Most guitarists know the name Ernie Ball through those strings that come in brightly colored packaging with distinctive lettering, but few are aware of the Ball family’s history in American music. Ernest Ball (1878–1927), paternal grandfather of the late entrepreneur Ernie Ball, was a singer-songwriter whose best-known work is the music for the song “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (1912).
Northern California–based guitarist and composer Gretchen Menn based this lovely chord-melody arrangement of the song on a version that vocalist Bing Crosby recorded in 1939. While Crosby’s interpretation is in F# major, Menn transposed it to the more guitar-friendly key of E, which also provides a cipher. “It makes the tonic and dominant E and B, respectively, which is fitting, as those are the initials both of the Ernie Ball company and the composer,” she explains.
Menn plays her arrangement on a 14-fret cutaway guitar by luthier Stephen Strahm, venturing up to the instrument’s highest regions, but with a bit of finesse it should work on any 14-fret without a cutaway. If needed, you could easily transfer some of the notes to lower positions—for instance, in bar 12, play the G# on string 2, fret 9; the last two notes in bar 16 on frets 9 and 11 of string 2; and in bar 31, the 12th-fret A either as a natural harmonic or open string; and the very last note as a harmonic on string 1, fret 7.
The most challenging aspect of the arrangement is making the melody sing. Menn recommends checking out vocal versions of the song, and imagining the words as you play it. “My biggest tip for bringing out the melody is to use your ears,” she adds. “Wanting to hear it will force you to make choices—both conscious and subconscious—that will bring that melody to where you feel it should be.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.