectly complements the lilting melodies of Irish tunes.

7. Banjo


The banjo arrived in Ireland from Africa and the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries. Irish musicians readily adopted the instrument, incorporating it into their unique playing style. 

There are two main types of Irish banjos: the tenor banjo and the Irish bouzouki. The tenor banjo is typically four-stringed with a high-pitched plinking sound, while the Irish bouzouki has three or four pairs of strings, giving it a richer and more mellow sound. 

8. Mandolin


Though sometimes associated with Italian music, the mandolin is also a cherished instrument in Irish traditional music. This small, lute-like instrument boasts a bright, twinkly sound that adds a touch of magic to jigs, reels, and flings.  

While it can be used for intricate melody lines, it also excels at strumming chords and rhythmic accompaniment. This adaptability allows mandolin players to switch between playing the lead and providing rhythmic support for other instruments.

9. Bouzouki


The bouzouki is a string instrument with a long neck and a round body, similar to its cousin, the mandolin, but with a deeper, richer sound. Strummed with a plectrum (pick), the bouzouki’s steel strings ring out with a bright, buzzy tone.

The instrument’s ability to play melody and chords makes it a versatile addition to a folk band, and its distinctive sound has become a recognizable part of contemporary Irish music.

10. Harmonica


The harmonica, also known as a “mouth organ” in Ireland, has a niche in Irish music, particularly in counties like Wexford. Its portability and affordability made it a popular choice for rural musicians, and it adds a unique and expressive voice to lively sessions.

Dedicated players have developed specific techniques and tunings, like the Paddy Richter tuning, to make the harmonica better suited for the intricacies of Irish melodies.

11. Guitar


Some modern Irish musicians have adopted the guitar’s versatility, adding a unique flavor to the genre. While not a defining sound, the guitar can provide a rich chordal accompaniment or rhythmic strumming patterns. 

Irish music is known for its lively jigs, reels, and waltzes. It can also play a melodic role, single-note lines, and even intricate solos.

12. Fife


The fife is a simple yet powerful instrument. It consists of a narrow tube with six finger holes and a mouthpiece on the side. Unlike its cousin, the flute, the fife is held horizontally and has no keys, making learning more accessible.

Its small size allows for a shrill, piercing sound that cuts through the din of a marching band or a lively folk session. In Irish music, the fife is most commonly paired with the bodhrán, a frame drum, to create a vibrant, energetic sound that keeps feet tapping.

13. Accordion 


The two-row button accordion is the most common accordion used in Irish music. The two rows of buttons on an Irish button accordion are tuned a semitone apart, allowing for chromatic playing.

The accordion plays a dual role in Irish music. The right-hand buttons play the main melody, often with a bright and lively sound, while the left-hand, on the bass buttons, provides chords and accompaniment, creating a rich and rhythmic foundation.

14. Buinne 


The bunny is a shrouded instrument in Irish history. It’s a wind instrument and a type of hunting horn. Reconstruction efforts depict it as a long, curved instrument held against the shoulder and blown through a mouthpiece.

Some theories propose it produced a loud, resonant sound for signaling or ceremonies.  Others suggest it might have been used for hunting calls or even rudimentary melodies.

15. Guthbuinne


The Guthbuinne is a type of bass horn with a long, curved wooden body and a flared bell at the end. It has finger holes along its body, similar to those of a woodwind instrument, allowing the player to create pitches by opening and closing them.  

The sound of the Guthbuinne is deep and resonant, adding a powerful low-end to traditional Irish music. The playing technique of the Guthbuinne is a unique blend of woodwind and brass instruments.  

16. Timpan 


The timpani is a set of tuned drums consisting of two or more large, bowl-shaped drums. The bowls are traditionally crafted from copper, though more affordable options like fiberglass or aluminum are also used. 

A calfskin or synthetic head is stretched tautly across the opening of each bowl, and a foot pedal mechanism allows the player to quickly and precisely change the drum’s pitch by tightening or loosening the tension on the head.