[Need to finish the chord diagrams and put them up on Flickr.]
The Greek bouzouki is a stringed musical instrument which is the mainstay of Greek music. This Entry explains how to play notes, scales and simple chords but does not present any Greek tunes for you to play. It assumes a basic knowledge of music.
The bouzouki has a tear-drop-shaped body with a round back and flat top. There is an enormously long neck, much longer than in other instruments with equivalent body sizes1: the neck is about 60cm (2 feet) as compared with a body of only 40cm (1 foot 4 inches), giving it very long strings and a deep pitch. The metal strings are plucked with a plectrum2.
The style of music which in Ireland is called 'traditional' and in England 'folk' is known in Greece as 'popular music' and it is indeed very popular. In purely instrumental popular music, the bouzoukis usually play the tune while other instruments provide the accompaniment. In vocal music, the bouzoukis fill in short musical phrases when the singer is not singing, such as between verses or at the end of each line.
There is such a thing as an Irish bouzouki. It is a modified version of the Greek bouzouki with a flat back and a shorter neck, sharing many features with the mandolin and mandola. It has a different sound, is used for a different style of music and is played with different techniques. The Irish bouzouki is not covered by this Entry.
Types of Greek Bouzouki
There are two main types of Greek bouzouki: the tetrachordo and the trichordo. The tetrachordo, literally 'four-string', has actually got eight strings, but these are grouped into four pairs, known in English as 'courses'. Each course consists of two strings close together and tuned to the same note. They are plucked together and fingered together as if they were a single string. The trichordo, literally 'three-string', has six strings grouped into three pairs or courses.
The techniques outlined in this Entry can be used on either type of instrument - the two are identical in the upper two courses. The diagrams show a trichordo instrument, but they apply equally to the tetrachordo. Tetrachordo players can develop additional techniques for speed playing using the third and fourth courses as they see fit. Chords are different on the two instruments, but chords do not form a huge part of Greek bouzouki playing, so this Entry will present just a few chord patterns for each instrument.
The tetrachordo, with four courses, is the most common sort of Greek bouzouki. Normally, the higher two courses each consist of a pair of identical strings, each string in the pair tuned to exactly the same note. The lower two courses each have a thick bass string and a thin string which is tuned to the same note but an octave higher.
The tetrachordo is the bouzouki favoured by the players of the 'tourist traditional' music played in tavernas all over Greece for the tourists. It allows very fast playing without much movement of the left hand up and down the neck of the instrument. It also allows chords to be played.
The courses are tuned3 to the pattern of C3 F3 A3 D4, the same pattern as the four highest strings on the guitar, although pitched a tone lower. This means that guitar or ukulele chord shapes can be used.
The trichordo is the instrument favoured by traditionalists who are interested in the music rather than the tourists, although it's not really clear why. It has three courses (pairs of strings)4. Because of this, the neck is narrower, making the instrument lighter.
The normal tuning for a trichordo is in the pattern D3 A3 D4. The lowest course normally features a thick string tuned to D3 and a thin octave string tuned to D4. This leads to the interesting oddity that three of the six strings on the instrument are tuned to the same note.
The two highest pitched courses are used to play tunes - this involves a lot of shifting and jumping up and down the neck. The third, lowest course is usually only used for simple chords but occasionally for the lowest notes of tunes.
Parts of the Bouzouki
This table gives the names for the different parts of a bouzouki, where possible in both English and Greek.
