Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

Hi everyone, new member here with a multi-part question about which instrument would best suit my needs. I’m in an Irish band (emphasis on the "ish"), we play primary pub songs/folk songs, not really many tunes or ITM (I once foolishly attended a local session with my 5-string, they were kind enough to gently redirect me elsewhere).
Currently we have a fiddle, piccolo, guitar, and myself on 5-String banjo (sacrilege, I know!).
Lately I’ve been getting an itch to pick up a new instrument to try and swap out the banjo for some of our songs. I was first drawn to the irish bouzouki, since I’m primarily doing accompaniment. My understanding is that the octave mando is better for melody, which I really won’t be doing at all. But I’ve recently also been enticed by the mandola. I’m wondering which will fit better for our overall sound? With the guitar and bouzouki basically produce the same deeper sound and sort of wash each other out? I like the high notes I get with the banjo, would the mandola be a better middle ground between guitar and the fiddle/piccolo? Can I wail on either instrument like I tend to do on banjo?
Also, regarding fingering and chords, which might be easier to retrain my brain? I should mention I’ve borrowed a mandolin from a friend, to start learning GDAE and GDAD chords.

Oh, and I looked into citterns, but they seem very tricky to purchase.

Any advice is appreciated, and thanks for reading this far!

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

Welcome to thesession!

I’ve played guitar, mandolin, and octave mandolin in ITM bands and in a mostly ITM-focused duo with myself on mandolin along with a guitar player. I’m currently focusing more on flute, but here’s some feedback.

The problem you may run into with bouzouki or octave mandolin is that it overlaps with the guitar player in range and timbre. I tried several times to integrate my octave mandolin into the duo I had with a guitar player, as an occasional change from mandolin just for variety. But it had a tendency to disappear under the guitar strums unless we worked out very careful arrangements to keep the two instruments out of each other’s way. That was a lot of work, so we just went back to mandolin and guitar which complement each other nicely.

I don’t want to discourage you from trying either bouzouki or OM, just realize it may take some arranging to keep it from being swamped by your guitar player. A bouzouki typically has a "janglier" sound that may cut through a little better than an OM.

You might have more success with a mandolin or maybe a mandola that can escape being swamped by the guitar. A mandola might work well, especially if you’re playing in typical singing keys like C. For the more typical ITM keys you can use a capo on a mandola at the second fret for DAEB tuning, which is like the upper three strings of an octave mandolin with a B on top.

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

Welcome to the session! OM has different chord configurations to guitar so they wouldn’t necessarily get in each others way - I’ve played my GDAE tuned zouk in bands with guitarists and it works fine [I call it that cos it has the scale length of an OM but the octave tuning on the G and D of a zouk] Chords on mandolin aren’t much use in a band unless you’re playing a lot of bluegrass, but useful to learn as you can transfer them to OM though you’ll obviously have to stretch further!

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

Ideally, get one of each so you can try them all and discover their individual merits 😉 . But assuming money *is* an object, better to get one good instrument than three sub-standard ones.

The bouzouki/octave mandolin question has been addressed. The mandola (tenor mandola, C,G,DA) is not used much in Irish trad, mainly because it doesn’t suit the most common keys quite as well as instruments with a G (or A, if you tune it that way) at the bottom – but since your line-up already includes piccolo and 5-string banjo, that need not be an issue (Whilst neither piccolo nor 5-string banjo is unprecedented in Irish trad, they have never been ‘mainstream’). In this instance, my thinking is that, with the potential shrillness of the piccolo and the guitar down at the bottom end, the mandola might be good for filling in the middle range, either with chords, countermelody or doubling the melody in places. As regards making it suit the common keys in trad, Conical bore’s suggestion of using a capo at the 2nd fret is an option; another option would be to tune the C up a whole tone to D, giving D,G,DA – or even D,A,DA (which might necessitate swapping the altered strings for slightly lighter gauges).

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

I played in a song band for many years. We had piano accordion, guitar, 5-string banjo and me on guitar and mandola (CGDA tuned).
The mandola tuning worked well for chordal accompaniment (much mellower than mandolin) as well as lead breaks and solos. I didn’t necessarily use standard mandolin chord shapes (I worked out my own) - some would have been too much of a stretch, anyway, on the longer scale length.

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

It might be worth adding: do you know 4 string banjos exist? Most often tuned GDAE like a fiddle/mandolin, but a few good players use CGDA as well, and that might be handier for pub band-type purposes.

Also, on citterns, you might like to look at the work of Paul Hathway: https://www.paulhathway.com/cittern/

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Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

One of the last concerts I saw before Covid confined us to our homes was Andy Irvine of Planxty, Sweeny’s Men etc. He played a mandolin, bouzouki, octave mandolin and mandola. All brilliant and all appropriate to the songs he sung.

Play what you like and like what you play.

That said….. I love my mandola!

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

Using a capo on OM or bouzouki is a good way to get out of the way of the guitar.

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

Bouzoukis tend to be more common at sessions than the alternate CBOMs so that might guide your first purchase of that sort of an instrument. That said, you have the five-string and you would do well to look at the Dave Hum’s 5-string work which included a fair bit of trad. Sadly, he passed in 2012.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8d9HJqznzo&list=PLF103F8DAC713FC62

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

lynnhayes^^ makes a good point. Starting with GDAE tuning, an octave mandolin or bouzouki with a capo at the 5th fret *is* effectively a mandola, whilst a capo at the 7th fret gives you DAEB, as suggested by Conical bore – and you still have the option of playing without a capo, for a deeper sound. You alsohave several tuning variations available (GDAD, GDGD, ADAD, ADAE…) which can be shifted to where you wan them with the capo.

I would say that, if you will be using the capo a lot at the 5th fret or higher, the longer scale of the bouzouki probably lends itself best to that; with the shorter scale of the octave mandolin i. you might find your fingers a bit cramped for chording in the higher positions and ii. the lower strings can start to sound a little ‘muddy’ as you go further down the neck (i.e. up the scale); this is less marked on a longer scale instrument, because of the lighter string gauges and lower stiffness ( https://www.acs.psu.edu/drussell/Demos/Stiffness-Inharmonicity/Stiffness-B.html if you’re interested – you can ignore most of the maths).

There will likely be a tonal difference, however, between a capoed-up bouzouki and a mandola proper, as the bouzouki body is designed to have its primary resonance in a lower frequency range – you will probably find a mandola ‘crisper’ or ‘punchier’. But much of this also depends on the particular build of the instrument.

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

Pay close attention to scale length. I have a long scale bouzouki and an octave mandola. The long scale can be quite a stretch if you intend on playing melody. The octave mandola with a shorter scale is much easier.

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

Have you considered a tenor guitar? The four single strings and neck size are similar to a banjo it is also extremely versatile to multiple tunings. This allows you to experiment. The resonator form adds a different range to your band. I like it as a choice since you can tune the same as the banjo without the fifth string. I tune my resonator GDAE, AEAE, EADG, CGDA, DGBD, CGBD etc. add capo if you like. This might allow you to contribute a new sound to the band using current experience and experiment with other tunings. The Tenor banjo allows the same opportunities.

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

I’m in agreement with Creadur, as to the bouzouki giving you more flexibility, especially with judicious use of a capo, to tailor your sound to the needs of the overall mix. The fingering of Chord forms are the same with GDAE or CGDA, but the G chord on a zouk or OM, is a C chord on the Mandola (in standard tuning), and some folks have problems switching that around (transposing) in their heads or on the fly.
I own and used all three, but if I’d have been limited to just having one, Bouzouki would be what I would have settled on for just those reasons.
As for 5 string, the Pogues used a 5 string very successfully. I do not know if their banjo player employed a different tuning or not. Others on here would know.
Best of luck whichever direction you go.

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

Since you aren’t adverse to playing a non traditional Irish instrument (like bouzouki and banjo) and the group is Ir"ish" might I recommend an 8 string Ukulele? OK OK just read on. The tenor is tuned GCEA like a guitar capoed on the 5th fret with strings in pairs. The G and C are octaved so you get a very rich and satisfying chord sound and the ability to play tunes as well. The high A puts it in Mandola range. You can use a plectrum or fingers as the strings are nylon but the sound isn’t. An 8 string baritone ukulele is made as well and the strings are tuned DGBE the D and G in octaves. No one would know that these are ukuleles by sight or sound unless you told them. People are very curious and impressed when they hear these instruments. Kala makes reasonably priced 8 strings. (I have no stake in the company). They are very fun and easy play and lend themselves to any number of styles.

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Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

I used to have an OM and a mandola - sold them both. I now have two citterns made by Lawrence Nyberg (Google Nyberg Instruments). The larger one, called a "mid-scale" (MS) by Lawrence, is tuned CGDAE, basically a combo mandocello/OM. The smaller has a mandola-sized body & scale, I tune it DGDAE, so it’s a combo mandola/mandolin with the C raised to D. I love it, the MS does tend to compete with guitar and cello, whereas on the small cittern I can play a melody an octave below the fiddle or flute, or in the same octave. I play mandolin also, but I find the longer and wider neck of the small cittern easier to scamper around on. The mandolin is easier for chords, I tend to stick to three course chords on the cittern. It’s definitely the most versatile.

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

I just checked Nyberg’s site, he doesn’t have the small cittern on it. It’s not the short scale, he calls it the "mini cittern", although I’d say it’s closer in size to the 26th century originals. You may find it on Facebook, I don’t have Facebook.

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

I got an Ashbury 32E octave mandolin about two years ago. I love it.
If you only have enough dosh to get one quality instrument then the octave may be the way to go. With the capo it has a great plonking tone with presence at the fifth or seventh frets with corresponding similarities to the fiddle mandola and mandolin.
The only reason I would now consider buying a mandola is that the mandola has a narrower neck and a centre of gravity closer to the centre of the body. Though I’d also like a mandocello type instrument…
I play the octave with a fiddle fingering style so a cittern with a wide neck is probably a bit less tantalising.

Another option (that I have) is to get your guitarist to play a twelve string guitar that has only six strings, remove the top e string and add a bottom B string -really bass, this is a great instrument !!

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

"…I’d say it’s closer in size to the 26th century originals."

@Stephen Pierrot – If you’re going to travel back from the future, at least have the decency to speak in terms that make sense to us 21st Century dinosaurs. That said, it is very interesting to gain an insight into what instruments will still be around in 500 years’ time.

Re: Bouzouki, OM, or Mandola?

Yeah, fat fingertips and not proof-reading my own work… 16th century, I meant to say. The cittern was originally a renaissance instrument, the first European instrument with steel strings! Fat fingertips is why I have a wider but than normal nut on mine, also on my favourite mandolin.