What is a Cittern?

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by Robin Bullock

(Column originally written for Acoustic Musician Magazine - used by permission)

If you've spent any time at all around Celtic music, you'll have noticed the frequency with which citterns, bouzoukis, octave mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos and even blarges show up. You might be wondering what exactly these strange creatures are. Even if you're aware that they're all midrange members of the mandolin family, you might well be confused what the distinctions among them might be. And your confusion, alas, will not be helped by the fact that there isn't a great deal of nomenclatural consistency among those of us that play, um, those things. And so, with fear and trepidation, here I go riding heroically into the valley of befuddlement to try to sort it all out...  First of all, the mandolin. We're all agreed what a mandolin is, right? Eight strings, frets, tuned the same as a fiddle? Good. Well, it seems that around the turn of the century, the Gibson company began making and selling other mando-instruments whose tunings corresponded exactly to the other members of the violin family - the mandola (tuned CGDA, low to high, a fifth below the mandolin), the mandocello (CGDA, an octave below the mandola), and even, God help us, the mandobass (EADG, the same as a string bass or electric bass, and a million laughs to try to actually play). Gibson's terminology was only slightly confusing at the time, owing to the fact that there already was an instrument called a mandola, used in 19th-century classical mandolin ensemble music, and it was tuned GDAE, a full octave below the mandolin. Gibson clarified this at first by calling their viola-range instrument a tenor mandola, but as it became more popular the older mandola was pretty much forgotten about and the term mandola came to mean Gibson's CGDA instrument. Still with me so far?

Fast forward to the 1960s, when a young Irishman named Johnny Moynihan discovered the Greek bouzouki. The bouzouki has a ribbed, bowl-shaped back (similar to a small lute), a long skinny neck, three or four pairs of steel strings, and a rich, proud heritage in the music of Greece. It so happened, however, that it fit right in with Irish music as well. Moynihan showed his new toy to his pals Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny, who went on to form the group Planxty. Planxty was arguably the first great post-Beatles revivalist traditional Irish band, influenced untold numbers of musicians to come...and had two bouzouki players. (Irvine and Lunny individually also showed up in later, equally influential bands like the Bothy Band, De Danann, Moving Hearts and Patrick Street, but that's another story.)

However, by this time, these guys and the players who followed in their footsteps were playing newly-made instruments that had flat or arched backs, more like big mandolins than genuine bouzoukis. Some continued to call them bouzoukis anyway, while some took the suggestion of legendary luthier Stefan Sobell and started calling them citterns. (Cittern seems to have been a loose family name during the Renaissance for smallish, double- or triple-course, wire-strung fretted instruments. I played a concert with Helicon a few years back at the Shrine to Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, where I got to see some authentic Renaissance citterns...and they didn't appear to have a lot in common with one another.)

Thus began the confusion: with two terms floating about, people understandably assumed that there was a difference between the two, especially since by now there were both eight- and ten-string variations on the theme, as well as short necks and long necks. Furthermore, those who played eight-string versions usually (though not always) tuned them an octave below a mandolin, more or less - remember the old "mandola" tuning? - and some folks started calling them, quite reasonably, octave mandolins. So now we have citterns, bouzoukis (which may or may not be the same thing, but are not to be confused with real Greek bouzoukis, the only player of which in Irish music that I know of is Alec Finn of De Danann), octave mandolins, mandolas and mandocellos, eight strings and ten, short necks and long, and nobody agrees which is which. I am going to take a deep breath, stick my head out on the chopping block and attempt a few statements as to what's what, based on my own years of observation and playing.

1. I've heard it said that if it has eight strings, it's a bouzouki, and if it has ten strings, it's a cittern. I've also heard eight-string instruments (including mine) called citterns and ten-string instruments called bouzoukis.

2. I've heard that if it has a short neck, it's a bouzouki, and if it has a long neck, it's a cittern; I've also heard the exact opposite.

3. In addition, I've heard the eight-string instrument, when tuned an octave below a mandolin, variously called an octave mandolin, a mandola and a mandocello, notwithstanding the generally accepted Gibson terminology. However, I know of one prominent player who uses an eight-string Sobell whatchamacallit (like mine) and tunes it DADG, in more of a mandola range; he's been known to call it either a mandola or a cittern ("octave mandolin" obviously wouldn't apply when it's strung that way).

4. I've seen tuning schemes ranging from straight fifths to open chords, and string pairs tuned in octaves as well as unisons.

5. I know of at least one twelve-string Sobell; I've no idea what its owner calls it. (Actually, I do know: he calls it a tank.) I've also seen eight-string necks on guitar bodies in the hands of at least three prominent musicians, one of whom calls it a "bizarre." (Bouzouki-guitar, get it?)

6. Finally, I've heard the frightfully unmusical term "blarge" applied to both eight- and ten-string instruments. One story making the rounds is that that term came from an instrument catalog's abbreviation for "bouzouki, large." I don't know, and I don't want to know.

It seems safe from all of this, and the lack of any standardization of the whole thing, to make the following general statements: If it's a mandolin-like instrument, basically teardrop-shaped, flat- or arched-backed, more or less the size and range of a guitar but with eight or ten (or twelve...all right, all right) paired strings, then it can be called either a bouzouki or a cittern with equal historical
inaccuracy, given that both terms were borrowed from other instruments in the first place. (I suppose a case could be made for "cittern" being marginally less inaccurate than "bouzouki" since "cittern" refers to an instrument family while "bouzouki" is the name of a specific instrument, but let's not split hairs.) "Octave mandolin" is only accurate if it has eight strings and is tuned an octave below a mandolin, and the safest thing to do with "mandola" and "mandocello" is continue with the aforementioned Gibson definition of those terms, since those instruments have found a new home under those names among bluegrass/new acoustic musicians. And if you want to call it a "blarge," go ahead, but you'll do so without me.

The best story I've heard about all this comes from my pal Beth Patterson, bouzouki (or whatever) player with the New Orleans Irish group the Poor Clares. At ZoukFest (yep, there's a whole week dedicated to these things) in Weston, Missouri last summer, she told me that one night she had just been asked "What's that instrument called?" one too many times, and replied in all seriousness, "It's called a tractor!" The rest of the band picked up on the joke, and were asking for more tractor in the monitors and so on for the rest of the night. Just goes to show: we've got to call it SOMETHING, and given that it's a bit of a musical mongrel, there's no point in getting too hung up with the nomenclature.

Like to hear some cittern/bouzouki/octave mandolins (or CBOMs, as they're sometimes called on the Internet)? This is going to be an absurdly incomplete list, of course, but as an accompaniment/ensemble instrument, check out anything by Planxty, anything by the Bothy Band, anything by Altan, anything by the Tannahill Weavers, and flutist Matt Molloy's self-titled first solo album (with bouzouki by Donal Lunny). As a lead/solo instrument, Gerald Trimble's First Flight, Roger Landes's Dragon Reels...and, of course, anything of mine!

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