Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

I’m new to the Session and looking for advice on purchasing my first Irish Bouzouki. After reviewing past threads on this topic (all of them years old it seems) and searching for the recommended off-the-shelf models and custom luthiers, I’m guessing the landscape has changed a bit. Several of the recommended luthiers don’t appear to be active any longer and some of the recommended mass produced entry level instruments are hard to find as well.

For an off-the-shelf model, the Trinity College TM-375 seems to be about the best I can find readily available. But since that would definitely require a professional setup, possibly some upgrades (tailpiece?), and since my ultimate goal is to be able to eventually perform with it (I currently play guitar in a folk band), I started considering whether I could swing a custom made instrument. So far, Davy Stuart in NZ seems to be the most likely candidate for quality and price range (if I go custom, looking for something between $1000 and $2000).

So question #1: Any other active luthiers you would recommend, especially in the USA since that’s where I am? Bill Petersen in Omaha is one I searched for, but found no trace of him. I did find the list of builders on Mandolin Cafe, but would appreciate some first hand recommendations.

And question #2: If I go with an entry level instrument, either to get me started while I’m waiting for a custom, or to just be my first bouzouki for a while, is there anything better than the Trinity College models currently being produced? I’ve seen very mixed reviews on Hora, but even though they’re available and inexpensive, I’d much rather invest in something I’d enjoy playing rather than risk getting a dud.

Any help to get me pointed in the right direction would be greatly appreciated. I’m anxious to try all the things I’ve been reading in the other discussion threads. Thanks!

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

I’ve seen and played a few Davy Stuart instruments here in Melbourne and they were all superb instruments. 2 people at our local session own mandolins made by him, just wonderful instruments. If you’re in USA you’ll also have an advantageous currency exchange rate against the NZ dollar.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

The bouzouki and OM market is an awkward one, because it is much smaller volume than guitars. It’s not worth while for the volume manufacturers to set up to make high end instruments so there is no Martin or Taylor equivalent in the bouzouki world, you jump straight from the cheapo eastern stuff to handmade. So if you are looking for a mid-budget instrument you really have two options: watch the internet for second-hand (you’ll probably have to judge each instrument on its merits rather than fixating on a particular maker’s name) or find someone local - possibly an amateur or semi-pro maker, who will make you one for a sensible price because they’re not relying on their instrument making to pay the mortgage.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

I play a Fylde arch top Cittern and like it very much, the Fylde bouzoukis sound very similar and just as good. Seek out recordings of Davy Steel of Coel Beg (a Scottish group), he played a Fylde bz and rated it very highly. I see that you are in NC; Simon Spalding of New Bern has recorded with my Fylde and could give you an honest assessment. He is on Facebook and has a website for his duo called Tuppence. The Fyldes are fairly plain and simple but very well made and in my opinion very good value for money. Whether it would be cost effective to import to the States I cannot say but it may be worth investigating. If you are going to perform with it I would recommend having a Headway p/u fitted as well. My cittern has one and it is the most natural sound of any of my instruments and is feedback resistant. Hope this helps, PM me if you need any more information.

Dick.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

You might check out Herb Taylor (http://www.herbtaylor.com/instruments/bouzouki/). He might be a bit out of your price range, but he makes truly lovely instruments.

He doesn’t have "models" per se. Each instrument is unique, and he does a lot of custom work. I recorded my tenor guitar album on a tenor that he made to my specs, including neck dimensions, scale length, materials, finish, and custom inlay. He does make a lot of bouzoukis, octave mandolins, and citterns. It also helps that he lives just a few miles from me, so I get to go over periodically and test out new stuff in his pipeline 😉

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

i have a fylde (second hand from Hobgoblin in Brizzle) and rate it highly in terms of playing and have played custom made ones which i don’t like as much.

