The bouzouki is a plucked, stringed instrument. It was derived from the tambouras through consecutive modifications aimed at producing a stronger and shinier sound that was demanded by a new musical stream, which was in the process of being created at the urban centers of the Aegean during the second half of the 19 th century. The first points of differentiation between this new instrument and the tambouras were the gradual decrease in the number of strings, and the elevation and extension of the fret board onto the top plate with a corresponding increase of the height of the bridge. These features were already present in a ripe descendant of the tambouras, namely the mandolin,(James Tyler and Paul Sparks, "The early mandolin"), and given the geographic proximity of the two instruments, it was easy for them to pass from one to the other. After a breef period of vacillation between the tambouras and the lute, the new instrument adopted the sound box of the latter, as it offered an added measure of safety against the higher tension of steel strings, and higher tunings. The widespread popularity of this new instrument is evident in the painting “Milkman at rest” by Nikiforos Lytras. The older movable gut frets are replaced by fixed metal ones (as the use of the Byzantine modes starts to wane), and tuning machines also replace the older wooden pegs. At this stage in its development, the bouzouki is an already accomplished instrument, both technically and musically, used extensively and steadily gaining in popularity among musicians and the lower classes of the era (19 th – 20 th century.) As such, there exists no particular reason for any further change in its form.
Nonetheless around the end the 19 th century, some further modifications in the form of its sound box start to emerge. In fact, the place where these modifications first appear may seem unexpected; the United States of America. There, immigrants and cultures of different ethnicities mix and melt together in a continuous race for survival and progress. The Greek luthier Anastasios Stathopoulos establishes an instrument-building workshop, aiming at first to fulfill the needs of the growing Greek community. One of the higher-ranking craftsmen in this workshop was an Italian named Henry Capielo. (Walter Carter, “The Epiphone House”.) The instruments produced by this duet were named “Stathopoulos bouzoukis”. Several such “Stathopoulos” cross the Atlantic on their way to Greece, where they plant the first new seeds of change (owning in part to the glamour of anything brought back by the “uncle from America”).
This new wave of change of the lute-shaped instrument will be dramatically accelerated by the relentless pogrom against the bouzouki unleashed by the Metaxas dictatorship. This time, the bouzouki will once again borrow features from the mandolin, namely its sound box, which comes in handy in order to disguise itself as a mandolin, and elude its persecutors. This change didn't particularly bother the musicians of the time, as they were accustomed with the instruments of the mandolin family.Many mandolins and mandolas of this time went to the luthirs bench, to be transformed to bouzoukis and half bouzoukis.This practice continues even today, more out of habit, than out of necessity.The bouzouki virtuoso Vasilis Tsitsanis contributed significantly in the adoption and establishment of the “new” instrument; though it is interesting to note that the first instrument of the “national bard” was a mandola. This finalized version of the bouzouki hardly resembles the “primitive” new bouzouki of the 19 th century.
The virtuoso guitarist Manolis Hiotis ads a fourth course of strings to the bouzouki and changes it's tuning to C F A D (like the first four strings of a guitar turned down a step), thus creating an even newer version of the instrument. These changes will bring about a series of technical changes in the instrument's construction (namely the increase in the volume of the sound box, and the widening of the fret board.) Makeshift magnets are also added to amplify its sound, and traditionally costumed soldiers; small Parthenon and acres of gardens made of synthetic pearl are employed to decorate its top plate. This hybrid instrument will be subjected to harsh criticism form both musicians and music critics alike. Nonetheless, its contribution to Modern Greek music is considerable and unquestionable.
Finally, the bouzouki will be “discovered” along with retsina, and Greece's natural beauty by Western tourists, and though them introduced to a series of innovative musical streams (Paul Kotapish, “Ancient Tones”, Acoustic Guitar, Issue 89, May 2000.)