Citterns and Irish Bouzoukis

I am often asked “what are the instruments you are playing”. The short answer is an Irish Bouzouki, on the left, and on the right, an Irish Cittern. They are two mandolin like  instruments that you are unlikely to find on the rack in your average music store. Generally speaking these are custom built instruments hand made on an individual basis. There may be production models out there (I think Fender may have one) but that would be unusual. The instruments are generally used in Celtic or similar music. There is a slow creep of the instrument into other musical styles. For instance Steve Earle played an Irish Bouzouki at recent Key City Concert in Cranbrook. Both instruments are recent inventions, or re-inventions, that only go back to around the 1960s. Both have interesting histories.

The Cittern described as “a mandolin on steroids” is a perfect example of what goes round comes around or “there is nothing new under the sun”. In the 1960s the English folk performer and Luthier Stephan Sobell acquired a Portuguese Guittara that he started using to accompany traditional British songs. This instrument, with its convoluted history, is a 12-string instrument very much like the Cittern pictured above but with a very odd “porcupine nest” of tuning mechanisms at the top of the neck. Originally it was derived from the Elizabethan Lute during some English political incursions into Portugal way back before men wore trousers. To this day the playing style, using finger and thumb picks are more akin to archaic Lute styles than modern guitar styles. It is a finger picking technique that found its way to the Portuguese African colonies and into modern Afro/pop guitar music. The Portuguese Guitarra is very much alive today and is the predominant instrument for the accompaniment of traditional Portuguese Fado Singers. It goes without saying that it adds a distinctive voice to this Portuguese music (check the Youtube videos of the singer Mariza or better yet get your hands on the DVD “Mariza: Live in London”).  But I digress from Stephan Sobell’s adventures back in the 60s. Although enamoured with the instrument he found it was not quite suitable for British Folk music. To solve the problem he started building similar instruments of his own design. He ended up with a 5-course (10 strings) instrument with a tuning system more suitable for Celtic music. In the end, because it basically was a re-invention of an earlier English instrument called a Cittern that’s the name that stuck. To this day Stephan is the premier builder of Citterns and if you have to ask the price of one of his instruments it is a pretty sure bet you can’t afford one. He only builds two instruments a month. Check his website \stephan Sobell to view some truly beautiful instruments. Another exceptional builder is the English Luthier Roger Bucknall at Fylde Guitars.  I play two Citterns. The first was built in 2001  by Jamie Wiens here in Cranbrook. It is a beautiful, if slightly flawed, instrument that was a one off experiment for both Jamie and myself. It is a very long scaled instrument (26 inch neck) with Koa back and sides and a carved Spruce top. It is equipped with a Highlander dual pickup system that, unfortunately, has the battery installed inside the instrument. It has a huge sound and unbelievable sustain. It is the only Cittern that Jamie has built and when originally completed neither of us really knew how to tune or play it. There are a myriad of tuning options and after some research and experimentation we chose FCFCF  (alternating fifth and fourth intervals). I tend to capo it at the second fret to allow me to use Irish Bouzouki fingerings. Alas, the instrument has developed a crack in the top and is currently in Kevin Turner’s Crow’s Nest Pass work shop (Chinook Guitars)  being repaired.

Lawrence Nyberg is an especially fine Canadian Luthier working on Hornby Island (Lawrence Nyberg ) . He builds, guitars, Mandolins, Mandolas, Irish Bouzoukis and Citterns. He has a number of models including a 24 inch scale length model with a carved Spruce top, Rosewood back and sides and is equipped with a Headway pickup. The battery pack is conveniently recessed in the side of the instrument. The instrument is not as deep through the body as the Wiens instrument and, while not as loud, it has a “punchier”, darker sound. Surprisingly, the instrument sounds much better when plugged-in and amplified. Tuned DADAD this is closer to the traditional Irish Bouzouki tuning of GDAD and the Mandolin tuning of GDAE so that switching between the three instruments only requires minor mental adjustments.

