c.1925 John Bencic Kontra or Bugarija

Update 2015: This instrument came back to me in trade and so I've taken new photos, compensated the bridge slightly better, strung it up for GDAE octave mandolin tuning, and given the frets a very light level/dress as much as I could (they're "wire stock"). It plays well with hair-above 1/16" action at the 12th fret.

Aha! Another tamburitza-family instrument! This one, like the (now refretted) Macedonian tambura also in my collection, was made by John Bencic in Cleveland. I've had a few good brac instruments through the shop (this one and this one come to mind), but my affinity for the other Bencic of mine kept me going until I found this guy!

This appears to be a "kontra" or "bugarija" as it has the doubled treble courses and single bass courses coupled to a longer (25") scale length. For what it's worth, I've got it tuned like a "Celtic" or "flatback" bouzouki -- GDAE an octave below mandolin, and it sounds fantastic in this tuning. It's rich and lush and the lowered pitch really suits the 3" depth, 11" wide body. Most modern instruments of this type appear to have guitar-shaped bodies, yet this has a lovely old pear-shaped mandolin-style body with good depth (which = more bass resonance than usual).

What's interesting about the stringing of two plain bass courses and two doubled trebles is that you get that bouzouki/octave mandolin shimmer in the highs and a "bitey" lead, but the bass notes are very clear and closed chords mid-neck actually have some crunch (rather than flub) to them. It's pretty ideal, really.

It's a gorgeous instrument and the construction is interesting: the neck is built in the "Spanish style" like a classical guitar which means the neck and neck block are one piece and have big "tongues" that come out under the top and back to support it.

The neck is maple and has a deep U shape to it. It has nice celluloid "tortoise" overlay and some quite pretty pearl inlay. The "frets" are actually wire which has been "tucked" into two holes on either side of the neck. I think this is pretty typical for these guys and it makes fret leveling and dressing a challenge as one doesn't want to loosen them up during work!

The neck has light relief but I've still got it dialed in at a good 3/32" at the 12th fret which actually turns out to be ideal for full-on strumming and hard picking like this wants to be doing.

Three of the tuner buttons are replacements from some old mando tuners. It would have used nicer buttons and fit them better, but the odd shaft design on these (thin, small, and square) meant I had to be slightly inventive to install some replacement buttons. This whole set of tuners and engraved plate has a "Czechoslovakia" stamp on the inside.

Check out the lovely wooden purfling!

With the strings so close to the face, melody picking must be done over the soundhole (which also happens to be the "sweet spot" where the arm naturally wants to go, anyway). Folk strumming, alternately, sounds best just north of it over the inset pickguard.

Now, I agonized a bit about what to do about this instrument's setup. Most bridges on these guys are naturally quite low (it's just the way they were built), but on this one the bridge was necessarily very low. It's so low, in fact, that there's not a lot of down-pressure behind the bridge and it was just too slight an amount of downpressure to keep the lower notes clean-sounding.

So... my quick solution, rather than incur the wrath and time-investment of resetting a Spanish heel on this poor old gal, was to cut up an old 1920s ukulele capo (ironically, stamped Czechoslovakia as well), and install it with a couple of tiny screws as a big "string tree" behind the bridge. This lets me adjust down-pressure and lets the instrument ring like a bell. It's not ideal, but it's a lot less invasive than the alternative.

Nice tailpiece cover, too!

Isn't that flame lovely?

I added strap buttons as soon as I finished up work and sat down to play it for a bit. These things play so much easier with a strap over the shoulder!


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Sound clip is headturning. I wish I had the extra scratch at the moment.