Johnny Fean obituary: Horslips guitarist who stood shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world

Band changed the landscape of Irish rock music forever and Johnny Fean was a crucial ingredient in that

Born: November 17th, 1951

Died: April 28th, 2023

Johnny Fean, of pioneering rock/trad group Horslips, was viewed as one of Ireland’s foremost electric lead guitarists who emerged at a point in the early 1970s when such native musicians were a rarity. He died at his home in Shannon, County Clare.

Fean was born in the Rotunda Hospital on November 17th, 1951, the son of Jim and Maureen Fean (both deceased). The first of six children, he grew up in Limerick city’s Henry Street and subsequently Garryowen. His early musical influences were formed from his father’s collection of jazz 78rpm discs. The first record he owned – Mary’s Boy Child, by Harry Belafonte – was bought for him by his father, but at the age of six, Fean discovered music that meant something to him – Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock. The latter song, in particular, was pivotal in making Fean aware of his potential.


“I immediately focused in on Scotty Moore’s guitar playing,” he told Mark Cunningham for Horslips: Tall Tales, the Official Biography (O’Brien Press, 2013). “It was the greatest sound I’d ever heard, and that was when my lifelong interest in the instrument really began.”

Being asked to join them was mind-blowing and it completely changed my life

—  Johnny Fean on Horslips

At the age of seven, Fean was given an acoustic guitar by his father, and by the age of 12, in 1963, he had acquired his first electric guitar. The emergence of a different, more exciting form of pop culture – advanced by The Beatles’ revelatory songwriting, guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor, and R&B groups such as The Yardbirds, Them, The Pretty Things, and The Animals – inspired Fean to progress his skills to include learning classical guitar and teaching himself to play instrumental versions of well-known Irish songs such as The Rocky Road to Dublin and The Foggy Dew.

By 1967, with enough experience to play various stringed instruments at sessions across Limerick city and the Shannon region, he joined his first serious band, Sweet Street. While he worked as an apprentice plumber by day, by night he was in a succession of bands, including Silver Spoon, The Play Ground, and Jeremiah Henry. When the latter band split in the summer of 1972, Fean returned home to Co Clare, where he started playing traditional music sessions with renowned fiddle player Ted Furey, the father of brothers Eddie, Finbar, Paul and George.

By September 1972, Fean had been approached by Horslips’ fiddle player Charles O’Connor to audition for the role of the band’s lead guitarist. “Being asked to join them was mind-blowing,” said Fean to Mark Cunningham, “and it completely changed my life.”

Dearg Doom, said U2′s The Edge, is ‘one of the great rock songs of all time’

The arrival of Horslips changed the landscape of Irish rock music forever – whether by design or default, they recalibrated the form with their evolving fusion of traditional tunes, Seán Ó Riada and rock’n’roll. Along with Barry Devlin’s bass guitar and Eamon Carr’s drums, Fean provided the punchy backbone to the traditional music forged by Jim Lockhart and O’Connor. It was, however, his guitar playing on Dearg Doom – which is included on Horslips’ 1973 album, The Táin, and based on an old Irish tune, Chief O’Neill’s March – that certified his reputation.

The song elevated Fean to the ranks of international guitar heroes, while its guitar riff has become the most recognisable and enduring in Irish music (rock, pop or otherwise). Dearg Doom, said U2′s The Edge in the 2005 documentary The Return of the Dancehall Sweethearts, is “one of the great rock songs of all time”. Fean told that Dearg Doom “changed everything in Irish rock music – nothing would ever be the same again”.

Under the radar

When Horslips broke up in 1980, Fean continued to perform with Carr and O’Connor in The Zen Alligators, and The Host. In the mid 1980s, he moved to the UK to play with numerous under-the-radar bands including the tribute act, Spirit of Horslips, but he came to prominence once again in 1990 when Dearg Doom’s guitar intro was used in Put ‘em Under Pressure, Ireland’s 1990 World Cup song. Fean returned to Ireland in 2001 for his 50th birthday and stayed put. When Horslips reformed in 2004, he embarked on 15 years of irregular live shows with the band. He also continued to play gigs with Stephen Travers, formerly of The Miami Showband, until his recent ill health forced him to retire from performing.

Fean’s former bandmates in Horslips paid tribute to him in a statement, saying: “Johnny wasn’t only one of the greatest guitar players ever, he was also the sweetest man in rock and roll. His immeasurable talent won him countless supporters throughout the years. We remain his biggest fans. He devoted his life to music and we’ll be forever thankful that he did.”

Johnny Fean is survived by his wife Maggie, brothers Donal, Shearie (Seamus), and Ray, and his sisters Gail and Corna.