Recently I had some discussions with friends about Octave Mandolins and Irish Bouzoukis. Here are some points that were kicked around.
Octave Mandolin or Irish Bouzouki?
They are very similar but in reality with either instrument you end up with a different sound. If you are a fiddle player or mandolin player you might lean in the direction of an Octave Mandolin. As the name implies the Octave Mandolin is tuned like a mandolin (G D A E low to high unison strings) but an octave lower. The neck length (scale length) is way shorter (maybe around 22″ depending on the builder) than the Irish Bouzouki and that gives the instrument the tight punchy sound of a mandolin. Now, possibly, with strings you have two options on the Octave Mandolin. Mandolins, Mandolas and Banjos tend to use loop end strings that are in my opinion (1) are fiddly and a pain in the ass when changing strings and (2) loop ends limit options in the choice of strings you may want to use. So if you can find an Octave Mandolin that uses ball end strings like a steel string guitar that would be a wiser choice. I would avoid loop end strings like poison. Ball end strings gives you a greater choice in the availability and variety of strings you may want to use. Of course there are other considerations with custom instruments that are dependent on how much you actually want to spend. Do you want a flat top or carved top? what tone woods are you looking for, etc?. You are more likely to find an off the shelf Octave Mandolin than an Irish Bouzouki. Octave Mandolins have some favor with bluegrass musicians so in North America you may have a better chance of finding one.
There are lots of options for Irish Bouzoukis as well. The scale length is usually around the 24-25″ but again that depends on the builder. The longer scale length tends to give a “looser” sound that an octave mandolin. A really long scale length adds a significant amount of sustain to the sound. There are more tuning options that can be used (eg. GDAE, GDAD, ADAD low to high). The bouzouki can be strung in unison like the mandolin or the bass strings can be tuned in octaves like a 12 string guitar. That is just personal choice. With the octave strings (my preference) you can get a nice droning effect that is particularly suited to Celtic tunes. The disadvantage with octave strings is a compensated bridge to take into account the different gauges of strings is pretty well a must to achieve good intonation. Particularly when using a capo. Of course ball end strings is the way to go. Also do you want flat top? carved top? and what tone woods would you want to select?
The Greek Bouzouki is in a completely different bag with wildly different construction methods, tuning, playing style etc. Still there are some Celtic musicians, Alec Fin comes to mind, who uses the Greek instrument.
Although I play an arch top Fylde from Britain you don’t have to go all that way to get a good bouzouki. Lawrence Nyberg on Hornby Island builds superb instruments that he ships all over the world. His instruments will cost significant dollars (around $4000 +) but it is the old story – you get what you pay for. http://www.nyberginstruments.com/ check out his excellent web site for images, options and sound bites. I can recommend Lawrence without any reservations. He is very professional in his approach and his products are top class. I had him build me a five string Cittern (tuned DGDAD) with a Headway bridge pickup installed (in retrospect I would stick with K&K contact pickups). After some initial discussions about the specifications I wanted I placed a deposit in August of the year. He contacted me in February the following year for some additional funds and I paid it out at the end of May and the instrument it was in my hands in early June. A couple of years later I had a problem with the bridge and after very brief discussions with Lawrence I had a luthier up in the Crows Nest pass build me a new bridge and invoice Lawrence for the cost of the replacement. There was no hassle or problems. The job was done and Lawrence absorbed the cost. If I had the funds I would get Lawrence to build me an Irish Bouzouki with octave bass strings. It was a pleasure to deal with some one who was so thoroughly professional and I would do it again in a heart beat.