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Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

Thanks to all…this is a big help! And all of these options have potential. Prices seem to be somewhat similar, with Herb Taylor’s basic being the most expensive. So to summarize:

1) Fylde is excellent quality and might be easiest to get sooner.
2) Davy Stuart could give me a great instrument to my exact specs, but will probably take a long time to get it.
3) Herb Taylor is the only US luthier I know of (so far) close to my price range and does have a basic model available now.

I’ve sent an inquiry to Davy Stuart to get more info, especially about how long his queue is. Meanwhile I’ll do some searching for Fylde options…second hand ideally, but will see what I find. The Davy Steele recordings I found sound amazing! And will familiarize myself with Herb’s offerings a little more as well. These all sound much more appealing than the cheaper options.

Regarding the Fyldes…any opinions on arch top vs. flat top?

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

I bought a Trinity College instrument to be sure I liked to play the bouzouki. When I wanted to upgrade I decided on Phil Crump based on feedback from some people I knew and the fact that Michael Holmes of Dervish plays one of his instruments. It took about nine months to get it, and then it had some issues - I had to have it refretted pretty soon after I got it. But it has a wonderful sound and I think the price was pretty reasonable.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

Those Trinity College’s seem pretty good instruments for where they come from…. not a top of the line custom made instrument, but they work. The do make a higher end one, the TM-675 which is solid spruce and rosewood…. sells in Canada for about double the standard model, listed at my local music store for $1925 Canadian. Just throwing that out there.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

OP, before you decide on what make and model to purchase you really need to give a great deal of thought on how you plan on using the bouzouki/cittern/octave mandolin/ octave mandola and therefor what scale length is best. Typically one buys CBOM with a style of playing in mind, typically;

1) Playing melodies at session speed
2) Playing melodies and backup
3) Playing backup

Different scale lengths suit different playing purposes and typical CBOM’s have the following scale lengths;

19”-21” – usually tuned GDAE an octave below a mandolin or fiddle. Similar in scale length to a 17-18 fret tenor banjo. Can be a bit weak on backup but a great instrument if you want to play ITM melodies. Called a Short Scale Length Octave Mandolin (Sobell) or Octave Mandola (Flyde, NK Forster)

23 ½” (more or less) – This is your typical Octave Mandolin (Sobell, Forster, some Flyde’s), typically tuned GDAE if you’re a melody player and can handle the reach to a high A or B at speed, often tuned GDAD or ADAD if you mainly do backup. If you make it a 5 course instrument most folk’s will call it a Cittern and if you play melodies you’ll typically use a high tuning GDADA (you get the A and B on the highest string in open and 2nd fret). Changes of a ¼” in scale length can make a big difference in the playability of a CBOM at this scale length. Some makers will use the term bouzouki for these but you really need to check

24 ½ - on up (25 ½” normal) – Typically called a bouzouki, they can also be 5 (10 string) course or 6 course (12 string) and can have some of the pairs strung in octave instead of unison. Tune it anyway you feel like. Flyde has a long scale bouzouki at 26 5/16” scale length which is coming near to a baritone guitar. You’ll also find the guitar bodied bouzouki’s in this range. Very strong instruments but definitely in a backup role in ITM.

My CBOM is a Sobell Short Scale Length Octave Mandolin so 15” wide body and a 20 ½” scale length. I tune it GDAE and use it for ITM melody in smaller sessions or as a backup in larger sessions. I absolutely love this instrument and it has served me well since it was born in 1990. I am considering getting a Cittern and am looking at Sobell, Flyde, Forster, Crump (California), and Davy Stuart. For now if I need to get loud I pull out the tenor banjo, but I prefer playing the Sobell. I’m also considering getting a Taylor Baritone- 8 (27” scale length) to use as a low register ITM backup instrument as a bridge between bass (which I play) and guitar/CBOM backup

So OP, consider carefully how you plan on using your CBOM before you put your money down. BTW, I started on a Flatiron Octave Mandolin that was 23” scale length.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

Lynn/Adrian - Thanks for the feedback on the TC models. That’s still a contender, especially since I have this fantasy of getting something in that range to learn on while I wait the long wait for a custom instrument…but then convert the starter to be strung with octave lower courses to serve as a secondary instrument with the high end one being all unison and my primary. Eventually!

