Irish bouzouki

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Irish bouzouki
Ashbury Irish Bouzouki Front.jpg
Classification String instrument (plucked)
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 321.322
(Composite chordophone)
Developed20th century
Related instruments

The Irish bouzouki (Irish : búsúcaí) [1] is an adaptation of the Greek bouzouki (Greek: μπουζούκι). The newer Greek tetrachordo (4 courses of strings) bouzouki was introduced into Irish traditional music in the mid-1960s by Johnny Moynihan of the folk group Sweeney's Men. Alec Finn, first in the Cana Band and subsequently in De Dannan, introduced the first more-traditional Greek trichordo (3 course) bouzouki into Irish music. [2]


In the early 1970s, Andy Irvine gave his Greek bouzouki to Dónal Lunny, who replaced the octave strings on the two lower G and D courses with unison strings, thus reinforcing their lower frequencies. Soon after, on a visit with Irvine to the workshop of luthier Peter Abnett, Lunny commissioned a bouzouki to the specifications of a classic, 4-course Greek bouzouki but with unison strings and a three-piece, partially staved back. Since then, the instrument has been adapted for Irish traditional and other styles of folk music.


The original Greek bouzouki was a three course/six-string instrument (trichordo). In the 1950s, a four course/eight-string (tetrachordo) version was developed. Johnny Moynihan is credited with bringing the first tetrachordo Greek bouzouki to Ireland and retuning it to G2-D3-A3-D4 (in intervals he first used on the mandolin). However, according to Leagues O'Toole, Moynihan bought his first bouzouki from his friend Tony Ffrench, who had brought it back to Ireland from Greece but decided he couldn't play it, or didn't want to. [3] :67 In the mid-1960s, Moynihan established a presence for the instrument in Irish music with the popular folk trio Sweeney's Men. During the recording of their 1968 eponymous album, Sweeney's Men , Andy Irvine also played Moynihan's bouzouki on the track "Johnston". [4]

Irish bouzouki made by English luthier Peter Abnett in 1993 Irish bouzouki.jpg
Irish bouzouki made by English luthier Peter Abnett in 1993

Shortly after he returned from Eastern Europe in late 1969, [3] :81 Irvine met Dónal Lunny – who had been playing guitar up to that point – and gave him a Greek bouzouki he had brought back from his travels. [5] :29 Being left-handed, Lunny reversed the strings and critically, replaced the octave strings with unison strings, thus fundamentally changing the character of the instrument. [6] A year or so later, Lunny accompanied Irvine to Peter Abnett's workshop [7] and commissioned a partially staved-back instrument with the same specifications as the modified Greek Bouzouki, thus the Irish bouzouki was born. This modified bouzouki became fully integrated into Irish folk music when Irvine and Lunny popularized it with the advent of Planxty in 1972. Irvine, however, credits Moynihan with having "brought the bouzouki to Ireland" in his lyric to "O'Donoghue's", his memoir of his experience of the early folk revival days in Dublin in the early '60s. In a parallel development, Alec Finn, later with the Galway-based traditional group De Dannan, obtained a Greek trichordo bouzouki on his own.

With a few exceptions, bouzouki players playing Irish music tend to use the instrument less for virtuoso melodic work and more for the chordal or contrapuntal accompaniment of melodies played on other instruments, such as the flute or fiddle. Because of this, it is common to use matched strings on the two bass courses, tuning to unison pairs in order to enhance the bass response of the instrument.

Almost immediately after the Greek bouzouki's initial introduction, new designs built specifically for Irish traditional music were developed. The body was widened and a flat back with straight sides replaced the round, stave-built back of the Greek bouzouki. English builder Peter Abnett, [8] who was the first instrument-maker to build a uniquely "Irish" bouzouki – for Dónal Lunny in 1970 – developed a hybrid design with a 3-piece partially staved back and straight sides. All of the initial Irish bouzoukis had flat tops, but within a few years a few luthiers such as Stefan Sobell began experimenting with carved, arched tops, taking their cue from American archtop guitars and mandolins. Even so, today the overwhelming majority of builders continue to opt for flat (or slightly radiused) tops and backs.

