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How to Tell Mandolins, Citterns, Mandolas, Bouzoukis, etc. Apart

Copyright 1994 Dan Beimborn

This is a rough guide to tell mandolin-family or British Isles stringed instruments apart. There is a bit of a bias in the descriptions to the instruments of Stefan Sobell- this is mainly because I have one, and they are often the standard by which others are judged, but it is also because his catalog with all the scale lengths and tunings was at hand when I wrote this!

The document that follows contains many tunings in square brackets ([ ]). The notes are to be read bass to treble. For a chart showing where they relate to middle C, see below.

Index to This Document

General Differences:

Scale length:

Scale length (measured from the nut to the bridge) is the main way to tell what you are dealing with. The range is from about mandolin size to a bit longer than guitar size (roughly equal to an acoustic bass)... and this makes all of the difference. You can get the same note at several different lengths, but each will emphasize a different octave or two of the instrument most prominently. A mandolin, for example, tends to ring most loudly on the middle two courses of strings, the D and A.

Unison strung vs strung in octaves:

This is another interesting factor- the bass strings are sometimes in octaves, going low to high from the bass side to the treble side (the opposite of a normal 12-string guitar tuning). Unisons are never exactly in unison (either it is fantastically hard to get them spot on, or slight differences in the strings make it impossible) but they are still very closely in tune. This produces that sound that separates the Mandolin style instruments from a 6-string guitar. The fact of the matter is that there are different sounds created by different stringing styles, but that doesn't seem to differentiate one instrument from another in name so much as scale length and tuning do.

Shape and size of the sound box:

A teardrop shaped instrument--Sobells, Gibson mandolin family "A" models, Fylde, and other makes) tends to have a large resonant sound, with both strong bass and treble. Round-backed instruments (greek bouzoukis, old "tater-bug" mandolins) have more of a "ploonk" sound, and are focused more on the bass than the treble. Deeper soundboxes seem to create more resonance and bass emphasis, shallower ones project louder with more emphasis on the "zing" or treble. Sobells come in either "small", "large", or "giant" in any of the mandolin family instruments. a "small" is about the size of a mandola, considerably bigger than a gibson mandolin. This emphasizes treble, and creates a "zing" sort of sound. A "large" will create a big bass sound, a lot of resonance, and more sustain. The "giant" (also known as "Blarge" for "Bouzouki, Large") follows this even further, sounding almost like a double bass! I think that "giant" ones are primarily used by Sobell for 6-course instruments.

Specific Instrument Stats. by Type:

Mandolin:

Scale length of a Gibson A model is 14 1/8", or 35.8 cm. Stefan Sobell's mandolins are about 14 3/8" or 36.5 cm
Tuned [GDAE] (the same as a fiddle). Sobells are bigger, and hence have more sustain and bass. You will find this to be generally true- larger instruments of the same type (just like big fiddles) are a bit "boomier", and have more sustain and bass. It is very rare to find an instrument with perfect balance of treble and bass, there is always an emphasis. If the instrument is perfectly balanced, it seems to be bland... almost as if to get equal volumes and tones something was removed from one end rather than added. These were sort of "invented" in the late 1800's... the story of mandolins is vast beyond belief. Suffice it to say that Orville Gibson invented both modern "A" and "F" models roughly at the turn of the century. Before this, you get the round-back ones which are more visually similar to a Greek Bouzouki.

Mandola:

Sobell Mandola scale length is 20 1/4" or 51.5 cm. Tuned [CGDA], with the "C" course a fifth below a mandolin. Here is where the first Citterns crop up... with a scale length of about 21" (equal to a guitar capoed at the 4th fret), and with 5 courses of strings. This is tuned [GDAEA] in one incarnation, [AEAEA] or [ADADA] in another. There are SCADS of possible tunings in this flexible range, but the lowest course can't go below a [G] without losing something, and the highest can go no higher than an [A] without losing tone. So, any notes in between can make up the tuning. This is like a short scale octave mandolin with an added high [A], and similar to a short- scale tenor banjo in length and tuning. Vintage mandolas are still fairly common (compared to some other instruments) in the market, as they were a band instrument played in the Mandolin Orchestras in the 20's.

Octave Mandolin:

Scale length of a Sobell is 58cm or 22 7/8".
Tuned [GDAE], exactly one octave below fiddle or mandolin. Nearly equivalent in scale length to a guitar capoed at the 2nd. Can also add a course to the bottom to get a low D, making the tuning [DGDAE] or [EAEAE], or a multitude of others. In this case, the [D] is the lower bound, and the [E] is the upper. Anything in between is fair game. This is roughly the same as a long-scale tenor banjo in length and tuning.

Mandocello:

The mandocello rounds off the mandolin family tuned one octave below a mandola [CGDA]. Mandocellos are similar in tuning to the bottom four notes of a long scale cittern- the CGDA strings are in the same octave as the DGDA at the bass of the long-scale cittern. There are many varieties of historic cellos (Gibson, Vega, Stromberg, etc) extant, as this was a popular mandolin orchestra instrument. Some players remove on of the bass strings to eliminate rattle, making (confusingly) a 7-string instrument.

Tenor Guitar:

Historically, these appear after the tenor banjo around the late thirties or early forties. Instruments kept shifting in popularity in the USA, with Mandolin the king in the twenties, Tenor banjo in the thirties (started out with short scale early in production, then lengthened as time passed), and finally guitar in the years to follow. Tenor guitars were invented to give the old tenor banjo player new life (guitar sound) without having to learn guitar tuning. They are nearly identical in scale and tuning to a long-neck tenor banjo.

