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An Irish Bouzouki

The bouzouki is the mainstay of modern Greek music, and is also found in Irish music. It is a stringed instrument with a pear-shaped body and a very long neck. The bouzouki is a member of the 'long neck lute' family and is similar to an oversized mandolin. The front of the body is flat and is usually heavily inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The instrument is played with a plectrum and has a sharp metallic sound.

There are three main types of bouzouki:

  • Trichordo having three pairs of strings (courses).
  • Tetrachordo having four pairs of strings.
  • Irish.

The tetrachordo bouzouki

This most popular bouzouki has 8 metal strings which are arranged in 4 pairs, known as courses. In the two higher-pitched (treble) courses, the two strings of the pair are tuned to the same note. These are used for playing melodies, usually with the two courses played together. In the two lower-pitched (bass) courses, the pair consists of a thick string and a thin string tuned an octave apart. These 'octave strings' add to the fullness of the sound and are used in chords and bass drones (continuous low notes that are played throughout the music).

The original tuning for the four-course bouzouki is C3 F3 A3 D4 (where C4 is Middle C). This makes it the same tuning pattern as the first four strings on a guitar, but pitched down a whole tone. In recent times, some players have taken to tuning their bouzoukis up in pitch to D3G3B3E4, which is the same exactly as the first four strings of the guitar, making it easier to play both instruments.


Despite being nearly synonymous with Greek music, bouzoukis have not been around in Greece all that long. As recently as 1920, they were relatively unknown, used exclusively in Rembetiko music - a sort of urban blues in mainland Greece. They belong to a tradition of long neck lute instruments bearing various names such as Saz, Tambour and Bouzouk.

Following the 1919-1922 war in Asia Minor and the subsequent exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, the ethnic Greeks fled to Greece. The refugees brought with them the music known as Smyrneika, which made use of the arabic lute (al ud or 'outi' as the Greeks called it). Soon the outi was replaced by the bouzouki and the Smyrneika style fused into the Rembetika.

The early bouzoukis were Trichordo, with three courses (six strings in three pairs) and were generally tuned to D3/D4 A3 D4. This tuning fits in well with the music of the Middle East, as an open chord is neither major nor minor, allowing great flexibility with the melody. Trichordo bouzoukis are still being made, and are very popular with aficionados of Rembetika.

After the Second World War, Tetrachordo (four-course) bouzoukis started to appear. It is not known who first added the fourth course. Possibly Stefanakis or Anastasios Stathopoulos. The tetrachordo was made popular by Manolis Chiotis.

Bouzoukis in Irish Music

Bouzoukis were introduced into Irish Traditional Music in the 1970s, by Johnny Moynihan and Alec Finn, and popularised by Andy Irvine and D󮡬 Lunny. Irish music relies less on virtuoso melodies played on double courses, and more on the bass courses, so they got rid of the octave strings which only confuse things and replaced them with pairs tuned to the same note. They used a tuning of G2D3A3D4 or A2D3A3D4, which ironically is closer to the original Greek instrument than modern Greek ones are. The bouzouki is now an important part of the Irish trad scene.

Among builders, the Irish Bouzouki is considered to be part of the Irish mandolin family consisting of the mandolin, mandola, and octave mandolin, with each member representing a standard voice and possessing a progressively larger body size. The octave mandolin includes the Irish bouzouki and Irish cittern, each loosely distinguished by scale length and number of courses. While there are no standard definitions at present, the bouzouki typically has the longest scale length, and the cittern may have five courses (ten strings). However, for some builders and players, the terms "bouzouki", "cittern", and "octave mandolin" are synonymous.


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