tom bliss



lyrics etc











GMARTIN Guitar: Martin JC16 GTE

GODDY Mandocello aka Cello-Mandolin (but tuned as the middle four stings of a guitar): David Oddy

GSTRUMMA Long-necked Dulcimer aka Scullion Dulcimer aka Strummer Hugh Scullion

GMANDOLA Mandola Thomas Buchanan

GMANDOLA2 Bouzouki (but tuned as a TRUE Mandocello) Thomas Buchanan

GMARSHALL1 Mandolin Oakwood

GDUET Duet Concertina Lachenal Macann system

GWHISTLE Whistles Susato, Shaw, and various others

GBOX Piano Accordion Various


GBANJO Tenor Banjo Ibanez Artist 591TB

GSOBEL Octave Mandolin Stephan Sobell

GMARSHALL Mandolin Marhsall Dow -

BrownTenor Tenor Guitar Andew T Brown




I'm asked so frequently about this - often by people who have visited this page (which gets the most hits of the whole website) that I thought I'd try explaining it another way - so here goes:

The naming of instruments is partly down to what the maker decided to call it (c/f aural tradition), what shape and size it is (important - but this is music, remember, not film) and, crucially, how it's tuned. Some luthiers make instruments that can be strung to be different instruments at different times. Tom Buchanan ships both his 500mm and 625mm scale instruments tuned GDAE (i.e. as Octave Mandolins - though he doesn't use the name for either). The shorter can also be strung high CGDA to become a Mandola, and the longer can be strung low CDGA (Mandocello) or DADA etc (Bouzouki). So should we name them according to size or tuning? I'd suggest the latter, because that tells you what it can play (as strung at the moment).

There is probably no 'correct' nomenclature, but this is how I see it and Wikipedia supports my argument. For once, I believe, the Americans are right, and "Great Britain and Ireland" (perhaps/probably misled by some early album sleeve?) are wrong.

Two descriptors are commonly used - TENOR (et al) which describes the pitch range, and OCTAVE which descibes the relationship to the parent instrument.


So - pitch first:

TREBLE GROUP - G D A E (one fifth above the Viola)

Violin/Fiddle 'little Viola'
Mandolin 'little Mandola'
Banjolin 'little Banjo'

No problems here - thank goodness.


ALTO GROUP - C G D A (one fifth below the Violin)

Mandola - Sometimes called a
Tenor Mandola by people who should know better. It is NOT in the Tenor range - it's clearly an Alto instrument (some do even call it Alto Mandola). Also, it's the father of the Mandola family so all the other members are named to describe their relationship to it, not the other way around. The Mandola itself needs no qualification. It's either a Mandola or it isn't. (I'm quoting Louis de Bernieres - patron of the Banjo Mandolin Guitar society, author of Captain Corelli and a player himself - here btw).
Banjo - you don't see these too often, (there are lots of different banjo lengths and tunings including the four-and-a-half - for some reason usually called a five-string).
Alto Guitar - you do encounter
Tenor Guitars tuned to this pitch, in which case they should really be so named.


TENOR / OCTAVE GROUP - G D A E (one 4th below the Viola, and one octave below the Violin - but often with top string de-tuned to a D)

The word Tenor clealy describes a general pitch like alto, treble et. It's one fourth down from the Alto group.
The word Octave clearly describes an octave shift down from the named instrument - which is usually in the treble group. In all the cases in this group, both describe the same pitch, so both names are correct, as long as they're applied to the appropriate instrument.

Octave Fiddle - not many of these around, but they do exist
Octave Mandolin - often wrongly called an
Octave Mandola by people who should know better. (An Octave Mandola would be Mandocello pitch).
Tenor Banjo - you could make a case for calling this an
Octave Banjolin - if you wanted a fight!
Tenor Guitar - these are occasionally actually Baritone Ukuleles retuned from DGBE - ie top four strings of the guitar = one octave below a Uke
Irish Bouzouki - if tuned to GDAD or ADAD etc. These often have octave strings on the lower courses. (If DADA or similar - in which case it really belongs in the baritone group.
Cittern - or some of them, anyway. There are many different Cittern tunings, including 10 and more string versions.

