I have a thing for strings. Olga also has a thing for strings, and together (thanks to the generosity of various friends and family) we've amassed quite a collection. It should be 91 strings all told, except that the lute-guitar needs to be restrung.

All our instruments

Across the top are: Markos the bouzouki, Takis the baglamas, and Panayiotis the tzouras (Greek rebetiko instruments in the bouzouki family); two ney (the flutes between Takis and Panayiotis); Mule the mandolin, a saz, a kemane, and a lute-guitar.

The next row has a guitar, Jasmine the lavta, an oud, in the back a 12-string mandolin, and in the front Marama the Irish bouzouki.

We don't play as many of these as we ought to (we ought to play all of them). The 12-string mandolin and the lute guitar are damaged, probably irreparably: in both cases the soundboard has sunk and the neck has come forward, so that the action is so high that fingering up the frets very quickly goes out of tune. We don't know how to play saz or kemane, although we hope someday to learn. Together we mainly play rebetiko, a style of urban Greek music sometimes called “the Greek blues”, with guitar and any of the bouzouki-family instruments, or with accordion (not in the picture but we have one of those as well) and mandolin. I use the Irish bouzouki in the house band of the Via Egnatia Foundation, and lavta, oud and ney are “ongoing projects” (i.e.: we play them, but badly).

The instruments with names

Uh, yeah, we name our instruments. It's probably harmless.

Here is our bouzouki family: Markos, Panayiotis, and Takis.

Bouzouki family

Markos, named for the great rebetis Markos Vamvakaris, is a trichordo or “three-stringed” bouzouki (actually six-stringed, in three pairs, so named to distinguish it from the modern variant with four pairs of strings and associated with a different style of music). He was made by Karellas in Athens, but we found him at Palm Guitars in Amsterdam. His tuning is DAD. The strings are doubled, and actually run Ddaadd: one wound low D paired with a plain high D (an octave pair), then unison pairs for the A string and high D. (Yes, that means three of the six strings are the same pitch.)

Panayiotis is a tzouras: basically a trichordo bouzouki made to three-quarter size or so. We bought him from a luthier in Polygyros, about an hour out from Thessaloniki. His tuning is exactly the same as the bouzouki, but the shorter strings and smaller soundbox give a much less aggressive sound.

Takis is a baglamas, the tiny baby brother of the bouzouki and tzouras. His string setting is the same (Ddaadd) but an octave higher than the tzouras.

He's really tiny.

Tiny Takis

Marama, on the other hand, is rather larger.

Marama and me

She's an Irish bouzouki (also variously called “mandocello” or “cittern”). She was built by Peter Stephen in New Zealand for bass virtuoso Mike Fudakowski, who passed her on to me. I keep her tuned DAEB, in unison pairs: the straight fifths match the mandolin which makes life easier, but the stretches on that long neck are brutal. (Pro Irish bouzouki players use all sorts of weird tunings, but I don't want to make life too complicated.)

Here's Marama beside Takis and Panayiotis, to show the various sizes.

All three

Mule is an American-style flatback bluegrass mandolin (the three terms are pretty much equivalent, and distinguish him from the round-back Neapolitan style). He is tuned GDAE (like a violin) in unison pairs.

Jasmine, or Γιασεμή (roughly “ya-se-mi”), named for a beautiful song, is a Turkish lavta. She has seven strings (a single and three unison pairs), tuned DAAddaa. She sounds something like an oud, with a deep booming bass, and she has frets placed for the Turkish makam theory: the 27th fret is the octave (instead of the 12th on a Western instrument like the guitar), and no they are not evenly spaced. (For those who really want to know, and according to my at-present rudimentary understanding: all the semitones of the Western scale are present, but the second, fourth, seventh, ninth and twelfth semitones are further divided into four intermediate pitches.) My plan is to use her to learn a bit of makam theory, and in particular to learn to hear the pitches that Western music doesn't include, so that I can eventually start playing them on the oud (where the fretless fingerboard means you need to get it right by ear).


We wouldn't own so many instruments if we didn't have extremely generous family and friends.

  • The kemane, the saz and the oud are all presents from Olga's parents.
  • Panayiotis was bought with birthday money from Greek friends and family. (We said "Don't buy us presents, help us buy an instrument!" and they did.)
  • Magali and Sjoerd gave us the lute guitar.
  • Takis (not the baglamas but the musician from Utrecht) gave us one of the neys (the other is a clumsy handmade attempt in PVC piping).