The Traditional Irish Bouzouki that’s playing loose with the language. It is neither an Irish instrument nor Irish traditional. Originally it is a Greek instrument. Irish musicians visiting the Balkans in the 1960s adopted the Greek Bouzouki. It is a bowl backed instrument that Irish Luthiers were unable or unwilling to duplicate. They ended up building a flat back instrument with a tuning system more suitable to Celtic music. It is looks very similar to a Cittern with only 4 courses (8 strings). At its most characteristic configuration the bottom strings are tuned in octaves (somewhat like a 12-string guitar) and is tuned GDAD. Although it has distinctive melodic possibilities its strength is in its use as a rhythm instrument.  The chords tend to be simple modal chords that often are neither major or minor – the third note of the triad is often missing. Having such a long neck it is possible to play the same chords through three octaves without getting involved in gymnastic and difficult fingerings. In the bench mark bands of the 1970s (The Bothy Band, Altan, DeDannan) and in the hands of such performers as Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine the instrument quickly became well established.  In this day and age there are not too many traditional Irish bands that do not include a Bouzouki. On the Key City Stage in Cranbrook the Irish Bouzouki has had a prominent presence in the bands of Danu, Dervish and Great Big Sea. The Studio / Stage Door has also seen its share of Bouzouki performers including the legendary Andy Irvine (one of the first performers on the instrument) and, in a different concert, Ron Kavanagh with his absolutely powerhouse trio of fiddle, bouzouki and button accordion. That particular concert at the Studio / Stage Door is one I will never forget.

Last but not least – The distant, smaller, and possibly older cousin of Citterns and Bouzoukis is the Celtic Mandolin. It is somewhat different from the florid Bluegrass Mandolin. It is tuned the same way (GDAE) but tends to have a rounder, mellower sound. Bluegrass players like the hard “bark” of an instrument that enables them to lay down the distinctive chop on the “two and four beat” of BlueGrass music. The Lloyd Loar Florentine BlueGrass design is thoroughly entrenched in North America and the round-hole models favored by Jazz, Classical, Brazilian and Celtic players are relatively hard to find.




Steel Magnolias

In days of old the Islamic world had Harems. In modern western society we have Beauty Salons. Both, I suspect, serve very similar functions. They are both exclusively the domains of women. Men are excluded and under normal circumstances would not want admission. Steel Magnolias is a glimpse into this world of sisterhood. The play is set in a home based beauty parlor in Chinquapin, Louisiana and is an exploration of the lives and transformations of the six protagonists over a three year period. Annelle (Hannah Van Der Roest) is the young miss fresh out of school trying to come to terms with an unsatisfactory relationship and is desperately seeking employment and independence. Hairdressing in Truvy’s salon is the first step in her transformation from naivety through worldliness to born-again Christianity.


Shelby (Kirsten Kasner) could be a stereotypical prom queen. In this instance she is an attractive young woman with an obsession for the colour pink and suffering from a very serious diabetic condition. She gets married, and against medical advice has a child and ends up with terminal renal disease. Throughout the process she goes through her own emotional and physical transformations that include a hair make over and dealing with the outcomes of her decisions.  M’Lynn (Michelle McCue) is her long suffering mother who tries to deal with the decisions of her willful daughter and is left to cope with the consequences. Among the constellation of characters there is Clairee (Elizabeth Ross). A very attractive wealthy matron who starts out as an avid football fan and ends up as a radio station owner. Ouiser (Joanne Wilkinson) is the eccentric in the pack. She behaves the way she does because people expect her to wear outlandish hats, clothes and act as a crazy old lady. That’s what people expect so that’s what they get. Despite that, this crazy old lady does undergo some moderation of her eccentricities within the the turmoil of the Salon. Truvy (Susan Hanson) seems to be the least affected by change. She reacts to the constellation of characters that inhabit her salon but she under goes no significant changes or transformations. In fact she doesn’t even get her hair done. She seems to be the rock solid centre of what is after all her salon. She’s a hairdresser and therefore it’s her business to bring about change. “There is no such thing as natural beauty”, or so she thinks. So in addition  to the meaningful personal transformations of the protagonists there is the manic outcomes of the hair styling process and the behavior of the patrons and their families (including the gun toting husband of M’lynn and Ouiser’s hairless dog – all of whom are off stage).

