Luthierie

I have dreamed of making instruments ever since I was a child. I think many people – especially musicians – would find this an attractive idea, at least in theory. When I went to Athens at the age of 18 and continued my studies with Ross Daly, he gave me a lot of encouragement and helped me to follow this path.

For a long time, I visited Pavlos Erevnidis’s shop in the Exarcheia district of Athens every day. I consider him and Dimitris Rapakousios my teachers in the instrument-maker’s art. Pavlos taught me much about the use of instrument-making tools, and helped me to trust my hand and not hesitate to take risks. But I always made sure to tell my mother that I was attending lessons at the Law Department, in nearby Solonos Street, at the time…

Musical instruments must combine many virtues. They must have a strong, pleasant sound, be durable and pleasing to the eye. The main thing, however, is that they should please and inspire the player. The instrument-maker has a special relationship with the musician who orders an instrument; he should listen to and understand the particular wishes of each customer, and find a way to make them come true.

I prefer to make instruments whose sound I am familiar with because I play them myself. This means that I can judge them both as a listener and as a player. So I make lyras, laouta, boulgari and traditional and modern saz. I have also made a few mandolins…


Lyras

The lyras are made using mulberry or maple wood for the body and cedar of Lebanon for the soundboard. Although other types of wood can be used for the body, cedarwood seems to be irreplaceable for the soundboard. The problem is that the felling and sale of cedarwood is now prohibited, making it very difficult to get hold of. Fortunately it is found in abundance in the roofs of old houses on Crete and other islands, as it was imported in large quantities during the Ottoman period. Thus any cedar used for soundboards today is at least 120 years old.


Lyras with sympathetic strings

With Ross’s help and recommendations, he and I have been able to make lyras with sympathetic strings to a very high level. Thus today we have a small type with 12 sympathetic strings (the type on which Ross recorded the CDs “Pnoi”, “Elefthero Simio”, etc.), a medium type with 17 sympathetic strings (“An-Ki”, “Synavgeia”, “Pera apo ton Orizonta”), and a large type which Ross, Kelly Thoma, Myron Greventzakis, Manolis Boudalakis, Giannis Paximadakis and others currently use. A large lyra of this type with sympathetic strings is on display at the National Museum of Ethnography in Warsaw, Poland. Zacharias Spyridakis, Dimitris Apostolakis, G. Kondogiannis and I, as well as some others, continue to use the medium type. I have also made three four-stringed lyras with sympathetic strings for Giorgos Kaloudis, Kay Lipman and Christina Hobitaki.


Lyrakia

Apart from lyras with sympathetic strings, I also make lyrakia, small lyras. I base these on the lyras on display in the Museum of Folk Instruments in Plaka, which feature a crab-shaped body that makes them sound very sharp. The soundboard on these lyras is usually “sunk into” the body; it is not glued on top, but a rebate approximately 3 mm deep is cut into the sides of the body and the soundboard is set on this, flush with the sides. This offers many advantages as regards both the sound and the whole structure of the instrument. It is also the simplest possible construction, as the sunken soundboard means there is no need for decorative binding round the outside and a fingerboard; these functions are covered by the raised side of the body itself. The sound of these lyras, depending on the strings, can be quite close to that of the Politki lyra, or, with the metal strings of the Cretan lyre, they can play faster, brighter notes – a true lyraki.


Stagakis-type lyras

Over the past couple of years, I have made some Stagakis-type lyras too. Manolis Stagakis was the greatest lyra-maker of the last century, the man who gave the lyre the form in which it is now played at Cretan fiestas and in company. Achieving the quality of Stagakis’s lyras was and still is a great gamble, since the bar is set very high and few manage to pass it.

My model is the sound of his lyras as he made them until 1990: deep in construction, they have a wide acoustic range (bass and simultaneously bright on the high notes). I believe that these lyras played a major part in forming modern Cretan music, thanks to the talented musicians who used them.

I once played a whole evening, with a group of friends at a raki still, on the lyra of teacher Kostas Moundakis, thanks to his son Manos who wanted to bring it along and have it played. That sound and that evening will forever remain in my ears. Thanks, Manos, for doing me such an honour…

I would also like to thank Ourania Xylouri for entrusting me with conserving Psaronikos’s lyra, a few days before donating it to the Museum of Folk Instruments in Plaka.

In making Stagakis-type lyras, I follow the same aesthetic models, avoiding the use of plastic and synthetic materials wherever possible. I try to make them similarly bass and loud, avoiding reverberation and wolf tones. That’s where the gamble lies…

Obviously I don’t let players’ demands to “make it sound good on the machines” and so on affect the ideal sound I describe, and which I search for with every instrument I make… I don’t think this makes sense, although modern musicians who play at fiestas do need to consider it. My dream is not to make instruments that will play well hooked up to cheap speakers with an amp, but to make instruments with a beautiful sound that will last for years and provide inspiration and joy to artists who will also play them in company, with their strong, sweet natural voice. Now, whether they “sound good on the machines” (what a peculiar phrase…) depends and must depend on the “machines”, not on the instrument, especially if it is well made…


Politiki lyra

I have also made a few Politikes lyres (kemençe) modelled on those of instrument-maker Reşat Uca. Using old mulberry or flamed maple for the body and old cypress for the soundboard, these lyras can be played with either gut or cello strings – it’s up to the player.


