A new musical adventure

I’ve been playing guitar since I was in my early teens (it must be close to 40 years now, but I can’t remember exactly when I started), and I’ve worked quite hard at it over the years. I’ve tried my hand halfheartedly at other instruments along the way, but none of them has seriously tempted me for long. I can play a couple of traditional hymn tunes on the piano, and I can manage the bass guitar at a pinch; I’ve also tried mandolin and octave mandolin, as well as the electric guitar which, contrary to what some people think, is actually a very different instrument to the standard acoustic model.

Lately, however, I have been seriously trying my hand at something else – the modern cittern. I’ve been curious about this instrument for a while, having heard a few folk musicians playing them on recordings, and fortunately was able to borrow one from a friend (they are very uncommon and are very rarely found in music stores, and the strings have to be ordered in specially). After about three months of playing, I decided to take the plunge and buy one, and fortunately my friend was interested in selling his (apparently he has bouzoukis, mandolins and mandolas enough to clutter his house!). So I am now the proud owner of a custom-made Nikos Apollonio modern cittern.

I say ‘modern cittern’, because there was a renaissance instrument of the same name, looking much like the modern flat-backed mandolin. It was a very popular instrument in its day, played by people of all classes and as ubiquitous as the guitar is today. Here’s a picture of a 17th-century version.

The modern cittern, however, was invented quite recently by English luthier Stefan Sobell (who makes guitars for, among others, Martin Simpson). Apparently he was influenced by the design of a Portuguese guitarra brought to him for repair by Irish musician Andy Irvine (of Planxty fame). It has what I think of as a teardrop-shaped body, with ten strings (some versions have eight, but I think of those as being more bouzoukis than citterns) in pairs, typically eight of them in courses (i.e. pairs of strings in unison) and the bottom pair in an octave. The cittern I have been playing is tuned to CGDAE – i.e., standard mandolin tuning but with an extra pair of strings tuned to a low ‘C’.

Stefan Sobell chose the name ‘cittern’ for his new instrument because it looked similar to pictures he had seen of renaissance citterns.  Nonetheless, his design is significantly different from the original cittern, and no modern cittern player uses the tunings and techniques that were common in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thus it has been claimed that Sobell’s design is not really a cittern at all, but simply a large ten-stringed mandola.

Whatever it’s called, it’s fun to play! The tuning is quite different from guitar tuning and as the strings are tuned in fifths the ‘distance’ between strings means that the runs are quite different too. Most modern cittern players seem to use a flat-pick, and I’ve been having a try at that, but I’ve also been trying to play it fingerstyle, with some success. Here’s a Photobooth picture of me with my new cittern:

It’s a bit limited for me yet as it doesn’t have a pickup in it (I hope to get one installed soon), but anyway I probably need to practice a lot more before I inflict it on anyone else! But just so that you can know what these instruments can do, here’s a real master, Joseph Sobol, playing one: