Bouzoukis

The Irish bouzouki is an instrument with a rich baritone voice extending down to the guitar and up to the mandolin range. It is wonderfully suited for playing clearly articulated accompaniment, 2, 3, and 4 note chords, and sparkling countermelodies. In contrast to the guitar, almost nothing is standardized for the bouzouki: not body shape, scale length, tuning, bracing, soundhole shape or even the name of the instrument. That’s why I go to some length to explain my thoughts about the many options available. This page, in conjunction with my price list and photo galleries, will give you a good overview of my approach.

OVERALL METHODS

The right woods: first and foremost are well aged woods for the top, back, and sides. Tops will be a minimum of 5 years old, some as old as 50. Most of my back and side wood is 10-30 years old. All have been selected for exceptional tap tones, structural integrity, and beauty.

The right adhesives: There are 30-50 gluing operations on an instrument, each one demanding an optimal adhesive. Hide glue has proven itself over 4000 years and can be used for almost all of them. It doesn’t creep the way yellow glue does, it pulls joints together as it dries and allows for centuries of repairs. Hide glue is not gap filling and has to be made fresh, so it calls the woodworker to a higher level of joint fitting and patience. It dries to a crystalline hardness that is beneficial to the instrument’s sound. It is animal gelatin so it is non-toxic.

Stiffness: The best instruments would be made of rebar-reinforced concrete and sound like a 1000-voice choir. In the real world, weight, stiffness, practicality and instrument endurance have to do a complex dance. Before I add the 8 or 10 tuners to my bouzoukis, they’re very light. I like the feel of a light instrument, and this has all kinds of practical sound-enhancing benefits too. But 170 pounds of string pull, humidity changes, dropped instruments, baggage checking and gigs impinge on all of us, so the instrument is made as stiff and as strong as possible without overbuilding. They come with a lifetime warranty.

Wooden bindings add extra strength to the joint where the top and back meet the sides. They are more work than plastic binding but they stay glued on and they look great.

CUSTOMIZABLE OPTIONS

Body shape and depth: If you are moving from guitar to bouzouki you may miss some of the big, bass-y boom. A deeper bouzouki body aided by a highly responsive top and back helps tremendously with this. If sharp attack and staying out of the guitar player’s range is important to you, a shallower body is called for. The smaller air chamber and floating bridge of the mandolin-shaped bouzouki creates a distinctive sound; a guitar-shaped body with a glued on bridge is easier for some people to hold and gives a more “guitar-with-mandolin-strings” sound (more low end, longer sustain, much less cut).

Back and side wood: Lovely resonant woods are available from every forested continent. If you have a favorite wood, I’m happy to discuss it with you. I try to prioritize wood from California and the Western States and Provinces and, when beyond that, FSC certified tropical woods.

Flat tops with good doming: Flat tops braced into a dome shape are my choice for sustain and a sound that is lush, colorful, overtone-rich and dynamically responsive. My Red/Adirondack spruce top and brace stock was hand harvested and split in the early 1990s and is some of the lightest, stiffest, singy-est spruce there is. I use Red, European, Englemann and Sitka spruces for tops, as well as cedar and redwood, but I almost always use Red spruce brace wood. I also make carved top instruments for people who want a more focussed sound. Carved top instruments may be more appropriate for folks who play in GDAE (standard mandolin tuning).

Neck wood: Necks can be made from a single piece of wood or multiple pieces. The main difference to the player is appearance. Finding neck-size single pieces of wood with the appropriate grain is becoming rarer and therefore pricier.

Fretboard scale length: Scale length affects playing comfort and tone. Shorter distances between the frets make it easier for most folks to play nimble melodies. Comfort is also affected by string tension. A longer string will feel stiffer than a shorter string when they are tuned to the same note. Very generally speaking, a longer scale length will have a richer low end and stiffer feel and a shorter scale length will be brighter and slightly floppier.  My stock scale lengths are 25.34″ (644mm), 24.9″ (632mm), 23.9″ (607mm), 23.5″ (597mm), 22.6″ (573mm), 22.2″ (563mm), 21.3″ (541mm), and 20.9″ (532mm), but any length is available. How to choose your scale length.

Decoration: I build primarily for working musicians and therefore offer a basic model that is sonically and structurally as good as I can build, but lightly ornamented. A set of decorative woodworking flourishes can be added as an upgrade. I am also happy to customize any and every inch of your instrument. Please see the price list and galleries for details.

Truss rods: As a builder and repairman I know how handy a truss rod is. However, it means hollowing a relatively large channel out of the center of the neck (decreasing the wood strength) and then adding a heavy, tone absorbing, potentially rattling steel rod that can break inside the neck. It also limits the shaping of the neck profile. I have worked with instruments from the 1920s-1940s for my whole career and favor necks with no adjustable rod. To stiffen my necks I add internal graphite and ebony bars and take full advantage of the stiffening capacity of frets sized slightly larger than their slots. I also use a graphite back strap (see next paragraph). Some players will need an adjustable rod, especially those who travel extensively with their instrument, or live in areas with lots of humidity changes. Whatever your reason, I’m happy to install my custom-made, featherweight, one-way titanium truss rod with superfine adjustment threading.

Back of Neck Inlay: Another stiffening method is to glue a sheet of carbon fiber as far to the back of the neck as possible (that is, opposite the fingerboard). I do this and then cover the carbon fiber with a decorative veneer.

Tuners: There has been a blossoming in the world of fine handmade tuners. In my own shop and during my time as production manager at Somogyi Guitars I’ve tried almost all available types. On a bouzouki there are a lot of tuners way out at the end of a long neck, so using the lightest, smoothest and most visually appealing ones is extra important. Typical brands are Schaller, Gotoh, Schertler, and Waverly. Many other handmade brands are available, such as Alessi, Robson, and Rodgers.

Strings and Tuning: Bouzouki tunings and string gauges are not as codified as those for guitar, so we’ll work together to come up with the perfect string gauge and action set up for your tuning, scale length, and playing style. I play in GDAD, ADAD and GDAE tunings and understand what they need to work well.

YOUR INPUT IS WELCOME

Of course I’m happy to hear your wild idea for your dream instrument (“I’d like my name in pink LED lights at the 12th fret and a PEZ dispenser in the neck!”). My strengths are where my building experience and taste have led me, as described above. Browsing my photo galleries will give you a further idea of the designs I favor.

Contact Lewis Santer

Bouzoukis by Lewis Santer
Wooden BindingWood binding is beautiful and strong
Domed Top of BouzoukiA domed top for a lush sound
I’m happy to hear your wild idea for your dream instrument (“I’d like my name in pink LED lights at the 12th fret and a PEZ dispenser in the neck!”). My strengths will lie where my building experience and taste have led me. Browsing my photo galleries will give you an idea of the designs I favor.
Featherweight titanium truss rod
Back of Neck InlayDecorative inlay, with carbon fiber beneath
Bouzouki peghead with 8 stringsCustom gauges for scale length and tuning

 

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