Cretan laouto

The Cretan laouto is the hardest instrument to make. There are many reasons for this, the main one being its role in the Cretan orchestra. Over the past 50 years, accompanying the lyra at fiestas has imposed a triple role on the laouto: providing rhythmic support to the whole orchestra by striking the pick on the pick guard, sketching the tune along with the lyra, and lastly “harmonising” the tunes using the open strings or “bells”. Providing the beat to the whole orchestra means that the laouto-maker must support the soundboard sturdily enough for it to survive the ill-usage occasioned by the constant striking of the pick, ensure the instrument does not go out of tune, etc. On the other hand, the maker must also make the laouto musical, with acoustic virtues, so the “golden rule” must be sought again. Generally, however, the laouto is a tough instrument that requires muscular strength and nerve to play correctly and produce a rich sound.

But there is also a third factor: again, the notorious need to “make it sound good on the machines”. This phrase essentially means that the laouto can be played through the loudest possible amplifier at the driest harmonious frequencies on a cheap but powerful sound system at 120% of its capacity. This has undoubtedly influenced the design of the instrument from 1970 onwards, aiming to reduce reverberation and harmonious frequencies. In my view this degrades its acoustic virtues, brutally electrifying a traditionally acoustic instrument.

Today, on the so-called “laouta” flooding the market, the laouto bridge has been replaced by hybrid, acoustic-guitar-type bridges; the depth and width of the body and neck have been reduced, preserving only the length; and the instrument is finished with unsuitable types of varnish. So I can risk saying that modern laouta are in many ways much further “behind” compared to a 1970s-1980s laouto from the workshops of the classic craftsmen Fraggedakis, Agrimakis or Moundakis, even if they are called “modern”… I personally consider them a debasement of the meaning and beauty of the laouto, and obviously I do not make such instruments.

In the laouta I make, I try to gather together all the elements that I consider to be the virtues of luthiers both old and modern. To mention just a few, I admire the clean, ornate construction of the instruments from the workshops of Mourtzinos, Kopeliadis, T. Moundakis, G. Alexandris and D. Rapakousios, the sound of the old laouta by Agrimakis, Fraggedakis and Stefanakis (you know the one I mean…), the shape of those by Fraggedakis and Kopeliadis, the body relief that Antonis Stefanakis first incorporated in Cretan instrument-making, the classic “moustache” bridge and the old, traditional frets with inlaid dots above and below…

In collaboration with the excellent luthier Giannis Mazarakis, we have created a mould for a classic Cretan laouto to our liking, based on Fraggedakis’s models.

My laouta are made using mainly rosewood or mulberry for the body and spruce for the soundboard. Alternatively I use maple, which I sometimes “marry” with a dark wood to produce the traditional two-tone striped body (Psarogiorgis currently plays one of these). For the neck I use mulberry with hardwood veneer in the centre, and on certain expensive models I reinforce it with three internal strands of carbon fibre. I also use carbon fibres as longitudinal braces inside the body and heel to reinforce the durability and torsional rigidity of the instrument. To support the soundboard I use Kopeliadis’s standard seven braces, while for the pick guard and rosette I follow the patterns of Giannis Alexandris, which are the best I have found so far. My bridge is a “short” moustache bridge, obviously the classic type with loops, and I ensure that the strings are not raised too high, to make playing easier.

As was only to be expected, my customers are admirers of those classical features a laouto should have. They include Psarogiorgis, Antonis Stavrakakis, Giorgis Manolakis, Efren Lopez and, of course, myself.

The string length is 74 cm, tuned E A D G. For the mainland Greek version the string length is 68 – 70 cm, tuned A D G C.


Boulgari

The boulgari was played in Crete before the laouto. It is known to us from recordings of the last master-player, Stelios Foustalierakis. In recent years Ross Daly, Periklis Papapetropoulos, Giorgis Manolakis, Lambis Xylouris, Giannis Paximadakis, Karolos Kouklakis, Irini Derebei, Leonidas Lainakis and others have brought this instrument to the fore once more.

The boulgari is made of a hollowed piece of old mulberry wood from the roof-beams of old houses. The soundboard is spruce or cedar depending on preference, i.e. whether the player wants a ringing, “Foustalieris-like” timbre or a smoother, quieter, more “saz-like” sound…


Saz – baglama

I have also made some saz, following the Turkish methods. The drawback of the old Greek instrument-makers is that, when trying to make a saz, they did whatever they thought best (considering themselves better and cleverer than the Turks…), falling into grave errors. This is why Greek saz-makers are now justifiably regarded with suspicion, an impression I am hoping to overturn.

I like to use mulberry for the body and spruce for the soundboard. As my late, beloved teacher Talip Özkan used to say, a spruce soundboard is slow to play, but worth waiting for… If the body is staved, I prefer rosewood. I hollow out my own backs for small instruments, while for large ones (baglama, divan) I buy the bodies from Turkey.


Kopuz

I have made several kopuz like that used by my favourite musician and teacher Erkan Oğur. I hollow out my own kopuz backs from old mulberry wood, as with the boulgari. Kopuz of my making are owned by Efren Lopez, Christos Tsiamoulis, Evgenios Voulgaris and others – I have one too…

At the first seminar given by Erkan Oğur at Houdetsi in the summer of 2012, he gave me the ratios he had worked out for the kopuz – he is a physicist, and above all a Musician “with capital letters”. The kopuz I produce in future will adhere to these ratios strictly, giving them a stronger, sweeter tone and a richer sound at harmonic frequencies.


Decoration

In exceptional cases and at the musician’s request, I can decorate the instruments I make with natural materials such as mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell. Owing to the difficulty of sourcing these materials and the many hours’ work required, the decoration is expensive, in some cases even doubling the cost of the instrument because it takes twice as long to make.