THE ORIGINS OF THE "IRISH BOUZOUKI"
Andy Irvine traveled to the Balkans in the 1960s with other members of Sweeney's Men, and was introduced to the bouzouki by Johnny Moynihan who had acquired a cheap Greek instrument as a souvenir from a friend (read more here). John Bailey – a British luthier – had made a flat-backed bouzouki for someone that never came to collect it, so Johnny Moynihan then purchased this upgraded model and tuned it to GDAD (traditionally CFAD for Greek tetrachordo tuning, with the two lowest strings having a high and low octave string in each course). This first flat-backed, 8-string "Irish bouzouki" was recorded on Sweeney's Men's album in 1968.
One year later, Andy Irvine purchased his own bouzouki in Greece with some money he'd made from donating blood. He came back to Ireland and co-founded the popular Irish folk band Planxty, and ended up giving his "blood money" bouzouki to another member of the band – Dónal Lunny – who went on to popularize the bouzouki as a rhythm instrument. Dónal Lunny, being left-handed, decided to reverse the strings, and changed the two lowest courses to play in unison, rather than an octave apart.
Andy Irvine subsequently sourced bouzoukis primarily from English maker Stefan Sobell, and has continued to play the instrument, mainly for accompanying songs with chords as well as counterpoint and harmony. Many of the Irish bouzouki players, including Dónal Lunny and Andy Irvine, typically tune their instruments to GDAD (an open tuning allowing for a more drone-like playing style, with Irish music being a drone tradition).
Occasionally an Irish bouzouki player will play a 3-course rather than 4-course bouzouki. Alec Finn of De Dannan is one such example, and is another of the four Irish musicians credited with bringing the Greek bouzouki to Ireland in the 1970s (read more here). Of these, he was the only one to favor the more traditional bowl-backed 6-string variety (with traditional DAD tetrachordal tuning). Alec Finn first acquired a bouzouki by mistake, when he asked for a friend to bring him back a lauto from his travels, and the 3-quid "banjaxed" bouzouki was purchased instead. The rest is history!
BOUZOUKIS IN THE WORLD TODAY
The bouzouki shares a lot in common with the cittern as well as the mandola. Much of the difference between these instruments comes down to the longer scale length of the bouzouki (26" for Greek, or upwards of 23" for Irish bouzoukis, compared to 18" for mandola), as well as thinner strings (more on this here). In a perhaps futile attempt to simplify things, the luthier Stefan Sobell created his own distinctions, calling anything with 5-courses a cittern, and 4-courses an octave mandolin (without mention of "bouzouki"). However, some will still call a 5-course instrument with a longer scale length a "10-string bouzouki."
The bouzouki is a popular instrument in Greece to this day, especially in rebetiko (ρεμπέτικο) music. This urban Greek improvisational music came to be called "Greek Blues" for common lyrical themes of loss, poverty, and alienation felt by the migrant refugees of the Greco-Turkish war of 1922. Bouzouki is also commonly featured in laïkó recordings, a form of popular folk song dating back to the 1960s. The bouzouki remains an important instrument within the Greek cultural tradition to this day, with a strong foothold in Irish traditional music as well.
Video Examples of the Bouzouki in Greek and Irish Music:
- A Sampling of Greek Rebetiko
- A Sampling of Greek Laïkó
- Frankie Gavin & Alec Finn play Irish tunes, Fiddle & Bouzouki
- Andy Irvine & Dónal Lunny, Irish Concert with Bouzoukis
- Interview with Andy Irvine on Irish Bouzouki Origins