The Irish bouzouki has also become integrated into some other western European musical traditions over the past forty years. Popularly used in the music of Asturias, Galicia, Brittany, Spain, and even the Scandinavian countries (in fact, there is even now a new Nordic branch of the instrument, having been modified further to suit the unique requirements of those musics). The instrument's role is usually a combination of interwoven accompaniment (usually a mix of open-string drones, two note intervals, bass lines and countermelody) and melodic play. Instrumental arrangements by musicians such as Ale Möller from Sweden, Jamie McMenemy of the Breton group Kornog, Elias Garcia of the Asturian groups Tuenda and Llan de Cubel, and Ruben Bada of the Asturian group DRD, typify the complex admixture of melody and chordal accompaniment to be found amongst skilled continental players. It has also become fashionable for some of these musicians to mix instrumental pieces from the Balkans into their material, creating the novelty of western European instruments playing music typically played by Bulgarian/Macedonian tamburas or Greek bouzoukis in their native setting.


By far the most common tuning for the Irish bouzouki is G2 D3 A3 D4. [9] This was pioneered by Johnny Moynihan (apparently in an attempt to replicate the open, droning sound of Appalachian "clawhammer" banjo) first on the mandolin and then transferred to a Greek bouzouki. It was later picked up by Andy Irvine and Dónal Lunny, and quickly became the next thing to a standard tuning for the 4 course instrument. Other tunings used, although by a minority of players, are "octave mandolin" tuning G2 D3 A3 E4, and "Open D" tuning A2 D3 A3 D4. "Open G" G2 D3 G3 D4, is used by some players and has proven useful for "bottleneck" slide playing.

The G D A D tuning is closer to the D3 A3 D4 tuning of the Greek trichordo bouzouki than is the guitar-like tuning C3 F3 A3 D4 used on the modern Greek tetrachordo, and is particularly well suited to a modal harmonic approach to accompaniment as used in Irish traditional music. Alec Finn, playing a Greek trichordo bouzouki, uses the traditional D3 A3 D4 tuning with the octave pair on the low D course changed to unison. [10]

MuseuMusicaBCN 8845.jpg
Martinez mandolin.jpg
From left to right: The cittern, lute, mandolin and octave mandolin are considered related to Irish bouzouki

Amongst many luthiers and musicians the Irish bouzouki is considered to be part of the mandolin family, but for others this new family of instruments is a separate development. [11] In actuality, the mandolin and lute families are related and the bouzouki is a part of that. [12] At any rate, since the genesis of the Irish bouzouki in the late 1960s, luthiers have incorporated so many aspects of mandolin construction, particularly when building archtop Irish bouzoukis, that for most it is a moot point. [13]

For many builders and players, the terms "bouzouki," "cittern," and "octave mandolin" are more or less synonymous. [14] The name cittern is often -- but not universally -- applied to instruments of five courses (ten strings), especially those having a scale length between 20 and 22 inches (500mm and 550mm). They are also occasionally called "10 string bouzoukis" when having a longer scale length. The fifth course is usually either a lowest bass course tuned to C2 or D2 on an instrument with a long scale, or a highest treble course tuned to G4 or A4 on a shorter scale. Luthier Stefan Sobell, who coined the term "cittern" for his modern, mandolin-based instruments, originally used the term for short scale instruments irrespective of the number of their strings, but he now applies "cittern" to all 5 course instruments irrespective of scale length, and "octave mandolin" to all 4 course instruments, leaving out bouzouki entirely. [15]

Mandolin-family luthiers producing an octave mandolin are more likely to use mandolin tuning machines and reproduce the details and styling of their American-style carved top mandolins. Some luthiers choose to refer to their clearly bouzouki-style instruments as octave mandolins, or even as mandocellos, despite the GDAD tuning. The octave mandolin is usually regarded as having a shorter scale length than the Irish bouzouki, in the vicinity of 20 to 23 inches (50 to 59 cm), while the scale length of the Irish bouzouki most often ranges from 24 to 25 inches (60 to 65 cm). Some instruments have scales as long as 26 or even 27 inches (66 to 68 cm). These longer-scaled instruments are generally acknowledged to possess greater volume, sustain, and tonal richness but some players find the stretches involved in fingering too difficult and so prefer shorter scale lengths. [16]

Notable players

See also


Related Research Articles

Mandolin Musical instrument in the lute family

A mandolin is a stringed musical instrument in the lute family and is generally plucked with a plectrum. It commonly has four courses of doubled metal strings tuned in unison, although five and six course versions also exist. The courses are typically tuned in a succession of perfect fifths, with the same tuning as a violin. Also like the violin, it is the soprano member of a family that includes the mandola, octave mandolin, mandocello and mandobass.

