5/06/2016

1920s John Bencic Macedonian Tambura





I've worked on several John Bencic (made in Cleveland) tamburitza instruments and this is the third Macedonian tambura of his I've had in. I still own the first one I worked on and I've done so much to that one since I posted it that I should probably update that page as well. This one came by way of trade and was in a bit of a state before work began: seams were loose, the main brace below the soundhole on the top was loose, and it badly needed its "Farkas system" frets pulled and a board plane/refret done to it. It also has a coat of varnish applied after-the-fact over the whole thing.

Still, after all this work was done (plus a new bridge), it has a great "bouzouki" sound and a lot more depth and carrying-power than the other tamburas I've played -- very likely because the body sizing is more "mandola" and less "bowlback mandolin" and the scale is a little longer -- 24 3/4" compared 24" -- both of which are advantages for group playing. It also let me tune this down from standard "GG-DD" or "AA-DD" (pitches similar to mandolin's lower two courses) to dD-aA in octaves to give it even more of that "bouzouki" effect. Gauges are 12/28w and 8/16.


There's something lovely about two-course instruments strung in fifths -- since chords are one or two-finger at most, there are nice sliding shapes to use and easy little runs to do that give a sound much more complex than the instrument appears to be capable of. I used this at our last jam and just used a capo to get around in other keys.

The top is solid spruce and has a light arch to it (really, it's "domed" over the braces) and the back is carved from one piece of wood (not sure what, perhaps maple as well?). The bracing is nice and light. Traditionally these tamburitza-family instruments have very low bridges -- no, the neck angle is not off -- and so when strummed vigorously you definitely put wear on the top (hence the huge "scratch guard") and get a more rhythmic sound because of that.


New bone nut... and nice bone-buttoned, engraved-coverplate recessed tuners. These tuners are traditional for this style of instrument and, unlike a lot of these sets, these particular ones hold quite well in a session.


I refretted the instrument to "standard" spacing rather than the Farkas system which uses an Appalachian-style dulcimer half-fretting method. The original "frets" on these instruments are actually bent wire that's snugged into tiny holes -- a headache-inducing spectacle for fret jobs -- and so there's a bit of tidying-up here and there on the board/neck from where those wires came out on the sides.


This was originally fretted way up but the original frets were toast and bent up and around in various unpleasant ways so I yanked them, filled the holes, and left it as-is. I don't know anyone who'd make use of them up there, anyhow.


Note how the soundhole's a bit chewed from years of play.


I compensated the banjo-style replacement bridge for the octave stringing. It'd be easy to restring this per the traditional, higher-voiced pitch. Some of the purfling in this area is funk-ified from wear and tear.



Teh back is carved into a "flattened bowl" -- this greatly, greatly helps making the instrument comfortable in the lap vs. something like a bowlback mandolin or Greek bouzouki (which tend to roll if played "modern-style."



The maple neck is a deep U-shape which is good -- because if it were thinner front-to-back most of us would find our hands cramped-up from too-thin a neck.



There's a slight "bulge" on the side, here, that was the result of an old repair not-perfectly-done. No issue.


I changed the stringing of my own tambura to this simple "drilled-through" method a while back and decided to do it on this one, too. It's simple, clean, easy, and means you don't have to wrap stuff around those bizarre wooden "posts" to hold the strings (and then have them slip out of pitch for weeks until they snug-up properly).

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