Greek and Turkish Stringed Instruments: an Introduction

4.7.2018 by Engin Altunlu

When we think of musical instruments, and specifically stringed instruments, it might be natural to think mostly of the guitar and bass, and perhaps ukulele, mandolin, violin and cello, all of which are familiar from Western pop music. But the popularity of these instruments has not been steady throughout history; in fact, the guitar’s popularity only arrived in the last 100 years or so. What we might call “traditional instruments” live on in many cultures and create exotic sounds that the guitar just can’t reach.

The region of Greece and Turkey is particularly rich in a variety of stringed instruments. While wandering around the famous bazaar ‘Kemeralti’ in Izmir, Turkey (where you can find some stores that are there for 150 years or more) - Izmir is also the place where Epiphone was founded before they moved to the US., I dropped into some small instrument shops that continue the traditional work on the saz and bouzuki. I thought it might be interesting to write a small introduction to Greek and Turkish instruments and present some examples of their exotic sounds. Hopefully, you will discover something new and interesting.

Buzuki (Bouzouki)

The bouzouki is a stringed instrument originally from Asia and brought to Greece in the 1900s by Greek immigrants from Anatolia.

It is frequently used in Rebetiko (Greek traditional music).

The bouzouki has a round wooden body with metal strings arranged in three or four double courses over a fretted neck. Its features generally depend on the builder, and it can have many variations of size, number of strings, and length of the fingerboard. The classical type of bouzouki has 6 strings (3 sets of unison double strings) and is called a trichordo.



Kemençe (Kemenche)

Also called Kemenche of the black sea or Pontic Kemenche (Pontiaki Iyra), the Kemençe is a bowed lute from the northern Pontus region of Turkey on the Black Sea coast. It is shaped like a long lute and it generally played upright on the knee with a bow.

The kemenche is very popular in Iran and Armenia as well. In Turkish traditional music its place is in very rhythmic dance music.


Klasik Kemençe (Classical Kemenche)

The Classical Kemenche, called Politiki Lyra in Greek (Constantinapolitan Lyre), is a pear-shaped bowed instrument from Anatolia, which is somewhat reminiscent of a violin, but played upright on the knee. You don’t push the strings to make a note; you just put your finger vertically on the fingerboard and nicely touch to string from the side with your nail. Yes, that’s how it’s played!  Its sound has a spiritual feeling that catches the soul.

It’s mainly used in classical Ottoman music, but it is also present in Smyrna-style (Izmir Style) Rebetiko music.



The Oud is short-neck type lute from Middle East region. It has existed since pre-Islamic Mesopotamian civilizations.

It remains a very popular instrument in our times in a wide region from North Africa to Azerbaijan, including Spain’s Andalusia region and Greece.

Its features change by countries, cultures and also by builder.


Bağlama (Baglama)

The Bağlama is a long-necked lute from Turkey, also known by the name Saz, which basically means ‘instrument’ in Persian language.

This picked stringed instrument is used in classical Ottoman music and Turkish, Greek, Kurdish and Armenian folk music.

Once again it has many variations like short-neck, long-neck and ‘divan’ – which is huge in every way! There is also a smaller size called the ‘Cura’, which we could say is to the bağlama what the ukulele is to the guitar.


Kanun (Qanun)

The Qanun is a popular stringed instrument from West Africa to Central Asia, similar to the zither of Europe. It is played flat with fingerpicks. The interesting thing about this instrument is that thanks to its knobs, you can fine tune it for each scale or ‘Makam’.  So, you can adapt it to traditional structured music with ‘Makam’ rules, occidental music, or today’s modern music.


Of course there many more instruments in that region. Would you like to add one? Leave a comment.