Historically, they (like tenor banjos) were tuned [CGDA], but any Irish types use them at [GDAE]. There are some great bargains out there in tenor guitars for aspiring bouzouki players- the scale is a bit shorter, and they have been around and unwanted for years. Some of the Gibson Tenor guitars I have played can outdo a modern bouzouki (but with 4individual strings, not 8 in pairs!!!) and can be fantastic values. Even archtop ones rarely are more than $650 in perfect condition.

Bouzouki:

Sobell scale length of 65cm or 25 5/8", almost the same as a guitar with no capo.
Tuned [GDAE] or [GDAD] (the same as an octave mandolin). The extra scale length adds sustain and very "clean" sound. This can also be a Cittern, with an added lower course to make [DGDAE], [DCGAD], or similar. This is where the "Giant" crops in... the 6-course model has this scale and is tuned [DADGAD] just like the DADGAD guitar

Guitar-Bouzouki, or "Bizzar":

Sobell says that this instrument was invented and commissioned by Andy Irvine. Scale length of 65cm or 25 5/8" (same as bouzouki), but with a guitar body. In fact, with a jumbo guitar body... it is 46.4cm (18.3") long, but 41.5cm (16.3") wide! Tunings are similar to bouzouki [GDAE], [GDAD]. These ring even deeper, with more of a guitar sound.

Meaning of the term Cittern:

I think that Cittern is used by Sobell to describe a family of instruments with 10 strings. The size and scale length is a matter of emphasis- it is hard to play lead on complicated tunes on a Bouzouki-length cittern, but easier on a Mandola-length one. Gerald Trimble recorded "First Flight" with one short-scale, and one long-scale Sobell cittern.

There is a way to tell older Sobell Citterns on sight- the "hoop" at the bottom that holds the strings on will be almost a full circle on long-scale (Bouzouki length) ones because guitar strings will just barely reach the top with this extension. Shorter-length citterns or octave mandolins will have a half-circle at the bottom (strings attached at the base and not to the hoop). A complicating factor with Trimble is the use of a capo- he spent a lot of time capoed at the fifth fret, which makes the scale length and tuning change! An additionally complication is that Sobell redesigned his instruments recently so that none have the full hoop any longer!! Good Luck!

To me, it makes sense to call a 5-stringer a "Cittern" but misleading to call a 4-string one a "cittern". I think that using the terms "Octave Mandolin" and "Bouzouki" seems to evoke the clearest image, although I don't really know if this naming is in widespread use.

Tuning of Mandolin Family Instruments (and Some Benchmarks) at Scale Length:

 Middle  C

               G      D    A   E    Mandolin 36.5 cm or Fiddle 33cm
         C     G      D    A        Mandola 51.5cm
     G    D      A     E   A        Cittern 53.5cm
     G    D      A     E            Short Scale Tenor Banjo 55.8cm
     G    D      A     E            Octave Mandolin 58cm
 D   G    D      A     E            Cittern 58cm
     G    D      A     E            Bizzar or Bouzouki 65cm
 D   G    D      A     E            Cittern 65cm
  E   A   D    G   B   E            Guitar in standard tuning 65cm
 D    A   D    G A    D             "DADGAD" tuned guitar
C    G    D      A                  Mandocello

Strings Gagues:

Here is a list of common string gauges (in inches) for the instruments listed above ("w"="wound string")
               Mandolin  G:.040w D:.026w A:.015  E:.011
                Mandola  C:.045w G:.032w D:.021w A:.012
    Short Scale Cittern  G:.049w D:.034w A:.025w E:.014 A:.010.
Short Scale Tenor Banjo  G:.047w D:.034w A:.022  E:.012
        Octave Mandolin  G:.045w D:.033w A:.024w E:.014
               Bouzouki  G:.047w D:.035w A:.024w D:.015
     Long Scale Cittern  D:.059w A:.045w E:.034w A:.024w E:.013
                 Guitar  E:.056w A:.045w D:.035w G:.026w B:.017 E:.013
             Mandocello  C:.074w G:.048w D:.034w A:.022w

Simulating Bouzoukis, Citterns, etc:

An important thing to notice is that a guitar is capable of simulating all of the above, if you have a capo, string weights, and patience. The basic principle is this- most of these instruments have a scale length that can be simulated by measuring the distance from the bridge on a guitar to a certain fret on the neck. If you buy string gauges that produce a certain note at guitar scale length, putting on a capo to get a different scale length can produce nearly any tuning. I, for example, am simulating the 53.5cm cittern with a guitar with strings tuned [D#A#FCF] at the nut, so a capo at the fourth makes the interval [GDAEA]. If I had strung it [DGDAE] at the nut (no capo) this would simulate a bouzouki-length cittern. Sounds really complicated, but it is fairly simple once you futz with a guitar!

Here are the basic string gauges:

for a tuning of [GDAEA] (the short scale cittern), you would need to have [EbBbFCF] at the nut of the guitar, and a capo at the 4th fret. Try these string gauges:

Eb: .52 wound
Bb: .42 wound
F : .30 wound or .24 plain
C : .16 plain
F : .13 plain

Acknowledgements:

Most of the information here comes from either Stefan Sobell directly, or from his catalogue. A special debt of gratitude is owed to Rick Gagne, who supplied me with scads of information to fill in the blanks and gaps in my mind. Also thanks to Joseph Sobol, who answered queries and let me try his Sobell at the Ethnomusicology conference in Milwaukee.

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