|Body||Main hollow part of instrument|
|Shell, bowl||Curved wooden part of the body.||σκαφος||skafos||boat|
|Staves||Curved strips of wood. Many of these are glued together to make the shell, often in a dark / light pattern. More expensive bouzoukis tend to use more staves.||δουγες||dhouyes||staves|
|Top||Flat panel on top of the body, made from a light-coloured wood and usually inlaid with mother-of-pearl.||καπακι||kapaki||lid|
|Sound Hole||Hole in the top panel through which sound comes out of instrument. May be elliptical or of an elaborate shape.||οπη, ανοιγμα, τρυπα||opí, anighma, tripa||aperture, opening, hole|
|Neck||Long part that sticks out from body||μπρατσο||bratso||arm|
|Torsion Bar or Truss Rod||Metal bar inside neck which can be turned to correct a bending of the neck. Not all bouzoukis have these. It may be hidden under small piece of plastic just above the nut.|
|Fingerboard||Flat piece of wood, usually black or dark in colour, on front of neck against which the strings are pressed||ταστιερα||tastiera||fretboard|
|Tuning Head||Mechanism at the top of each string which allows tension to be changed in string, tuning the string||κλειδια||klidhia||key|
|Nut||Solid piece of bone or white plastic at top end of fingerboard which sets the 'open' string length.||κοκκαλο||kokkalo||bone|
|Fret||Strip of metal across fingerboard which stops the string at a particular distance from the bridge when the string is fingered, to make a fixed length of string.||ταστο||tasto||fret|
|Bridge||Wooden device sitting on top panel which supports the strings and transmits their vibration into the top panel.||καβαλαρισ||kavalaris||rider|
|Tailpiece||Metal device at base of strings to which the strings are connected.||χορδιερα||chordhiera|
|String||Metal string running from tuning head to tailpiece.||χορδα||chordha||string|
|Course||A pair of strings which are played together as if they were one string. Bouzoukis have three or four courses.|
|Spot||An inlaid mark on the fingerboard between certain frets to mark significant notes. Normally, the spots mark frets 3, 5, 7, 10 and 12, and this pattern is repeated for the second octave, at frets 15, 17, 19, 22 and 24.|
When talking about the neck of the instrument, 'up' means towards the body of the instrument and the bridge, rather than towards the head. This seems the wrong way round, but fingering a note closer to the bridge raises the pitch. Since the pitch goes up as our hand moves towards the body, players consider this to be 'going up the neck'.
When talking about higher and lower strings, the terms refer to their pitch: the highest string is the thinnest one, with the highest pitch.
Except when tuning, it's normal to refer to the courses as strings - since the two strings of a course are fingered and plucked together, we just ignore the fact that there are two strings and pretend there is one string. So if we say finger the second string at the fourth fret, we mean the second pair of strings.
The courses are numbered from high pitch to low pitch, so the course which is highest in pitch is the first course, usually just called the first string. The second course or string is the next one down in pitch. The third course or string is the next again. On a tetrachordo, there's also the fourth course or string.
The fingers of your left hand are used for fingering notes. As in all stringed instruments, these are numbered starting at 1st for the index finger, so the 4th finger is the little finger (pinky)5.
Tuning Your Bouzouki
Before playing, you will have to tune your instrument. There are a few different ways of doing this:
- Get someone else to do it for you. Someone who is used to tuning stringed instruments will do this very quickly, and can show you what to do.
- Use an electronic tuner. There are plenty of free smartphone apps for tuning.
- Tune by comparing with a piano.
- Tune one string from a tuning fork and tune the others by ear from it.
Once your instrument is in tune, you will have to retune it each time you play it, but only small adjustments will be necessary.
Trichordo: tune both strings of the first course and the thin string of the third course to D4, the D above Middle C. Tune the two strings of the second course to A3, the A below middle C. Tune the remaining thick, wire-wound string of the third course to D3, the D below middle C.
Tetrachordo: tune both strings of the first course to D4, the D above Middle C. Tune the next course to A3, the A below middle C. The thicker string of the next course is tuned to F3, the F below middle C. The thicker string of the fourth course is tuned to C3, the C below middle C. The thin strings of the third and fourth courses are tuned to the note an octave above their respective thick partners (F4 and C4 respectively).
When you tune one string it will affect the pitch of all the others slightly, because the bridge moves, so you may need to tune the strings a few times before you get them all sounding good together.
If you find that the instrument sounds good when plucking the open (unfingered) strings but sounds out of tune when you play notes high up on the fingerboard, it may be that the bridge is badly positioned. Instructions on how to position the bridge are provided in the Entry Positioning the Bridge on a Mandolin.
How to Hold the Instrument
All these instructions are for a right-handed player and a right-handed instrument. Some left-handers like to play a reversed instrument, with the strings the other way around. If you're doing this, you'll have to reverse all the instructions given here. Alternatively, since both hands have a job to do, there's no reason why a left-hander can't learn from the start in the same way on the same instrument as a right-hander. This will make things a lot easier in the long run, and when playing in a group you won't keep banging your instrument against that of the player beside you.
The bouzouki is not an easy instrument to hold, as its smooth, rounded back makes it slide around. There are a few different opinions on how the instrument should be held. The method given here certainly works, but you're welcome to try different methods.
The bouzouki should be played while sitting down. You need to keep your left foot on the ground but to raise your right foot by about 15cm (6 inches). You can either use a chair with a bar on it that you can rest your foot on, or a small footstool or footrest. Such footrests are made for playing classical guitar. You could just pile up a few thick books.
