Student of Guitar

Gouzouki: What is a Guitar/Bouzouki Hybrid? (2023 Guide)

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A bouzouki guitar (or gouzouki) is a hybrid instrument, the combination of a guitar and the Irish/Greek traditional bouzouki.

Some also refer to this instrument as a bouzar.  The origins of the bouzouki guitar can be traced back to the 1980s when luthier Chris Larkin, built one of the first known hybrids for guitarist Andy Irvine.

This instrument has a tuning one octave below the standard bouzouki, in perfect fifths instead of the traditional fourths of the guitar.

Here are some of the other significant features of the gouzouki:

  • The body size is about the same size as a standard guitar
  • The instrument has 4 courses of double metal strings, each pair tuned in unison
  • There doesn’t seem to be consensus on the standard tuning for this instrument. Some tune it to G-D-A-E or rather GG-DD-AA-EE just like the octave mandolin. But some manufacturers ship it with a tuning of GG-DD-AA-DD just like the Irish Bouzouki meaning the real difference between this and a bouzouki would only be its body shape and features.

Also, the bouzar is only available from a handful of retailers like Thomann.

This is likely because the gouzouki just isn’t a mainstream instrument and is typically only played in traditional folk music.

The Difference in Sound Between a Gouzouki and a Standard Guitar

In this video, you can see some of the characteristics mentioned above; how the bouzouki guitar has 8 strings total, ordered in 4 courses, each one containing 2 strings.

In terms of construction, you will find that the instrument uses a smaller scale for the neck and fretboard. This is made in order to fit each pair of strings at both the nut and the bridge.

Due to the 4-course tuning and the use of metal strings, the timber of the bouzouki guitar is similar to a mandolin. However, the use of a guitar body and smaller-scale gives this instrument some of the natural resonance and depth of a guitar.

And as you can probably hear from the video above, a bouzouki guitar produces a brighter sound than a standard guitar.

However, some players opt for tuning the bouzouki guitar as follows:

  • 1st course (highest): Both strings tuned in G4
  • 2nd course: Both strings tuned in D4
  • 3rd course: Both strings tuned in A3
  • 4th strings: Both strings tuned in E3

This tuning is the same as the last four strings of a standard guitar.

Thus, this tuning will make for a more guitar-like sound.

But of course, the paired strings give it a distinctly different sound from the guitar, even with the overlapping tuning.

Most are very familiar with the sound of an acoustic guitar.

But for quick juxtaposition, check out the video below from one of my favorite YouTubers to hear the difference in sound from these instruments back to back.

Is a Gouzouki the same as an Octave Mandolin?

If the bouzar has the same tuning, string number, and approximate size as an octave mandolin, isn’t it the same as an octave mandolin?

Not exactly.

These instruments are extremely similar, but their different historical origins have resulted in slightly different body characteristics and musical uses.

Let’s take a look at Sierra Hull playing an octave mandolin in the video below.

This large instrument retains many of the features of a standard mandolin like the scroll, f holes, floating bridge, and more.

It’s also most commonly used for bluegrass and American folk music, just like the standard mandolin.

The gouzouki on the other hand has more guitar-like features.

In particular, the gouzouki resonates differently than the octave mandolin because it has a guitar-like sound hole as opposed to the f holes on an octave mandolin.

This tends to make it louder with more sustain than the octave mandolin.

And it’s used more in traditional Irish folk music.

Why You Might Want To Add a Bouzouki Guitar to your Collection?

The main subject to consider here is the type of sound you want to get.

  • A different instrument in its own right: A bouzouki guitar is an entirely different instrument from the guitar, the bouzouki, and even the mandolin and octave mandolin. As a result, you have the opportunity to use it in many unique ways.
  • Playing mandolin fingerings in the lower register: Since a gouzouki and a mandolin are tuned just 1 octave apart, you can still use the same fingerings. However, playing the melodies and chords in the lower end will have a different feeling.
  • Performing Irish and Greek folk music: As a traditional instrument, you will be able to adjust and play songs originally intended for the bouzouki but in a lower register. There are interesting combinations of regional sounds you can explore through a bouzar’s sound and tuning.

