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The Octave Mandolin and its Relative, the Octave Mando-Guitar

Posted by Don Rickert on

The Octave Mandolin and its Relative, the Octave Mando-Guitar

This article is associated with the announcement of a new 4-course (8-string) by D. Rickert Musical InstrumentsGoldtone Octave Mando-Guitar 3  and available at the Don Rickert Musician Shop.

Introduction

The octave mandolin is a fretted string instrument with four pairs of strings tuned in unison fifths, G, D, A, E (low to high), an octave below a mandolin. It has a 20 to 23-inch scale length and its construction has generally been, until recently, is similar to other instruments in the mandolin family, particularly those of the flat-top type rather than the carved arch-top (e.g. Gibson “A” or “F” types) type.

Octave mandolins did not exist in the early 20th Century, which was the heyday of amateur mandolin orchestras. The primary use of the octave mandolin has been in Celtic music, particularly Irish Traditional Music; however, Octave mandolins have occasionally found their place in modern mandolin orchestras as a replacement for the mandola or alto mandolin.

Octave mandolins have also found their way into progressive folk music throughout continental Europe, particularly in Scandinavian and Eastern European bands. The Octave mandolin is also enjoying ever-increasing popularity among Bluegrass and Old-Time mandolin players.

The Irish Bouzouki and Irish Octave Mandolin

By my reckoning, about 5 decades ago a “tipping” point occurred whereby independent luthiers in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland starting turning out flat-top mandolin family instruments, which evolved to a style the many call either the “Celtic” or “Irish” mandolin family. These instruments have a very distinct teardrop shape, which differentiates them from the oval Flatiron shape.  The emphasis has always been on the larger, lower-pitched instruments, particularly the octave mandolin (4 unison courses tuned an octave lower then a mandolin).

From Greek Bouzouki to Irish Bouzouki  Bouzv

The Octave Mandolin appears to be a spin-off of the development of the Irish bouzouki, a modification of the Greek bouzouki for Irish Traditional music whose evolution began in the late 1960s.

The original Greek bouzouki was a three course/six-string instrument (trichordo). In the 1950s, a four course/eight-string (tetrachordo) version was developed in Greece. The newer tetrachordo bouzouki was introduced into Irish traditional music in the late 1960s by Johnny Moynihan of the popular folk group Sweeney’s Men and popularized by Andy Irvine and Dónal Lunny in the group Planxty. In a separate but parallel development, Alec Finn, later with the Galway-based traditional group De Dannan, obtained a trichordo Greek bouzouki on his own.

The Distinctly Irish Bouzouki  Early Irish Bouzouki scaled

Almost immediately after the Greek bouzouki's initial introduction new designs built specifically for Irish traditional music were developed. The body was widened and a flat back with straight sides replaced the round, stave-built back of the Greek bouzouki. English builderPeter Abnett, who was the first instrument-maker to build a uniquely "Irish" bouzouki - for Dónal Lunny in 1970 - developed a hybrid design with a 3-piece dished back and straight sides.

Tuning

By far the most common tuning for the Irish bouzouki is G2 D3 A3 D4. This was pioneered by Johnny Moynihan (Sweeney’s Men). It was later picked up by Andy Irvine (Planxty) and Dónal Lunny (Planxty). instrument. The more or less standard scale length on the Irish bouzouki is about 25”. With a few exceptions, bouzouki players playing Irish music tend to use the instrument less for virtuoso melodic work and more for chordal and contrapuntal accompaniment for melodies played on other instruments such as the flute or fiddle.

The Irish Octave Mandolin: a Spin-Off of the Irish Bouzouki  Goldtone Octave Mando full

It is my opinion that the Irish Octave Mandolin is nothing more than an Irish Bouzouki with a shorter neck (around a 22” scale) and tuned G2 D3 A3 E4, which is exactly the same as a tenor guitar or tenor banjo in “Irish tuning.” This is an octave lower than a fiddle or mandolin.

While by no means a defining differentiator between Irish bouzoukis and Irish Octave mandolins, the former tend to be tuned at least the lower two courses are tuned in octaves (a low pitched string and a high pitched string), with at least the higher course strings tuned in unison, like a 12 string guitar. The octave mandolins are almost always tuned in straight unisons across all four strings.

Due to their more manageable scale length, the Octave Mandolins are more suitable for melody playing; however, I have never seen either the Irish bouzoukis or the Irish Octave Mandolins used for anything but chord accompaniment. My opinion is that the teardrop shaped bodies (NO upper bout!) of both instruments to be simply too small to generate suitable volume for melody playing, at least when played acoustically.

The Octave Mando-Guitar

For decades, many mandocellos have been made with guitar-type bodies. This trend has carried over to octave mandolins, especially in the U.S. When the octave mandolin has a guitar body, it tends to be called a Mando-Guitar.

Cell-tar rotated

A guitar body shape allows for a much larger sound box without increasing the length or overall width of the instrument. It is not just the body size. The “X” bracing, invented by Martin in the 1850s, of a modern steel string guitars makes for far greater sound output than the lateral bracing typically used for a teardrop body. Without getting too technical, the lack of an upper bout on a teardrop body does not allow for an optimal “X” brace. For this reason, Mando-Guitars have more power (loudness) and a noticeably more full-bodied timbre than a teardrop shaped body.

D. Rickert Musical Instruments has a new 4-course Octave Mando-Guitar, available at the Don Rickert Musician Shop.

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