Place the body of the instrument on your lap so that the neck extends to the left and upwards at an angle of about 30°. The flat top of the instrument should be tilted off the vertical so that you can see it and the fingerboard easily. Lean your body forward so that your chest presses against the back of the instrument at your lowest right rib. Bend your right arm at the elbow and place the inside of your right forearm so that it presses against the front of the instrument above the strings. (This works best if you have a bare forearm.) The body of the instrument is thus supported at four points: your two thighs, your chest and your forearm. This should be all you need to hold the instrument steady. Your left hand should not be used to hold the bouzouki at all. It needs to be free to jump up and down the neck and to finger the notes.
Now to hold the plectrum with the correct grip. Bend your right fingers so that the first two joints (counting from the tip) form 90° bends and the third joint (main knuckle) is straight. Place the plectrum against the side of your index finger so that its tip protrudes slightly at your index finger nail. Put your thumb down on the plectrum. It is now held firmly between your thumb and index finger with just a small amount sticking out to pluck the strings.
Playing Your First Notes
Do nothing with your left hand. Keeping your right wrist straight, pluck a string with the plectrum with a downward motion. You should aim to pluck the strings between the bridge and the sound hole. If you go further from the bridge, the sound gets more mellow but will be quieter. Make sure to keep your wrist straight; the motion of your hand is very slight - it only has to move about 2cm (an inch) all together.
A string which has not been fingered is called an 'open string'. An open 1st string will play the note D. An open 2nd string will play the note A.
When plucking the strings, you should alternate downward and upward strokes, but always start on a downward stroke. Most Greek music has an even number of notes in each phrase so you can go down/up, down/up. In the rare tunes that use a triple rhythm 123, 123, 123, you should use a down/up/down, down/up/down pattern so that the first note of each group is always a down stroke.
Now let's try playing a D on the second string using the second finger (the middle finger). Position your left hand so that the palm is facing you. Bend your second finger so that the tip is pointing towards your wrist. Press down the second string against the fingerboard beside the fifth fret - it should be close to the fret but not touching it, and it should be on the nut side of the fret rather than the bridge side. (There's an inlaid spot on the fingerboard to help you find this position quickly.) This is known as playing at the fifth fret, but remember, the finger is on one side of the fret. The string is in contact with the fifth fret and the section of string from the fret to the bridge is free to vibrate.
Now pluck the string and you should get a D. It should be the same note as you would get from playing an open first string.
Playing the Major Scale
We're going to present all the scales here starting on the note D, because this is the most common key in Greek music.
The simplest scale is known as the 'major' scale. It consists of the following notes:
D E F# G A B C# D
The # symbol is called 'sharp' so F# is read as 'F sharp'.
The first two notes of the scale will be played on the second string, but the rest of the scale will be on the first string.
We'll give a blow-by-blow description of playing the scale followed by a fingering diagram, but later scales will be just list the names of the notes with a diagram to show how they are played.
- To play the first note of the scale, D, press down the 2nd string just behind the 5th fret (on the nut side of the fret), as described already. Pluck the string with a downward stroke.
- Finger the E with the fourth finger at the 7th fret of the same string. Pluck an upward stroke.
- Now change strings to the first string. Continue the plucking pattern alternating with downward and upward strokes. Finger the F# at the fourth fret with your 1st finger
- The G is played with the 2nd finger at the 5th fret.
- Now jump your hand up the neck and play the A with the first finger at the 7th fret
- Stretch to play the B with the second finger at the 9th fret.
- Finally jump up the neck again but this time by just the length of one fret, and play the C# with third finger at the 11th fret and the high D with the fourth finger at the 12th fret.
This is easier to see in a diagram:
Note that while the diagram shows a trichordo instrument, only the first two strings are used, and the same diagram exactly works on a tetrachordo instrument.
More Elaborate Scales
While Western music tends to use only a few different scales, but adds interest by modulating into different keys, Eastern music, including Greek music, has many different scales, but tends not to modulate out of them. If a song or tune is in a particular scale, it will stay in that scale and all the melodic improvisation and interpolations around the tune will also be in the same scale. Turkish and Arabic music have more than fifty different scales; Greek music has less, but there are still about twenty of them. We'll only mention a few here. Others can be easily found in various sites on the web.
