By Aaron Wolff
Today, one may stroll into an Irish pub anywhere in the world and have a fairly good chance of seeing an Irish bouzouki, an unexpected hybrid of a Greek bouzouki and a mandolin that has made its way into the culture of traditional Irish music. I got interested in the Irish bouzouki because I love the sound of it. It has such a unique spectrum of timbres, and has such a shimmery, but precise attack. The zouk community that I have experienced often uses adjectives such as “throaty” or “jangly” to describe different aspects of favorable tone on this instrument. The open tuning features similarly maneuverable idioms to the mandolin but sounds drone-like in a way that is similar to the Appalachian dulcimer, or even the 5-string banjo. It sounds like a combination of many popular existing folk instruments, which makes it very appealing.
The development of the Irish bouzouki took place during the folk revival of the 1960s, where a few prominent Irish musicians were becoming interested in music and traditions of other cultures around the world. In 1963, English luthier John Bailey creates the first ever flat-back Irish bouzouki, by drawing inspiration from the body of the English cittern. One story goes that a Greek bouzouki had been broken in a bar fight, and that Bailey simply affixed the cittern body to the neck of the instrument, replacing the bowl-back. Others say that he simply took measurements of an unbroken Greek bouzouki at the bar, and then later made his own, using a flat back because he was unsure of how to craft the bowl back. This is the more likely story, since the proportions of the body (shown below) closely match that of a Greek bouzouki, even though it has a flat back.
Johnny Moynihan and Alec Finn, two Dublin-based musicians in the traditional music scene both had friends who were traveling to Greece. They asked their friends to bring back instruments for them, and they both received bouzoukis. Johnny in 1966, Alec in 1967. At this point, they began playing their 6-string, trichordo (three-course), DAd-tuned bowl-back Greek bouzoukis in sessions around Dublin. Johnny and Andy Irvine, another Dublin multi-instrumentalist and folk singer/songwriter had started a band called Sweeney’s Men in 1966, where they played Irish ballads and traditional tunes with Johnny on bouzouki and Andy on mandolin. Johnny has stated that he had heard rumors of another Irishman playing the bouzouki in an Irish music context before him, but had never personally seen the man, and didn’t know anything about him. In the late 60s, Moynihan was at John Pearse’s house for a party, and acquired his flat-back bouzouki made by John Bailey.
In 1969, Andy Irvine went to Greece to get himself a tetrachordo (four-course) bouzouki. The tetrachordo bouzouki was traditionally tuned CFAD, but Irvine tuned the instrument GDAd, to give it the similar droning resonant sound of the trichordo, as well as a similarity to the standard mandolin, tuned GDAE, that he was already familiar with. The bottom strings of the double courses of these instruments were still tuned in octaves instead of unisons until Donal Lunny, a lefthanded guitarist and friend of Andy Irvine’s had found the bouzouki in Andy’s room, and became fascinated by it. He strung it up backwards so that he could play it more easily. In 1970, Lunny commissioned luthier Peter Abnett to build him a left-handed, flat-back version, like its Greek counterpart, but meant to be tuned GDAd, all in unisons. This was the first fully intentional Irish bouzouki ever built.
In 1972, the formation of Planxty, a wildly popular Irish folk band featuring Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny, both on their Irish bouzoukis further cemented the assimilation of the bouzouki into Irish culture. There have been many significant and popular Irish bands featuring the bouzouki since then, including De Danann, featuring fiddler Frankie Gavin and bouzouki player Alec Finn, who never switched instruments from his trichordo, bowl-back Greek bouzouki, The Bothy Band, with Donal Lunny, and much more modern bands like Danu, Imar, Dervish, FourWinds, and The Murphy Beds.
The Irish bouzouki has continued to hold my interest because of its capacity to act as a potent symbol of cross-cultural artistic experimentation. A keen willingness to try out new ideas brought this instrument into a new kind of music and synthesized new and fresh beauty from two old and rooted cultural traditions.
(L) Planxty performing in the mid-1970s. L-R Donal Lunny, Liam O'Flynn, Andy Irvine, and Christy Moore.
(R) The Murphy Beds performing in a pub: Eamon O'Leary on bouzouki and Jefferson Hamer on guitar.
Aaron Wolff is currently attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, working towards a degree in Electronic Production and Design, and playing mandolin-family instruments in various folk music ensembles. He is an expert in all types of synthesizers, as well as an ardent scholar of European stringed instruments.