Steve - Thanks for that very thorough write up! I’ll probably do mainly accompaniment (I do more rhythm guitar now while singing, though also do some fingerstyle), but do want to push myself to learn some melodies…so probably option 2.6 from your list!

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

<something went awry with my last post and it got truncated…heres the rest of it>

Based on the sound clips and youtube videos I’ve heard, I love the unison sound more, and the rich tone of longer scales. That said, I do worry a bit about going too long. My Taylor and Breedlove guitars are 25.5" scale length, so I’m guessing anything up to that length won’t be too intimidating for what I plan to do, though I recognize chording is different due to the strings being tuned in fifths. Of course, all the entry level models (i.e. temporary) seem to have 26 - 26.4" scale lengths, so there’s that to factor in.

So to sum up, based on the research so far, I think I’m looking for a scale length between 24.5" and 25.5"…strung with unison lower courses…to be used for accompaniment with some limited melody playing (not high speed unless I surprise myself with a giant leap forward). For that scale length, my best options seem to be Fylde or custom so far. And if I go the custom route, possibly picking up an entry level instrument to get me started while I’m waiting, but that could be repurposed later as a secondary instrument (e.g. TC, Johnson, Luna, Hora).

Please let me know if I’m not on the right track. Thanks again, everyone for your help!

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

From what you’ve said take a look at the PW Crump bouzouki’s. The guy from Dervish plays one, they sound pretty nice and are right at that $2000 mark. Remember Fylde’s mandolin instruments are sold without cases and a good case (Carlton) will set you back another $1000.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

>>"My Taylor and Breedlove guitars are 25.5" scale length, so I’m guessing anything up to that length won’t be too intimidating for what I plan to do"

Don’t be fooled by what you can do on a guitar. Remember that the strings on a guitar are tuned a fourth apart, so you only need to stretch five frets, on a bouzouki/OM the strings are tuned in fifths so you need to be able to stretch seven frets. If you plan on playing melody most people can manage 21" without moving their hand, 23" means you have to move a bit for the higher frets, and anything longer means you have to move your hand about so much that playing at speed becomes very difficult if not impossible.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

I considered octave mandolin tuned GDAD…just want to go as long scale as I think I can handle for tone. Since I’ll be doing mostly accompaniment, as I also sing, just looking for that sweet spot for scale length. There just seems to be a big gap between entry level OM (20") and entry level bouzouki (26") and it feels like that sweet spot will be right in the middle (which likely means custom). But it’s all still theoretical since I haven’t laid my hands on one yet. I probably need to just get something cheap for context knowing that it will be replaced at the first opportunity.

FYI, one other aspect is that my band does have a mandolin player and a banjo player, and I double on ukulele. We all also play guitar so we change up the mix of instruments throughout shows. I gravitated toward bouzouki mainly because I love the sound and trad music, but also to bring something new to our mix of instruments.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

A thought on scale length; I found the cittern too long for melody playing as I could not manage the stretches. To compensate I have tuned down one tone to FCGDG and capo at the first fret most of the time.This gives me just about the same length as Fylde’s OM. The advantage, apart from a shorter scale for melody, is that I can take the capo off and play in Bb with C chord shapes.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

don’t get hung up on the names of CBOM instruments, they’re meaningless. Saying a bouzouki is different than an octave mandolin is really not true as there is no standard for naming these things. A 23" scale length instrument is a great for backup when tuned GDAD. Body size and wood choice will have more of an effect on how it sounds than going from 23" scale length to 25.5", but you’ll find it very difficult to play melodies at a quick pace on a 25.5" or longer scale length instrument. You really should listen to players to get an idea of your sound concept and then go from there.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

Honestly, I’ve sort of been thinking that the capo could be my safety net to shorten the scale length if I need to, but hadn’t thought about tuning down. Does that have any negative effects on intonation?