The Harmonic Minor Scale
This is probably the second most popular scale in Greek music. The notes of the scale are:
D E F G A Bb C# D
The symbol 'b' here is pronounced 'flat'. Bb is pronounced 'B flat'. It is usually represented by a special b with a sharp point at the bottom, but this is difficult to display in web browsers.
The way to play this scale is given in the following diagram. Again, start on the 2nd string and work your way up, then switch to the 1st string.
The Hijaz Scale
This is probably the third most popular scale in Greek music. It is considered a type of major scale because the third note in the scale is F#, as it is in all major scales. The name is pronounced 'hidge-az' and comes from Turkish. Because the Greek language does not have the 'j' sound, it is spelled Hitzaz in Greek, and many Greeks pronounce it like that as well. The notes of the scale are:
D Eb F# G A Bb C D
Again, the fingering is explained in the diagram:
The Ousak Scale
This is another minor scale, because the third note in the scale is F (rather than F#). The notes of the scale are:
D Eb F G A Bb C D
The fingering diagram is:
When to Shift
On tetrachordo instruments, very fast runs of notes can be produced by switching from string to string without moving the left hand up and down the neck. The details of these are beyond the scope of this entry. The trichordo instrument, on the other hand, plays almost everything on the first two strings, and trichordo techniques can also be used on the tetrachordo so they are discussed here.
Because the low D played on the 2nd string is quite a distance from the high D played on the 1st string, you will have to move your hand at some point when playing a scale, no matter what way you play it. The diagrams given so far show possible ways of playing the scales with where to shift your hand, but it is up to you what way is comfortable. If you are playing a new tune, you should go through it a few times working out which way you are going to play it and when you will shift your hand.
A general principle is that your first and second fingers are strong, while your third and fourth fingers are weak. Shifts should be done using the first and second fingers. If you are fingering a note using the first finger, it is OK to play the next note higher up the string using the first finger as well. It can move quickly up the neck with no noticeable break in the playing. The same applies to the second finger. The third and fourth fingers are weak, so you should only use them when your hand is already in the correct position.
The frets are quite widely spaced on the bouzouki, particularly near the nut. Don't try and stretch your fingers too widely to cover the frets - the second, third and fourth fingers should cover one fret each. The first finger, being slightly more agile, can cover two frets, the one beside the second finger and the one below that. If you need to have fingers in positions other than this, you will need to shift your hand.
Greek music doesn't tend to play chords on bouzoukis, with one exception: it is normal to finish off long phrases by playing two chords. These are called the 'finals' and provide a sort of punctuation to the musical phrase.
|Type of Scale||Finals|
|Major Scale starting with D E F#||A7 D|
|Hijaz-type Scale starting with D Eb F#||Eb D|
|Minor Scales ending with C D||C Dm|
|Minor Scales ending with C# D||A7 Dm|
|Ousak Scale||Cm Dm|
Chords on the Trichordo
[Insert link to trichordo chord diagram here]
On the trichordo bouzouki, you only need to learn three chord shapes to play these finals. The diagram shows how to play D, A7 and D minor. The D chord can be shifted down two frets towards the nut to make C or up one fret to make Eb. The D minor shape can be shifed down two frets to make C minor. This gives us all the chords in common use as finals.
Chords on the Tetrachordo
[Insert link to tetrachordo chord diagram here]
Because the tetrachordo bouzouki has the same relative tuning as the ukulele or the top four strings of a guitar, standard guitar chord shapes can be used. You may find, however, that these are not in a convenient position to be used as finals. Playing in the key of D, the left hand usually ends up around the fifth fret - using a standard chord, you have to jump your hand down to the first fret.
It's more convenient to use the three chord shapes shown here, played on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings and not sounding the 4th string. The D chord can be shifted down two frets towards the nut to make C or up one fret to make Eb. The D minor shape can be shifed down two frets to make C minor. This gives us all the chords in common use as finals.
Some Other Scales
There are many other scales, in addition to the four presented here. We'll list the notes in them, and fingering in a simplified form. All of the following start on the second string. The vertical line symbol indicates a change to the first string. The • symbol indicates a shift in hand position - the hand moves up the neck.
|Finals: Eb D|
|Finals: Eb D|
|Finals: A7 D|
|Finals: A7 D|
|Finals: A7 D|
|Finals: A7 Dm|
|Finals: C Dm|
|Finals: C Dm|
Some of these scales have more than one name, and the spellings are not standardised.