So what is a cümbüş, anyway? On this page you'll find a description of the instrument, a little history, and some information on tuning and transposition issues regarding the cümbüş. On this page there are photographs of a variety of "cümbüşler" and here is a paper on the traditional ethnic associations with the instrument, which I delivered at The Society for Ethnomusicology annual conference in October of 2006 in Honolulu, Hawai'i.

Click here for a PDF copy of my master's thesis, "The Cümbüş as Instrument of 'the Other' in Modern Turkey," which greatly elaborates on the subject (and here are some addenda/errata to it.)

Rembétika singer Roza Eskinazi with cümbüş player Hagop "Aghápios" Tomboúlis (second from right), and friends (1950's?). Check out their Dec. 1934 "I Mórtissa Tis Kokkiniás" ... are we hearing cümbüş ... or maybe mandola?

(But first, a word on pronounciation: the "c" sounds like the "g" in gentle, and the "ş" at the end of cümbüş stands for a "sh" sound (as in English). The word sounds the way most native English speakers would say "Jim Bish," as though to differentiate a guy from his brother Pete Bish. Also, the undotted "i" (that is, "ι") sounds like uh, let ç = "ch" as in chair, and let "ğ" be silent, prolonging the previous vowel. A little hat over the letter a ("â") gets a "y" just before it, so "çargâh" is pronounced "chargyah." The word Román is accented on the last syllable and refers here to the folk our parents called "Gypsies." OK, here we go...)

Me, playing 1930's era counterfeit "cümbüş" made by Onnik Karibyan, next to a reproduction of his contemporary Suat Sezgin's version, the "ahenk," in the shop of luthier/collector Cengiz Sarιkuş, Istanbul, 2005.

Description and History

The cümbüş, in it's unqualified form, is a twelve-stringed, fretless, plucked, banjo-like music instrument invented and patented in Istanbul, Turkey in 1930 by a man named Zeynel Abidin, a former sword and arms maker originally from Skopje, Macedonia. Although in the early years there were a number of counterfeits and alternatives (notably the "ahenk," see photo above, and the "şerâre" or "neşetkâr"), the official cümbüş is made only by the Cümbüş Music Company in Istanbul, now run by the inventor's great-grandchildren, brothers Fethi and Ali Cümbüş. One of its remarkable features is that the neck is easily removeable, and can be exchanged for a variety of other necks, both fretted and unfretted, to create several new types of instrument, bowed as well as plucked (see photos).

Zeynel Abidin Cümbüş himself, with another musical invention, the Kibar. (Year unknown; thanks Denise Gill-Gürtan for sending me the photo!)

The name cümbüş is the Turkish version of the Persian word "jombesh," meaning movement, catalytic activity, or just plain fun. It was in this last sense that the instrument was named and the word was taken as the family's surname in 1934 when all Turkish citizens were required to take fixed, inheritable last names.

The history of what groups within Turkey have traditionally played it (and what kind of music they have played on it) is better addressed in this "paper," but suffice to say here that it's a bit of an outcast, associated mainly with ethnic minority groups (Greek, Armenian, Sephardic Jewish, Román) in cities, and with a regional folk music of four southeastern provinces (Urfa, Diyarbekir, Gaziantep and Elazιğ) in the countryside.

Román cümbüşçü "Çeribaşι" Mehmet Ali Körüklü.

Tuning and Transposition Issues

The question of how to tune the cümbüş using the standard strings commercially available is important because the tuning shown on the package (and on many vendors' websites) doesn't jibe with the tunings those gauges of strings are actually made for *. Because the cümbüş is modelled on the ud (and most cümbüş players are also ud-ists), I'll use the ud and makam/maqām theory as reference points. Further, as many players are used to Western notation and Arab styles, these are figured in as well.

First I should say that on both ud and cümbüş, tunings are pretty variable, and many people call their own "the standard." The only thing that really appears standard is that the top four courses of strings are tuned in perfect fourths from each other. I find that Arab oud players tend to stay in one tuning (DGADGC, CFADGC and the high FADGCF or GADGCF - all tunings on this page are given low-to-high - seem to be the most popular), while Turkish players often change the lower two courses to fit the makam they're in (though all fourths - C#F#BEAD - is called "the standard," at least in conservatories and textbooks).

"Another satisfied customer" Mike Adajian of Chicago.