In spite of the names used by some excellent luthiers and specialist shops there is technically no such thing as a Tenor Mandola! You might make a case for calling an Octave Mandolin a Tenor Mandola becasue it is a member of the Mandola family, and it is in the tenor range, but it's best not to because some people use this term, erroneously, for what are really Mandolas or even Mandocellos (see below), and, frankly, we can do without the confusion because people often buy the wrong strings or attempt the wrong pitch with terrible consquences).

Octave Mandolins should never be called 'Octave Mandolas' because that would imply that they were tuned one octave below a Mandola (and are therefore actually Mandocellos), which, obviously, they're not.

Just to confuse things further, TB tunes his Oddy Mandocello ADGC, putting it firmly in the Tenor range (Tom Napper calls it, therefore, a Picolo Mandobass, which it probably is! David Oddy (no website) is based in Exeter, and is famous for having made ALL of Show of Hands' instruments! He's also largely responsible for the sudden surge in the popularlity of the Mandocello (which Steve Knightley calls a Cello Mandolin - though theirs are tuned GDAD, making them technically Ocatve Mandolins) in the UK, having been asked to copy a decrepit instrument found by Paul Downes' brother in a junk shop - which was falling to bits. Paul and Show of hands did the rest. Tom asked David to make him a Mandolin/Mandocello pair, but he was due into hospital and wasn't sure if he'd be returning to making afterwards. He did have a beautiful left-handed Mandocello though, made for an Australian customer who'd never collected. TB is in fact very left-handed, but plays all stringed instruments right-handed through having started so young (what price a left-handed 1/8 size fiddle*)? So David refinished it 'tother way up. It now has dots on both sides of the fretboard, and a hidden extra hole through the top, under the bridge, where the wire from the Ashworth pick-up used to go. The neck is very wide because, David explained, that's how Phil Beer likes 'em. (By the way did you know that Jez Lowe, who plays mandola left-handed, is actually right-handed, and that Katriona Gilmore plays fiddle right-handed but mandolin left-handed?) I did).

The Tenor Banjo is not to be confused with the American (and English/Irish) 5-string banjo*. Please don't ask TN to play that awful vamp from 'Deliverance' - which actually features a guitar and a 5-string. (The original, called "Feuding Banjos," did in fact use a Tenor and a 5-string - and, after the same intro - a much nicer tune). Here's Napper demonstrating a Deering banjo at Eaglemusic. *If you do want to learn how to play the 5-string banjo (or any bluegrass instrument come to that) try my chums Pete and Ian's on-line school The Bluegrass College.


BARITONE GROUP - C G D A (one octave below the Alto Group)

Violincello aka Cello
sometimes wrongly called Octave Mandola or even worse Tenor Mandola (no such instruments exist) - or semi-correctly by Steve Knightly; Cello Mandolin.
Low tuned Irish Bouzouki (DADA etc) (TB tunes his Bouzouki as a true mandocello)
Cello Banjo yes, they exist
Baritone Guitar with six strings, each one octave below a normal guitar - so the top two are in the Baritone range. Louis de Bernieres plays one.

There is no such thing as an Octave Mandola, either! Some people have instruments in this tuning that they call Octave Mandolas, but the correct name is obviously 'Mandocello.' (Well, don't call Violincellos 'Octave Violas' do we?)

*The Greek Bouzouki is closer to the Saz and Balalaika families, and is usually tuned CFAD. Actually, Louis de Berniere tells me that the bouzouki is Turkish, not Greek at all - and the word 'bouzouki' means '"broken, not functioning" in Turkish!



Double Bass
Bass Viol some of the instruments called Double Basses are actually Bass Viols - the Viol being a third family charactorised by having the sides meet the neck in a sweep, rather than at right-angles as with the Violin, Viola and Violincello
Mandobass These are MASSIVE - tuned like a double bass or bass guitar (which they closely resemble, being fretted) E A D G (single course), but with the distinctive teardop shape. The only person we know who plays one is the wonderful
Hilary James. TB uses an Ozark acoustic bass guitar in the studio, which is actually closer to the Mandobass than the Double Bass.
Bass Banjo yes, they exist too
Bass Guitar obviously
and just to confuse everyone
Baritone Guitar also, confusingly, belongs in this category.

