What’s That Thang Yer Playin’?!?

Photo by Ken Cannizzo

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the somewhat unique instrument I’ve been playing in my live streams. Well, it’s my approximation of an Irish bouzouki / octave mandolin. I affectionately refer to it as a “bouzar” or a “gadzouki” (or if I’m feeling particularly fancy or international, a “fauxzouki“).

I started playing bouzouki back in 1999 on an inexpensive Trinity College model. I found it lacking in several key areas:

Trinity College Irish Bouzouki
  • It wouldn’t stay in tune for love nor money
  • It took loop end strings (which were/are harder to find than regular ball end strings)
  • It had a floating bridge (which was incompatible with my aggresive rhythmic playing style)
  • It didn’t have a built-in pickup
  • It was poorly balanced due to the unusually long neck small body
  • It was hard to play sitting down / without a strap (due to the aforementioned balance issue and the tear drop body shape)

So I began a quest for a new instrument that would address these issues. There are many great luthiers out there who will be happy to build you a lovely custom instrument, but I had neither the patience (6+ month waiting period) nor money ($2,500+) to explore that option at the time. I’d seen photos of Andy Irvine and Dick Gaughan playing guitar shaped instruments that were strung like a bouzouki, so I figured my best option would be to buy a standard guitar and modify it.

Ibanez Talman TCM50

I tried a few of different 12-string and 6-string guitars before I hit on my current solution: an Ibanez Talman TCM50. This instrument addressed all of my aforementioned issues, and it didn’t sound great as a purely acoustic guitar, the slimer, smaller body shape made it sound more “bouzouki-like”, and it is very comfortable to play.

  • It’s relatively inexpensive ~$300
  • It’s widely available online
  • It’s very light and easy to play
  • It fits in a standard guitar case
  • It takes regular ball end strings
  • It has a built in pickup and EQ (and new models even have a tuner)

The only hitch is finding a local luthier who will do the required modifications to the headstock, nut, and saddle. I had mine done by Neil Sargent in Houston, TX – and he went above and beyond by applying a nice wood veneer on the headstock that matched the body (and covered the holes from the original tuners).

As for the geeky technical stuff, I tune the bottom two courses in octaves, the top two courses in unison (gG-dD-aa-dd). When possible, I prefer wound bronze strings over plain nickel (although 18 wound strings are hard to find). And I use the following string guages (adapted from standard guitar string guages, so as not to put additional stress on the neck):

g – .018 wound
G – .042 wound
d – .012 plain
D – .028 wound
a – .018 wound
a – .018 wound
d – .012 plain
d – .012 plain

In addition to my acoustic instrument, I’ve tried a couple different variations of an “eZouk” before hitting on another winner: the Ibanez Artcore AM53 semi-hollow body electric. Lots of fun to play (and nice to have as a backup in case of a broken string).

Photo by Jay Ford

If you have any additional questions, please drop me a line!

Author: Wolf Loescher

Wolf Loescher is a singer / storyteller based in Longmont, Colorado. He sings songs and tells stories from the Old World and the New, accompanying himself on his custom 8-string Irish bouzouki, tenor guitar, and foot percussion.