Downsides

A bouzouki guitar may not be a very good option considering the following:

  • Less common with fewer purchase options: The bouzouki guitar really is a unique instrument. Therefore, they are hard to find and with few models available. However, you can get one here for the price of a medium-quality guitar. There are also plenty of luthiers who can make you this instrument.
  • Limited tonal range compared to guitar: Since the instrument is limited to four courses, the tonal range it covers is limited when you compare it to a standard guitar. This may or may not be a limitation depending on what sound you are looking for. However, it’s worth noting if you come from a guitar background.
  • Limited crossover of skills for the guitarist: Because the gouzouki has a totally different tuning and string count from a standard guitar, a guitarist won’t be able play all the same tunes he usually can on say, a guitar hybrid. In short, learning the gouzouki is like learning an entirely new instrument.

Gouzouki: Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is the bouzouki guitar tuned like a mandolin?

As I noted in the introduction, the bouzouki guitar is sometimes tuned in perfect fifths just like a mandolin, but one octave lower (just like an octave mandolin). However, players can and often do experiment with different tunings as well, expanding the tonal range of the instrument. Another common tuning, and arguably, the standard tuning of the instrument, is GDAD, just like the Irish Bouzouki.

  • Can you play a bouzouki guitar like a normal guitar?

Since the number of strings and tuning is completely different from the guitar, your left hand will have to adapt. However, you can still use the same strumming and picking techniques you already know from your guitar playing.

Conclusion

The bouzouki guitar is a completely different instrument in terms of sound.

By using the perfect fifths tuning and double-course strings players can experience an octave mandolin sound with greater resonance and sustain.

The instrument is an excellent addition if you want to explore the music from other cultures or try the new melodic possibilities of another instrument.

Interestingly enough, the tuning gives players the opportunity to try chord voicings that are impractical on the guitar. This can lead to a new and refreshing approach to sound for either covers or new songs.

In short, guitar players have the opportunity to open themselves to new acoustic-music possibilities with a bouzouki guitar.

Are you thinking about purchasing one?

Let me know in the comments!

4 Responses

  1. Hello Harrison, thank you very much for the interesting article about Guitar bouzouki. I’m really not sure, or in fact I would like to know: I supposed, Guitar bouzouki is just “only” irish bouzouki with guitar body. It means, the standard tuning is G-D-A-D and the neck is quite long in comparison with other fifth tuned instruments like tenor guitar – string length aprox 570mm and also octave mandola/mandolin (aprox 580 mm) with tuning G-D-A-E. I have one guitar bouzouki – the reason was easy, I used to play tenor banjo, but still looking for something near to guitar sound with fifths, in a way through tenor mandola and octave mandola and finally tenor guitar with irish tuning (GDAE) I found the guitar bouzouki and its wonderful sound. I love it. However, the standard tuning from producer was G-D-A-D… and the string length is aprox 650 mm – quite hard for fingers in traditional fifths tuning…. So is the tuning of the guitar bouzouki really “in standard” G-D-A-E, or simillar to irish bouzouki, i.e. G-D-A-D, only with different (and better sound) body? I’m just interested about the history – in fact, you can tune your instrument how you want and don’t take a care about any “standards”…
    Thanks a lot (and sorry for my english, not native speaker)

    1. Hi Doky!

      From what I’ve read, GDAE is the standard tuning of the guitar bouzouki. But if you have a source that says otherwise, I’d love to check it out! I wish I had a great source of guitar bouzouki history, but this post aggregates what I know about the instrument!

  2. Hi Harrison, thank you very much for your reaction. My question was nothing against your article about Guitar bouzouki. In my point of view, the most complex article about this quite rare instrument. That was why I asked – I though guitar bouzouki is just “only” classic irish bouzouki (instrument existing since 80′, developed from greek quadrochordion) with guitar body, as well as octave mandola/mandolin with guitar body – quite rare, but very interesting for me due to the sound. In this point I though, guitar bouzouki should be tuned like irish one: G-D-A-D. I tuned my one G-D-A-E and more, G and D first string octave higher (like 12 string guitar) and the sound is wonderful. I have the Thomann bouzouki (not easy to find this instrument in Central Europe if you are not able to built your own), the same you mentioned in the article and the producer tune it g-G-D-D-A-A-D-D. So that is why I asked. Many producers offer the same “drop” body only with different neck length and different tuning like Octave mandola and/or Irish bouzouki and say, the “only” difference is in tuning. That is why I asked. However, I have to say the same you said in the article: the sound is extremly different – not via tuning, but via body (I had mandola and guitar bouzouki with the same tuning, but the sound is very very different).
    Thank a lot!

    1. Hi Doky,

      I looked more into the tuning, and it does seem that many think the standard tuning is GDAD. I updated the article to reflect that! Thanks for pointing that out.

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