Now this is where the system breaks down, because, as far as I know, all the bass instrumentsare are tuned in 4ths, like Guitars, even when their siblings are tuned in 5ths. This may be because you'd need huge hands to play them if tune in 5ths.

Bear in mind that there are many inbetween and hybrid instruments too - and even more names to muddy the water. Not least the Viols.

PS, does any of this matter? Well, it does when people are buying instruments or strings, or trying to get technical advice on the phone or internet.
I don't actually CARE! (much)!


Other Instruments

The Long-necked Dulcimer (Hugh Scullion is based in Scunthorpe) is basically an Appallachian or Mountain Dulcimer, built so that it can be played easily by lute-family players. It has the diatonic frets of the Dulcimer family (i.e. just the major scale, with no semitones), and the same string tunings, but becuase of the way it's made the low string is struck first, as with the Guitar and Mandolin, rather than last, as with a dulcimer. Here's Tom playing it.

The Duet is the rarest of the concertina family. TB has two 39-button Lashenals - one with 6-fold bellows and one with 8, both with wooden ends and bone buttons. Like the anglo it has low notes to the left hand and high notes to the right, but like the english it plays the same note on both the push and pull strokes. So you can theoretically play duets with yourself; but the note layout (Macann system) is fiendishly complex and fast tune-playing is technically impossible (according to TB)! The piano accordions don't come out much these days because the flat keyboard plays havock with pickin' fingernails, but TB does use them in the studio. TB is very fond of his Hohner Melodica, and also plays Harmonica and various Keyboards (he was mainly a keyboard player in his rock band days).And yes, the rumours are true: On The Toms farewell tour, TN supported TB's duet on Mary Prout with some lovely Single Row G Melodeon.

TB no longer plays fiddle at gigs since he was unable to lift an instrument for 18 months following a shoulder injury - but he does still occasionally use one in the studio. His lovely 5-string fiddle, adaped by Shay Allen to carry an extra low C string, now belongs to the lovely Tania Opland who plays it all the time! TB has been playing the violin on and off since he was three years old - having, like the rest of his family, started on a tiny instrument chosen for his Great Great Aunt by her tutor: Clara Schumann.


FInally - this might amuse. You"ll guess the tune!


THE MANDOLA (Bliss/Davies)

I was walking in the town when it started to rain

And for reasons I’d really rather not explain

I wore a bola - B O L A bola

I was getting pretty wet and I wished I was dry

Out driving in my nice new car, which by

The way’s a Roller - Ra-Ra-Ra-Ra Roller, Ra-Ra-Ra-Ra Roller

So I stepped into a shop and I doffed my hat

There was a lot of funny folky-looking musical tat

N’a beardy fella, an old beardy fella..

And then I saw an instrument I couldn’t quite place

But the folky old bloke with the fluff on his face

Said couldn’t tell ya, I just couldn’t tell ya


With that tear drop body and medium neck

Couldn’t be a hurdy gurdy or a harpaliek

Mandolin? Too big you see?

Bouzouki? Well ‘s’all Greek to me

So I plucked to hear what notes would play


Like a viola, just like a viola

(An Oud? Nerr, Lute? Nah, Saz? Nope - Err. well, it's bally like a balalaika...
Then I seemed to hear a voice - “I’m a GNU!! - oops, sorry wrong song”)!

I’m not a mandocello or cittern you know

Or a useless ukulele or a bloody banjo

No mandobass, not an octave mandolin

How could I be a Tenor when there’s NO SUCH THING!

I’d have thought a folk singer like you would have spotted

I’m only eight-stringer you’ve not yet gotted

A mandola. M m m mandola, m m m mandola


So feeling rash, I paid my dosh,

And off did dash, and down to the sesh,

They were playing The Kesh at a hell of a lick

I took a deep breath and I grabbed a pick

Now I’m not a Dab Hand like Napper you see

But I’m happy in the Blissful company

Of a mandola, M m m mandola, m m my mandola


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