Instrument terminology and common usage


In the 1970s, traditional musicians in the British Isles wanted to further the melodic possibilities of plucked-string instruments. My understanding is that Irishman Johnny Moynihan introduced the Greek bouzouki into Irish music in the mid 1960s, causing the emergence of similar, luthier-made instruments in the subsequent decades.[1] There’s a lot of variation, but on the whole these instruments seem to have four or more string courses and are largely tuned in fifths. They are best thought of as mandolins one octave down – hence the name ‘octave mandolin’ for some of them – but other monikers have also been suggested: luthier Stefan Sobell borrows the medieval term ‘cittern’ for his modern-day production line,[2] and John McGann suggests the abbreviation ‘CBOM’ (‘Cittern-Bouzouki-Octave-Mandolin’).[3] In the 1980s, at the suggestion of musician Andy Irvine, builders such as Sobell and Roger Bucknall started applying a guitar-shaped body for playing comfort; they called them ‘guitar-shaped bouzoukis’, ‘gitzouks’, ‘bouzars’, or simply ‘guitar bouzouki’. I will be using the latter term for my instrument.


These instruments have caught on in the traditional music circles of the British Isles and its real and imagined diaspora (from genuine emigrant-descended circles in New York and Boston, say, to Irish music sessions in franchised faux-Celtic music pubs all over the world), in Scandinavia, and in Euro-American folk music communities. Famous recording artists such as Americans Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien, Irishmen Andy Irvine and Donál Lunny, and Swedes Ale Möller and Sofia Karlsson have all furthered their use in their respective countries, often aided by luthiers with historical knowledge and progressive attitudes.[4] The instrument is mostly played with a flatpick, whereas I have opted for a right-hand technique where I combine flatpick and two fingers, which enables me to pluck non-adjacent strings.


User-run web communities may indicate the extent to which this fairly new but historically-inspired group of instruments have spread: the Mandolin Cafe webpage, whose total number of posts is approaching four hundred and fifty thousand as I write, lists thirty makers of CBOM instruments (Scandinavian builders are not included) and more than twenty-five thousand posts within threads that discuss them.[5] These numbers may suggest there is an audience – or rather, a user group – for research such as mine.


A trawl through YouTube with search words such as ‘Bach’ in combination with ‘octave mandolin’, ‘mandola’, or ‘bouzouki’ seems to indicate there is indeed an interest in Bach among this group of traditional musicians. However, although the range of these instruments is very similar to that of the guitar (see below), I seem to notice an absence of lute music transcriptions; as I will address later, the tuning in fifths seems to lead webcam-happy, home-recording musicians in the direction of violin and cello compositions instead, with the Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1 emerging as particularly common.[6] If this observation is correct, there is a void to be filled: unattaching the lute repertoire and its form of polyphony from the lute and classical guitar, and avoiding cello and violin material when attempting to play Bach’s music on fifth-tuned instruments.[7] Having personally witnessed performances by famous guitar bouzouki players such as Andy Irvine and James Fagan (to my knowledge, the specific field isn’t very big, unlike the broader mandola and mandolin communities mentioned above), I get the impression that the instrument is mostly used for either strumming chords or playing single-note melody lines – a logical and graceful usage in the prolongation of the Celtic folk music it was originally constructed for. Polyphonic texture and other playing techniques, as well as genres such as Baroque music, seem to have been explored less frequently on this group of guitar instruments.

[1] In the BBC documentary Folk Hibernia, Moynihan expresses regret at how widespread bouzoukis have become in Irish music – and he does so in expletives unfit for this context. Folk Hibernia, dir. by Mike Connolly, BBC4, March 2007. Available as ‘Irish Folk Music Revival’ <> [accessed 10 February 2015].


[2] On his website, Stefan Sobell tells the story of how he named his instrument: ‘Three months and two necks later, my instrument was finished. It had a Yellow Pine soundboard, Indian rosewood back and sides, a mahogany neck, and ebony fingerboard and bridge. I was very happy with it; I loved the sound and it could be heard at the back of crowded rooms in a way the Guitarra never could. It didn’t have a name, but in a book on Renaissance instruments I found a whole chapter on teardrop shaped flat-back instruments, strung with pairs of metal strings, called citterns. The name now usually refers to a five course instrument, but citterns can in fact have any number of pairs of strings. So my instrument became a cittern’. Stefan Sobell, ‘How I Started: My First Cittern’ <> [accessed 10 February 2015].


[3] John McGann, A Guide to Octave Mandolin and Bouzouki (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 2003), p. 4.


[4] Among these, Christer Ådin from Sweden deserves particular mention for applying the Baroque principle of ‘theorbing’ (adding extra drone bass strings) to his mandolas. The influence has later floated back to British luthiers such as Roger Bucknall.


[5] ‘Octave Mandolins, Bouzoukis, Citterns’ <> [accessed 2 October 2013]. This page groups the single-strung tenor guitar in the same category as CBOM instruments, and one of its common tunings is indeed that of the octave mandolin.


[6] Jacob Reuven’s professionally-filmed mandola version appears to be particularly favoured, with over sixty-three thousand views on YouTube at the time of writing. Jacob Reuven, ‘Perception: The Mandolin and Mandola Recital’ [Mandola performance of Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1 by J. S. Bach] <> [accessed 14 February].


[7] Bach wrote in polyphony for bowed instruments too, for example the Fugue from Violin Sonata No. 1, BWV 1001.