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

Thanks, Steve…great point about body size and wood. Those labels only seem to matter (from ny novice perspective) when talking off-the-shelf options to get started. For a custom, now thinking I should consider dropping down closer to that 23" you’re talking about. But I doubt I’ll get to the level of session speed, so top priority would still be best sound for accompaniment, followed by ability to add some simple melodies from time to time.

Have been searching out artists to listen to. Just a few examples of the ones who have the sound I’m attracted to are below (though with melody playing skills that are probably beyond me in most cases):

Dominique Riviere
Daoiri Farrell
Dervish
Francis Cunningham
Julien Regnier -Krief
Donal Lunny

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

No probs with intonation. The bridge is floating so can be adjusted if needed.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

UPDATE: Found a really good deal on a used Johnson MA-400, so decided to give that a go to get started. After all the great feedback, I am a little wary of the long scale (26.25"), but for a fairly small investment and ability to capo (fret 2 = 23.25" scale…fret 3 = 22" scale…and tuning down a step also a good option if needed), I feel like this gives me maximum flexibility to explore exactly what will work best for me before making a significant investment. And I’ve read some reviews that it has decent tone for the price, so hopefully will be enough to inspire me to dig in.

Now I just have to pick up some new strings and plectrums, and endure the wait for it to arrive. Anxious to get started! Thanks for all the advice!

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

Another maker: Nick Appolonio of Rockport, Me.
He made mine and a few other folks in the Boston area and everyone is happy with them. The $$$ value is great. Good instruments, reasonable pricing. He happened to stumble into some Brazilian Rosewood when making mine. I have great low end. He will make to any dimensions.

Terry

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

These instruments (CBOM’s in general) can be a bit neck heavy, and like Fender basses, suffer from neck dive. So find a good strap that won’t slip and wear it while practicing. The less you have to hold the instrument the faster you can play. Have fun

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

Anyone happen to know whether the Johnson MA-400 takes loop end or ball end strings? The one I ordered definitely needs new ones, so want to be prepared when it arrives.

And any suggestions on string brands? Probably will order some D’Addarios or John Pearse from Elderly.com unless there are better suggestions. I read Newtone are good, but the descriptions on juststrings.com don’t specify unison or octave, so afraid to order them (I want unison).

Thanks for the warning about the neck and strap…will prepare for that as well. And will check out Nick Appolonio (never too early to start dreaming about the inevitablr step up!).

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

At 26" scale length hopefully it’s ball end. I would suggest you wait until you get the instrument. Try it with the strings that are on it and measure the guage of the strings on it. Then you’ll have usefull information for buying a new set. For my Sobell I had Elderly custom make my set (24 sets actually). They had Martin make them for me. I still have some left after ordering them 27 years ago.

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

Just a B.T.W.:- I remember Gam once pointing out that you can always just remove the ball from the string if you want a loop end. (Remember dear old Gam? I wonder what happened to him?)

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Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

Bob Gernandt in Bryson City, NC, might be just the job for you (as you’re in North Carolina already). I have no financial interest in him, nor do I own one of his instruments, but a local maker can make a difference. I have acquaintances who ordered bouzoukis from respected overseas makers and there were significant problems on delivery (broken headstocks, poor intonation, etc.). While everyone (justifiably) raves about Stuart, Sobell, Forster, Foley etc., there’s a lot to be said for jumping in your car and returning your zouk to a local(ish) maker if there’s an issue rather than shipping it to the ends of the earth. Elderly recently had a Gernandt bouzouki for sale at what looked like a decent price. I don’t know if it’s still there but it’s worth a look. I played a Flatiron for twelve years and regret selling it. 23.5 inches is my preferred scale length as it enables me to play both tunes and backup. Good luck…

Re: Updated info on Bouzouki Makers and Models?

I’ve considered making the 4 hour drive to Bryson City to check out Gernandt. Beautiful looking instruments, but nearly twice the price of Stuart and I haven’t seen much in the way of testimonials. Still probably worth a look…and it’s a beautiful drive if nothing else!