Here are some images from the life and times of Steel Magnolias:


The play STEEL MAGNOLIAS, written by Robert Harling and directed by Bob McCue is playing at the the Studio / Stage Door in Cranbrook. The shows are Friday and Saturday of November 16th and 17th of November, Wednesday to Saturday November 21-24th, 2012 and Wednesday to Saturday November 28, 29, 30 and December 1, 2012. All shows are at 8pm and Tickets are available from Lotus Books.


Heather G’s Jam #2

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: Heather G’s Jam, co-hosted by Dave Prinn and Heather Gemmell at Ric’s Lounge in the Prestige Hotel in Cranbrook, November 9, 2012, 7-11pm.

Location isn’t everything but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Ever since Finnegans Wake closed down local musicians have been bereft of a place to informally perform. Bj’s Creekside Pub is still very much on the scene but that is in Kimberley. The management of Ric’s lounge has stepped up to the plate with a live music policy that, if the two first Heather G jam session are any indication, seem destined for success. If so it will be well deserved. The location is perfectly obvious, accessible, well appointed, lots of parking, pleasant staff and good food. Add in some opportune timing (once a month, 7-9 pm) and a huge reservoir of local talent then it looks like we are in for some good times. On this particular night Dave Prinn and Heather Gemmell kicked off the evening with a great duo of their speciality – rocky / blues with lots of musical interplay. That was just the beginning of an evening filled with music by Sheva (Shelagh and Van Redecopp), Sharon Routley, Rick Marasco and Rod Wilson, James Neve, Mark Casey and Jon Bissett. But undoubtedly the stars of the evening were the ladies of the all female Blue Grass band PIXS AND STIXS (Cosima Wells, Paige Lennox, Janice Nicili, Shelagh Gunn and Heather Gemmell). This was only the second live performance by the band and although handicapped by some technical sound problems and the absence of their mandolin player (Shauna Plant) they proceeded to delight a packed house. At one stage people were lining up at the door. Here are some images from the evening:

                                    So, thanks to Heather Gemmell and Brian Noer for a great idea. Thanks to the management and staff of Ric’s for the venue. Thanks to the musicians and patrons for a wonderful evening and last, but not least thanks to Dave Prinn for his superb organizational skills and the masses of sound equipment he managed for the evening.

Heather G’s Jam #3 will be held On Friday January 4th, 2013 7-11 pm.



BJ’s Open Mic

OPEN MIC SESSION HOSTED BY DAVE PRINN at BJ’s Creekside Pub in Kimberley, Saturday November 3, 2012, 7:30 pm

“Jam Session”, “Open Mic” – is there a difference? To most people probably not but there is a slight difference in intent. “Jam sessions” are a hang over from the Jazz Age when musicians would get together and mostly improvise instrumental performances based on standard jazz tunes and tunes from “The Great American Song Book”. There was (is) an expectation that the performers have a thorough working knowledge of the melody and the chords. That still happens of course but as jazz has slipped into the background a modern day Jam session usually uses classic rock and popular music as vehicles for performances. In both Jazz and Rock Jam sessions performances are mostly unrehearsed and often musicians may have never before played together. There is always a high element of risk of things coming off the rails and ending in shambles. On the other hand if things work at their best there is the possibility of audiences being treated to one time incredible performances.   “Open Mic” sessions probably owe more to the traditions of the folk music era. It is usually implied that the performers have worked and rehearsed together and have come up with credible polished versions for the performance. Occasionally, sometimes quite often in fact, other musicians may join the performance and the result is a “jam session”. Of course, there is some etiquette involved and “crashing” a performance without permission may cause some unpleasantness. The Open Mic sessions at BJ’s Creekside Pub are held once a month and, depending on the host, will usually contain elements of both types of sessions. Such was the case on Saturday night. Dave Prinn is a solid solo act who is very generous with sharing the stage during an evening. He opened the night with a solo performance and was followed by Bill St.Amand playing his jazzy standards. During the evening Dave jammed with Paige Lennox and Fred on such Blue Grass standards as “Blackberry Blossom”. It is not often in this area that two banjo players grace the same stage at the same time. Yours truly (Rod Wilson) did the Celtic thing with some songs and instrumental pieces such as “Dimming of the Day”, “Ben’s Lament”, “Bonnie Ciara / The Blarney Pilgrim” on the Irish Cittern. Who else played? there was Daze of Grace joined by Rod Wilson on Irish Whistle and percussion. On a rare night off from the Casino Tom Bungay did his thing and of course “D Squared” (Dave Phillipe and Dave Prinn – vocals and guitars) ripped up the stage with their very polished performances of classic rock songs. Solo performers Jon Bissett and a newcomer to the area “Lee” (didn’t catch his last name) provided some  mellow sounds before Dave rounded out the night with his extremely fine singing and finger picking on a few classic tunes that include Neil Young’s classic  “Old Man” . Keep an eye on calender – BJ’s Creekside Pub Open Mic sessions are usually on the first Saturday of the month.




