How to Start an Irish Band: Celtic Rock

Donovan: Probably coined the phrase "Celtic rock" and pioneered a folk-rock hybrid.

Donovan: Probably coined the phrase “Celtic rock” and pioneered a folk-rock hybrid.


Celtic rock is rock and roll music that incorporates Celtic musical themes, instruments, or other influences. I am going to distinguish Celtic rock from Celtic punk in these essays, but there isn’t a clear distinction. If anything, Celtic punk is a subgenre of Celtic rock, but one that is distinct enough and has enough of an audience that it deserves to be written about separately.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of Celtic rock, although Scottish folk rocker Donovan may have been the first to use the term, even naming one of his songs “Celtic rock.” Donovan was an unusually innovative songwriter — to this day, I don’t feel he gets enough credit for the extent to which he experimented with song structure and arrangement. Few of his songs explicitly reference anything Celtic, but many of his best, such as “Season of the Witch” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” seem to be drawing from the culture of the British Isles and Ireland. Donovan’s arrangements and musicians tended to draw from folk rock.

Later Celtic rock, such as the band Thin Lizzy, tended toward more mainstream rock and roll instrumentation and arrangements, with many bands leaning toward the hard rock of the 70s, which was, after all, already populated by Medieval and occult themes, and so imagery drawn from Ireland didn’t seem entirely out of place.

But Celtic rock described a wide-range of music, from electrified versions of traditional Irish folk music to psychedelic garage rock with Celtic themes to metal bands that include bagpipes.


Celtic rock tends to use the instruments and arrangements of established rock and roll genres, which makes it one of the forms with the greatest educational opportunities. There are hundreds of instructors, books, videos, and online courses in mainstream rock genres, so if you’re looking to play, say, guitar in a Celtic metal band, you’re best starting place is to just take metal guitar lessons.

That being said, there are elements that distinguish Celtic rock, including its frequent use of modal melodies, its occasional use of Irish folk songs, and the influence of Irish instruments, arrangements, and rhythms. Whatever form of Celtic rock you choose to pursue, it is worth familiarizing yourself with Irish folk music.


While it depends on what sort of Celtic rock is being played, typically the basic arrangement will be like that of a mainstream rock band, and it’s not unusual to see the classic rock combo: rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, and drums. If the band leans more toward the folk rock end, you’ll see more of a reliance on acoustic and traditional folk instruments, and most sorts of Celtic rock have experimented with folk sounds and signature Celtic instruments.


Celtic rock is one of the more easily programmable sorts of Celtic music, easily at home both in pubs and rock venues. A band with a wide choice of material could easily tailor the material to the venue, and put together a set appropriate for a folk festival one day and a rock festival the next.


  • Donovan
  • Big Country
  • Cruachan
  • Dropkick Murphys
  • Great Big Sea
  • Hoslips
  • The Paperboys
  • Primordial
  • Thin Lizzy
  • The Waterboys
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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.