Tuning and stringing the bouzouki.

by Han Speek.
(Copyright © 1995)


Tuning the bouzouki.

The original Greek bouzouki comes in 2 forms: one that uses 3 groups of 2 strings(3 "courses"), which is probably the oldest form, and one that uses 4 groups of 2 strings(4 "courses").

The 3-course instrument is almost always tuned DAD, though sometimes individual players will use an adapted tuning to fit the athmosphere of a tune. A documented example of this is the so-called "black" tuning, EAE [See "Road to Rembetika"].

For the 4-course instrument the most common tuning used to be CFAD (a whole step below the top 4 strings of a guitar - the younger generation of players nowadays tunes it DGBE, like the highest 4 strings of a guitar). This tuning is not too suitable for playing Irish music, so most Irish musicians use either GDAD or ADAD(low to high). Both tunings make it quite easy to play in the key of D; the first also allows for some easy chords in G, the second works better for A, but will give you a less full sound when playing in G.

A mandolin-like tuning, GDAE, but one octave lower, is also used, but requires long stretches for some chords, so it is most useful for either a short-scale instrument or a player with big hands. Most of these short-scale bouzoukis, especially if they use this mandolin-like tuning, are said to be octave-mandolas. [For a pretty complete overview of the family members of the bouzouki have a look at Dan Beimborn's Cittern Family Overview ]

Most well-known bouzouki players, like my personal favourites Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine, use the GDAD tuning. So do I, so most of what you find in this bouzouki page is intended for use with that tuning.

The 3-course bouzouki is not common in Irish music. Notable exception is Alec Finn, best known for his work with De Dannan and Mary Bergin. He uses the traditional Greek tuning for this instrument, which works well for Irish music also - DAD. All chords given for GDAD tuning work for this tuning also.

Stringing a bouzouki.

One problem I've always had with sets of bouzouki strings is that they are way too light for my liking, no matter what brand. Maybe most string sets are targetted towards the Greek bouzouki, where the lowest strings are tuned a lot higher than on the Irish bouzouki.

Another thing is that most people (including me) aren't fond of octave strings, and most sets have octave strings.
So for my Irish bouzoukis I stick with the individual gauge strings. (I use - high to low - .012, .016, .022 or .024(wound) and .038 or .042 (wound); the thinner bass strings on a rather delicately built P. Abnett bouzouki, the heavier on the short-scale Fylde Octavius).

For my Greek one I use Pyramid sets (with octave strings), but this has more to do with availability than with a clear preference ( but they're certainly not the worst I 've ever used ).

When it comes to buying strings, there's a definite advantage in owning a Fylde,since they are fitted with a guitar-like pinbridge (even though I have seen a model - cittern - from them with the more conventional floating bridge + tailpiece arrangement. This was more expensive, but also louder.) This means you can use standard ball-end strings instead of the hard-to-get loop-end strings required for most tailpieces. What I used to do for my old Greek bouzouki (floating bridge, tailpiece for loop-end strings, 68cm scale) is to get 2 sets of strings for a plectrum banjo (tenor banjo works sometimes depending on the make, but most are too short), and string the thing in pairs. This worked fine, but I definitely prefer bronze-wound strings.

Use of octave strings.

The Greek bouzouki was commonly equipped with octave strings on the lowest 2 string pairs.

Some musicians will also do this - for various reasons, such as "it sparkles more with the octave strings" or "they only sell sets with octave strings" - on the instrument they use for playing Irish music. If you do this also, you may have noticed (if not, there's a chance that yoy fellow musicians have) that the instrument will sound out of tune if you play chords higher up the neck, say, above the 5th fret. The Greeks never had this problem, because they only move up the neck on the highest 2 strings, and these are tuned in pairs, so this works out OK. They use the lower 2 strings only for simple first position chords, and for droning.

The explanation of this phenomenon will be a bit technical, I'm afraid.

If you ever looked closely at the bridge of a steel-string guitar, you might have noticed that the bone insert isn't exactly parallel with the frets, but slanted away from them at the side of the lower strings. This is done because these strings are thicker and stiffer than the high strings, and this affects their ability to vibrate to the expected frequency. The open string is expected to behave like a perfect half-sine-wave, but because of its stiffness this behaviour isn't really reached near the bridge and near the nut. For this you would need to compensate by giving the string a little more length. [If you look at a classical guitar -with nylon strings- you will see that it is not compensated, except maybe for the G string, which is the thickest unwound string, because the material is much more flexible. The imperfections in string vibration have no audible results here.]

On a 12-string guitar (and on the Fylde bouzouki/cittern) this bone insert in the bridge (on most other bouzoukis/citterns, with a floating bridge and tailpiece, the whole bridge) is set to the same angle as for a normal guitar, thus properly compensating for the lower strings in each pair.
But the octave string goes over at (nearly) the same point, while it is much thinner and more flexible. So instead of compensating you have just added string length.
And the result of this is that when you tune the open string to the correct pitch, every note you fret on this string will be slightly flat, since the portion you take off the vibrating string length is a bit too short with respect to the overall string length (which has these extra millimeters of unneeded compensation added to it).

If you have access to a 12-string, try comparing an octave string fretted at the 12th fret to a flageolet on the 12th fret, which is a perfect octave of whatever you tuned the open string to - you will hear the difference. Then try playing the normal E-chord, and move the same form up to the 12th fret and play it there - how does it sound ?

Now for most things you might want to do with a 12-string you do not need to play above the 7th fret, and no-one will really notice the effect I just described, but when you play higher up the neck (especially "folk" chords, which often combine open and fretted strings) they (and you) will.

Citterns will normally have a string length that is shorter than a guitar, which means that the effect will be worse - the relative impact of the mis- compensation is bigger.


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