National Steel Blues Emergency Tour


Doc Maclean and Morgan Davis: The National Steel Blues Emergency Tour at Centre 64, Monday October 29th, 2012, 8pm.

The days of the classic blues performers and race recordings of the 1930’s  are long, long gone. Even the days of folk/blues renaissance of the 1960s are fading into the mists of time. That was the last opportunity for a younger generation to touch bases with and be inspired by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and the Rev. Garry Davis. Blues promoters of that era managed to find a few long retired classic blues musicians and coax them back into the public limelight for largely white college kids. The blues lessons from these old performers was taken to heart and basically it ignited and rejuvenated a blues scene that spilled over into the British rock scene and changed the face of popular music. What came about was not exactly blues in the old country tradition of the rural south. It had moved up town, discovered electricity and was brash and loud. Never-the-less it created an atmosphere where blues of every shade and persuasion continued to survive. Doc Maclean and Morgan Davis are among a number of performers who didn’t move up town but rather stayed true to the country traditions. Of  course nothing ever stays exactly the same. Doc and Morgan both use electricity and amplification but in a manner that is a far cry from the “enormodome” theatrics of huge arena shows. They are probably two of a hand full of musicians who can actually reach back to the authentic musical experiences of the bye gone classic blues. The classic tradition was about blues but it also incorporated gospel, ragtime, novelty tunes and an abundance of stories.   Folk musicians in every tradition are essentially story tellers. Saturday night’s performance was a skillful weaving of songs, humor and stories into a spell binding traditional tapestry that links us to a long gone era. The tools of their trade were some pretty old guitars (an old old Stella and a National Steel), blues harp, washboard, a three stringed cigar box guitar with an incredible sound (tuned A E A) and a couple of old off the shelf electric guitars. Doc’s slide of choice was a 11/16 inch Mastercraft Socket Wrench, Morgan was more inclined to use a 5/8 inch. So there was lots of finger picking, slide, subtle percussion, blues harp and a plethora of songs from all across the rural south. Songs included, Robert Johnson’ “When You Got a Good Friend”, Sleepy John Eastes’ “Going Down to Brownsville”, the classic “Stagger Lee”, the novelty song “Cats” (“dogs have people, cats have staff”), Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee’s “Come on if you’re Coming”, the gospel song “I will meet you on the Other Shore”, Jelly Roll Blues” and “Reefer Smoking Man”. Interspersed with the songs was some marvelous stage patter. Even the sales promotion of their CDs received a round of applause. Here are some images from the evening:


The Kimberley Centre 64 engagement is about two thirds the way through a 60 show tour that started out in Quebec City on September 5, 2012. The tour  crisscrosses back and forth across the country to finish in Winnipeg on November 16, 2012. That is a grueling schedule of almost back to back shows and despite the pressure the musicians appeared to be relaxed and in full command of the stage. It was an excellent show and it had what I always appreciate in a performance, music that had room to breathe. There was lots of space in the music.There was no helter/skelter on this stage. If the opportunity presents itself go see these two master blues players.