BEHOLD, THE BULGARIAN BASS TAMBURA. THIS CURIOUS BEAST FROM THE Balkans has a long, fascinating history stretching all the way back to the 6th-century Central Asian steppes. Well, sort of. As it turns out, nearly all of the geetar-type things we now sling on stages share a common ancestor known to organologists—those who study musical instruments—as the long-necked lute. Unlike the short-necked Arabic ’ud (which spawned the Spanish lute, and later, the guitar), long-necked lutes ruled supreme among the Turkic tribes of Central Asia. When the marauding hoards dropped down into the Balkans in the 6th and 7th centuries, they brought with them this type of axe. It’s a legacy that can be seen today in instruments like the Turkish saz, the Greek bouzouki, and the Bulgarian tambura. It seems that foreign invaders aren’t always all bad . . . .
Unlike the acoustic bass guitar you see here, the typical Bulgarian tambura is like a cross between a mandolin and an acoustic guitar, with a pear-shaped body, a long neck, and between two and four double courses of strings, with each course tuned in unison. For much of its history, the tambura was more or less a solo instrument, used to accompany singers or to play up-tempo dance tunes, often in asymmetric meters like 5/8 (counted 2+3), 7/8 (2+2+3), 9/8 (2+2+2+3), and 11/8 (2+2+3+2+2). Melodically, the repertoire drew heavily on the Ottoman (Turkish) tradition, most notably borrowing its hijaz scale: C Db E F G Ab Bb.
Bulgarian musical traditions changed dramatically in the 1950s, when the newly ascendant Communist Party began assembling folk orchestras of tambura, kaval (end-blown flute), gajda (bagpipe), and tupan (double-headed drum) in an attempt to create a sort of idealized folk image. Modeling themselves on classical European orchestras, these folk orchestras created a demand for an indigenous bass instrument. Enter, the bass tambura.
I picked up this particular bass tambura while making a pilgrimage to one of the countries premier tambura builders, Stefan Stefanov, who works out of his home in the village of Gabrovo. His shop was mostly stocked with standard-issue 8-string tamburas, but this bass brute caught my eye from across the room
The body, hewn from apricot or hard wood from another fruit tree, is heavily lacquered, and the body’s bowled back boasts a lovely striped pattern. Despite it’s shallow body and thick top—at r", about twice as thick as the typical acoustic bass guitar—this bass tambura puts out a lot of sound. It has a scale length just shy of 30", and a fat, bat-like neck profile. Like it’s Russian cousin, the bass balalaika, this instrument is a beast to heave; it doesn’t perch well on your lap, and it hangs at a strange angle from a strap. Its zero fret and metallic bridge saddle seem to add a bit of zing to the bass’s plucked tone. Currently set up with a set of standard roundwounds, I’ve also used flatwounds on this bass to good effect, mellowing the tone to better approximate an upright bass.
Without those hoards of long ago, and without Bulgaria’s extremely proactive Communist Party, this particular instrument would never have come to be. This bass tambura is a remarkable reminder of years past, and it’s one of the pieces I’m most proud of.