Zither Class of stringed musical instruments

Zither is a class of stringed instruments.

Bouzouki Greek stringed instrument

The bouzouki, also spelled buzuki or buzuci, is a musical instrument popular in Greece. It is a member of the long-necked lute family, with a round body with a flat top and a long neck with a fretted fingerboard. It has steel strings and is played with a plectrum producing a sharp metallic sound, reminiscent of a mandolin but pitched lower. There are two main types of bouzouki: the trichordo (three-course) has three pairs of strings and the tetrachordo (four-course) has four pairs of strings. The instrument was brought to Greece in the early 1900s by Greek immigrants from Anatolia, and quickly became the central instrument to the rebetiko genre and its music branches. It is now an important element of modern Laïko pop Greek music.


The mandola or tenor mandola is a fretted, stringed musical instrument. It is to the mandolin what the viola is to the violin: the four double courses of strings tuned in fifths to the same pitches as the viola, a fifth lower than a mandolin. The mandola, though now rarer, is an ancestor of the mandolin.

Twelve-string guitar

The 12-string guitar is a steel-string guitar with 12 strings in six courses, which produces a thicker, more ringing tone than a standard six-string guitar. Typically, the strings of the lower four courses are tuned in octaves, with those of the upper two courses tuned in unison. The gap between the strings within each dual-string course is narrow, and the strings of each course are fretted and plucked as a single unit. The neck is wider, to accommodate the extra strings, and is similar to the width of a classical guitar neck. The sound, particularly on acoustic instruments, is fuller and more harmonically resonant than six-string instruments.


The cittern or cithren is a stringed instrument dating from the Renaissance. Modern scholars debate its exact history, but it is generally accepted that it is descended from the Medieval citole. It looks much like the modern-day flat-back mandolin and the modern Irish bouzouki, and is descended from the English guitar. Its flat-back design was simpler and cheaper to construct than the lute. It was also easier to play, smaller, less delicate and more portable. Played by all classes, the cittern was a premier instrument of casual music-making much as is the guitar today.

Andy Irvine (musician) Irish folk musician

Andrew Kennedy Irvine is an Irish folk musician, singer-songwriter, and a founding member of Sweeney's Men, Planxty, Patrick Street, Mozaik, LAPD and Usher's Island. He also featured in duos, with Dónal Lunny, Paul Brady, Mick Hanly, Dick Gaughan, Rens van der Zalm, and Luke Plumb. Irvine plays the mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, harmonica, and hurdy-gurdy.

Sweeney's Men was an Irish traditional band. They emerged from the mid-1960s Irish roots revival, along with groups such as The Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers. The founding line-up in May 1966 was Johnny Moynihan, Andy Irvine and "Galway Joe" Dolan.

Dónal Lunny

Dónal Lunny is an Irish folk musician and producer. He plays left-handed guitar and bouzouki, as well as keyboards and bodhrán. As a founding member of popular bands Planxty, The Bothy Band, Moving Hearts, Coolfin, Mozaik, LAPD, and Usher's Island, he has been at the forefront of the renaissance of Irish traditional music for over five decades.

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Johnny Moynihan

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Course (music)

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Irish traditional music Genre of folk music that developed in Ireland

Irish traditional music is a genre of folk music that developed in Ireland.

Balkan tambura

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  15. "Stefan Sobell Guitars » Citterns and octave mandolins".
  16. Wilson, Rod. "Octave Mandolin or Irish Bouzouki? | Rod Wilson's Blog".
  17. fr:Jamie McMenemy