c.1920s John Bencic Macedonian Tambura

Update 2016: I've owned this instrument since 2009 and over the last couple years I've ironed-out various issues with it and made it into a "real player." I was schooled when I originally posted about it as far as "what it is" and here's a primer on them. I've updated the post, photos, and description -- and will try to record a soundclip in the soon-time.

This instrument was made by John Bencic in Cleveland, Ohio and it probably dates to around 1920-1930. Since originally posting, I've worked on a number of Bencic builds and other tamburitza-family instruments, and have become much more familiar with the playing-style (very similar to Turkish saz and Greek 3-course bouzouki) and tunings.

This one originally had the uneven fret spacing (like a mountain dulcimer) that was the hallmark of the older, "Farkas" system of playing tamburitza-family instruments. I'd pulled the frets and refretted it a while back to "normal" spacing, but recently I planed the fretboard to remove warp and refretted it again to get it "perfect." I then cut a new nut, fit a parts-bin bridge, and strung it up in a traditional GG-DD tuning (the other main tuning being AA-DD) at the same pitch as a mandolin's lower two courses.

With all of the work done, this instrument gives a nice, sustained, jangly tone that sits well in a mix. When played higher-up the neck it gets a distinctly bowlback mandolin sound, too. The traditional style of playing is what suits it best -- droning and zipping around in the background of a tune and supporting both the backing-chords and the melody. Think of the rhythm bouzouki work on old Planxty albums and you'll get the idea.

The top is solid spruce and it's "domed" over the bracing (which I reglued at one point). The back is one piece and cut from some sort of hardwood. It's hard to tell with the dark finish.

Engraved, recessed tuners are par for the course with these instruments. This particular instrument happens to be quite high-grade in terms of appointments, so the tuner plate is fancy as well.

Note how I've slotted the nut for both 2x2 and 1x4. I've had this strung both ways but always return to the traditional 2x2 in the end.
I added side-dots as well. The board is ebony and the new frets are medium stock. This has a 24" scale and the strings are gauged 18/18 and 11/11 for GG-DD tuning.

Yes, the pearl inlay is intense and gorgeous!

Even now the colors are eye-catching, but when this was made all the trim must have been a bright, popping, feast for the eyes with highly-saturated greens, yellows, and oranges.

I removed a mandolin-style tailpiece some time ago and restring it with simple through-holes. This let the decorative touches bee seen and also simplified the whole mounting.

Nice, huh? The flattened back allows it to sit in the lap a little more comfortably than your average round-back Greek bouzouki or similar.

The neck is maple with a deep U-shape. This is necessary as the thin nut width would otherwise cramp my fingers like mad if the neck were super thin, too.


Liesbeth en Karl said...

Names, names...

But this description of a 'Macedonian Tambura' fits quite well: http://www.atlasofpluckedinstruments.com/europe2.htm

Tamburitzas are smaller. Irregular fretting is great - see the malagasy kabosy.

Antebellum Instruments said...

Thanks very much! That makes 2 folks to corroborate the Macedonian tambura story. I immediately thought it was some sort of tambura when I picked it up, as I'd seen the Bulgarian kinds a number of times and the build is similar, but this makes sense.

It's interesting that one type of tuning is with all the strings tuned to the same pitch (hence you have the whole range of notes between the courses)... a clever idea to make a simple instrument for accompaniment that has generous fret spacing for the fingers higher up the neck.

Anonymous said...

Okay.. i have an instrument that was left to me by my dad ..it still has the maker labels inside showing that it was made in ohio and i was able to find info on John Bencic ..from what i could find online thought that it was as Farkus from around 1920. I think it is a bit smaller that the instrument on this page. Has the same metal plate up by the frets. Let me know if you would like to see pictures of it. You can email me at montsal@vianet for pictures.

Anonymous said...

I have an instrument made in Cleveland, OH (can barely read the label inside) that I thought was a Croatian Samika (got this off a Croatian Folk Music Website. But since that time (a few years ago), I haven't been able to find the webside or the name Samika. Mine has evenly spaced frets.

Denny said...

I have a Tambura with label name of John Bencic. It has pearl inlay with a menta or brass plate at the head. Made in Cleveland. Looks like small guitar. Can be seen on Craig's list musical instruments under florida, pinellas, titled "Antique Tambura" Any information about it would be appreciated

myronmyers1 said...

I own a tambura exactly like the one in the photo. It was given to me some 30 years ago by a Croatian friend whose father had played in an orchestra in the 1920s in Aberdeen, Washington. He called it a tamburitza, but the label states: "Prva Juguslavenska Tvort Tambura, I.sve.visti.zica, John Bencic, 4054 St. Clair Ave, Cleveland, Ohio."

Dave said...

I recently was given this exact instrument by my Croatian uncle, who I believe got it from a Croatian friend long, long ago. He called it a tamburitza. After searching online for information about this thing, I finally thought about shining a flashlight into the hole and looking for a label (I'm a drummer, first and foremost, so it took me a while to think of this obvious step!), and found the John Bencic info that led me to your page. Thank you very much for posting this information!