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Irish bouzouki

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Irish bouzouki
First Irish Bouzouki Lunny Abnett.png
Irish bouzouki
Designed and commissioned by Dónal Lunny and built by Peter Abnett
Classification Plucked string instrument
Hornbostel–Sachs classification321.322
(String instrument with a box body resonator and a neck)
Related instruments

The Irish bouzouki (Irish: búsúcaí) is an adaptation of the Greek bouzouki (Greek: μπουζούκι). Johnny Moynihan is credited with bringing the first tetrachordo (4 courses of strings) Greek bouzouki to Ireland and retuning it to G2-D3-A3-D4 (in intervals he first used on the mandolin). In the mid-1960s, Moynihan established a presence for the instrument in Irish music with the folk trio Sweeney's Men. Alec Finn, first in the Cana Band and subsequently in De Dannan, introduced the first trichordo (3 courses of strings) Greek bouzouki into Irish music.

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.

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The original Greek bouzouki was a three course/six-string instrument (trichordo). In the 1950s, a four course/eight-string (tetrachordo) version was developed. The newer tetrachordo bouzouki was introduced into Irish traditional music in the mid-1960s by Johnny Moynihan[1]:67 of the popular folk group 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".[2] Shortly after he returned from Eastern Europe in late 1969,[1]: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.[3]: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.[4] A year or so later, Lunny accompanied Irvine to Peter Abnett's workshop[5] and commissioned a flat-backed 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 trichordo Greek 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,[6] 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 G2D3A3D4.[7] 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 GDAD tuning is closer to the D3A3D4 tuning of the Greek trichordo bouzouki than is the guitar-like tuning C3F3A3D4 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 D3A3D4 tuning with the octave pair on the low D course changed to unison.

Related instruments

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. In actuality, the mandolin and lute families are related and the bouzouki is a part of that. 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.

For many builders and players, the terms "bouzouki", "cittern", and "octave mandolin" are more or less synonymous. The name cittern is often 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.

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.

Notable players

See also

Further reading

  • Landes, Roger (2014). Irish Bouzouki Method. United States: Hal Leonard Publications. ISBN 9781423479635. — An instructional guide.
  • Richards, Tobe A. (2005). The Irish Bouzouki Chord Bible: GDAD Irish Tuning 2,447 Chords. United Kingdom: Cabot Books. ISBN 0-9553944-0-6. — A comprehensive chord dictionary.
  • McLeod, Zan (2001). Learn to Play the Irish Bouzouki (DVD). United States: Music Sales Limited. ASIN: B00024ONEI. — A DVD instructional guide.
  • O'Callanain, Niall (1997). The Irish Bouzouki. United States: Mel Bay Publications. ISBN 0-7866-1595-8. — An instructional guide.
  • Ó Callanain, Niall; Walsh, Tommy (1989). The Irish Bouzouki. Ireland: Waltons. ISBN 07-8661-595-8. — An instructional guide, with audio cassette tape.


  1. ^ a b O'Toole, Leagues (2006). The Humours of Planxty. Ireland: Hodder Headline. ISBN 0-340-83796-9.
  2. ^ Sleeve notes from Sweeney's Men LP, Transatlantic Records Ltd, TRA SAM 37, 1968.
  3. ^ Irish Music Magazine Annual. Ireland. 2017. ISSN 1393-211X.
  4. ^ L. O'Flynn, A. Irvine, P. Glackin, D. Lunny (Interview) (9 December 2012). Miriam O'Callaghan meets ... LAPD Liam O'Flynn, Andy Irvine, Paddy Glackin, Dónal Lunny (Podcast). Dublin, EI: RTÉ Radio 1. Retrieved 11 October 2013.
  5. ^ Peter Abnett. "Bouzoukis & Related Instruments". Peter Abnett: Maker of Stringed Instruments. Hans Speek. Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  6. ^ Peter Abnett. "Bouzoukis & Related Instruments". Peter Abnett: Maker of Stringed Instruments. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  7. ^ "Session Instruments / Bouzouki". The Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society, Inc. Retrieved 9 February 2018.
This page was last edited on 28 December 2018, at 08:52
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