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Folk Music in the Southern Regions

Bouzoukis, Citterns, etc.

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VISIT THE EDITOR: historical mystery/adventure author & folk musician Daniel Elton Harmon






Read what's new at "BOUZOUKI MUSINGS" -- postings by musicians, luthiers, inquisitors, et al.


by Daniel Elton Harmon

My introduction to Celtic-style bouzouki/cittern/mandola playing (as perhaps that of yourself) was through the legendary Irish group Planxty—the work of Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine. It was 1983 when I finally acquired a bouzouki, an 8-string, Italian-made Eko once used by Bob Zentz in Norfolk, VA. No, the sound quality wasn't excellent (it was good, considering the $220 pricetag), but the instrument was absolutely beautiful, bowl-backed, very ornate. I learned the rudiments of Irish-style bouzouki on it and used it for eight years in my solo act and with The Apple Ensemble, which during that period was turning heavily to Celtic and seafaring material.

When I joined Harkstowe Grange, a Real Celtic Band, in Columbia, SC, in 1992 as principally the rhythm player for a group of pipes/fiddle/mandolin/whistle virtuosos, it was obvious I needed a more mellow and stable (i.e., Celtic-sounding) bouzouki. For a few months I played a borrowed Flatiron. It was of early-'80s vintage, was difficult to fret and sounded little better, overall, than the Eko. (I've been told by Reg Malady at the Celtic Trader in Charlotte that Flatiron subsequently overhauled its blueprint and now produces a very fine instrument.)

In December 1992 I sprang for a new Japanese-made Trinity College (Saga) bouzouki, strung in octaves, which Regis had for sale at the Trader. It soundedsubstantially more "professional" but a bit on the ringy side (so, what did I expect, in octaves?) - quite unlike the terrific Foley octave mandolin my compatriot Steve Bennett was playing in Harkstowe. Yet Steve and I made good use, I think, of the combined instruments in a number of song arrangements. And shortly thereafter, when I bought a koa Flatiron mandola (Michael Card uses one of those, I believe), we began to come up with some very pleasant duo experiments.

Predictably, perhaps, Harkstowe was shortlived. Though Steve and I continued as a duo act for awhile and I progressed further in my bouzouki/mandola probings, I ultimately went solo - and became absolutely infatuated with the varying sounds of the mandolin/bouzouki family of instruments.

"Cheap toys!" some of you surely are lamenting. "This idiot is using inferior instruments. Someone wake him up!"

Bear with me a moment. While Harkstowe still perked, fiddler John Wetzel had decided to sell his Sobell bouzouki, mid-'80s vintage, which he rarely used. (John's one of the finest mountain and Celtic fiddlers you'll hear in the South, and he prefers to stick with fiddle, for the most part.) I leaped at the chance, going into debt to acquire the Sobell. It remains today the treasure of my instrument collection.

What can you say about a Sobell, except that it is everything its hallowed reputation says it is, and more? I have met exactly one professional folk musician who decries the sound of Sobells generally; everyone else I encounter drools over this well-used instrument. Often on gigs I leave it to rest at home, but for the important ones it's always with me. Certainly if I'm going to a jam and expect to be heard amid the din of other instruments, the Sobell is the only choice.

Yet my thirst for the ultimate bouzouki sound remained unquenched. I'd long wanted to buy John's Trinity College octave mandolin, which he refused (and refuses to this day) to sell. It has a wonderful metallic, nasal sound, very unlike the Sobell - but much like the Irish folk recordings I'd been hearing. So in December 1993 I bought (again from Regis) a new one - among the very last ones Saga was to produce. It's a great instrument in its own right, though it was relatively inexpensive.

That still wasn't enough. I began to yearn for a cittern. What, exactly, might be accomplished with that extra course of strings?

When Lark in the Morning in early 1995 advertised its new line of Scottish-made mandolin family instruments, I ordered the large-bodied cittern. When it arrived I was disappointed in the size - the body isn't particularly large - but well-pleased by the sound. I decided to string it in octaves, with a .007-gauge string yielding a high A on the second course. Beautiful result. I began using it regularly to accompany my vocals, as well as to render tunes.

Then when Lark in late '95 advertised a similar line made in Mexico, with the cittern priced at $300 (!!), I couldn't resist. I suppose I expected it to be a dog. Was I ever surprised! Despite an unstable bass course, the instrument has a gorgeous tone with a . . . Spanish? . . . tinge. Unhappily, the second day I had it, the bridge literally uprooted. But a larger anchor screw seems to have resolved that problem (it's held up for six months, now), and I find myself using it as often as the very different-sounding Scottish model.

Incidentally, I also bought one of Lark's Scottish-made, large-body, 10-string mandolins. It's a very solid instrument, but I've struggled with string gauges and bridge settings for more than a year and still can't get it set up satisfactorily for performance.

One more item: In Summer 1995 I came across a handmade bouzouki in Asheville, NC. The maker was Bob Gernandt of Bryson City. Elegant workmanship, priced at about $800. Again, I couldn't resist. (No, I'm far from rich. To the contrary, I'm very far in debt for this collection of axes.) At first, I could make little use of it because the action was high and the intonation sour. Finally I had more than an eighth of an inch shaved off the bridge, and it began to obey - regally. I keep it tuned in the Celtic standard DADG (all my other instruments are EADG(D)), and I've come to regard it with special favor in that context.

I still want a Foley and a Fylde before I die. Which brings me to the point of this dreadful monologue: Would you mind sharing with me your own findings? I would love to hear of your venture into bouzoukidom, accept your advice (particularly re string gauges) and compare notes. Please, please, please click here to send me an e-mail message with your insights.

Til then, in Christ,

Dan Harmon (Harmonym)

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