On Arab-level and Turkish-level tunings and transpositions

Two things to keep in mind: 1) Turks tune their uds a whole step higher than Arabs, so:

Arab DGADGC in Turkish would be EABEAD
Arab CFADGC in Turkish would be DGBEAD
Arab GADGCF in Turkish would be ABEADG

2) Turkish notation is screwy - let's take a look at it using makam note-names as a reference point (NB: "maqām/makam" literally means "place," and since all the makams are played in the same hand position whether by Arab, Turk or whomever, I suspect it originally referred to the literal place/hand position on the neck of an ud
** ; the only question is what notes are actually sounded).

In Arab and Western notation: Do = middle C, sounding at middle C = Rast, but

in Turkish notation: Do = written middle C, sounding G below middle C = Çargâh,

and Sol = written G above middle C, sounding the D above middle C = Rast in writing on the staff, Turkish music looks like it's transposed up a perfect fifth from Arab music (and all the key signatures, in makam or otherwise, reflect that difference, too), but because Turkish uds are tuned a whole step higher than Arab ones, the makam/piece of music sounds a major second higher than an Arab version of the same piece, and a perfect fourth lower than it looks on the page:

A piece in Rast, played on an Arab oud and written in Arab/Western notation is written on C and played on C

A piece in Rast played on a Turkish oud and written in Turkish notation is written on G and sounds on the D below (i.e., the D above middle C)

The standard Cümbüş string set says "Re Mi La Re Sol Do" by which they mean, in absolute pitches, "ABEADG." Since this is one whole step higher than "Arab level," we can say that it corresponds to GADGCF - this is the region I mostly play in here in the US (because I play with other musicians who are used to the "Arab level," no matter where the music is from), and the strings feel fine at that tension. The difference from the ud here is that the high string is no longer Gerdaniye (Kirdan in Arabic, the note an octave higher than Rast), so when playing (in makam) with other musicians, your fingering will be shifted down a fourth/one course of strings. You lose the nice bass tones of an ud (Kaba/Qarar Rast up to Kaba Dik Hicaz/Qarar Tik Hijaz), but gain an extra high string's worth of notes (Tiz Çargâh/Mahuran and up). Also that major second (or third, depending on your normal set-up) is in a new place, which you have to adjust to.

Ezra Aharon (center, with cümbüş), Iraqi classical musician and "Prince of the Hebrew Oriental Song," Tel Aviv ca. 1934.

I know cümbüş players both here (playing Arab-level) and Turks who tune their instruments a fourth down to "ud level" - actually this is pretty common in Turkey, especially since the recommended tuning (the ABEADG on the package) is pretty high-tension, even uncomfortably so - and that's where I play it when in Turkey, but to my ears and fingers it just doesn't work at Arab-level (e.g., DGADGC) with standard cümbüş strings... it's too floppy to drive the banjo head and very squishy feeling in the pick-hand. Turkish ud tuning (e.g., EABEAD) is about as low-tension as you want to take these gauges of strings. The GADGCF, being a minor third higher than the strings' lowest tension area and a major second lower than their highest one, is a nice compromise for playing at the "Arab/Western level," and leaves plenty of room for lowering the bottom two courses to fit the makam you're in, and there's always the option of putting a capo "at the second fret" to bring it up to Turkish level if needed.

* Gauges of the standard cümbüş string set are approximately (low to high, in fractions of an inch):

.32 .28 .20 .18 .10 .09

I haven't found any better strings than this set, though I've tried mandolin/mandola and all kinds of guitar sets/singles, even nylon (which sound quite good on the ağaç cümbüşü). I recommend you try loop-end rather than ball-end strings if you want to make up your own set... the lower ball-end strings (and most nylon, tie-on ones) are too thick to fit in the bridge slots, in any case (though you can clip off the loop of an old set and tie the loose end around the ball of a ball-end string, which looks odd but works well enough).

** This is certainly the case with Persian dastgāh (literally "hand position") and is reflected in certain makam names taken from the Persian: Yegâh/Yakah = first position, Dügâh/Dukah = second position, Segâh/Sikah = third position, etc. Some scholars disagree with the idea that "makam" refers to hand position, for instance Feldman (1996, citing Oransay 1966) opines that makam (literally "place") refers to certain notes' cardinal position/place in the traditionally conceived fundamental scale, but for me the parallel with dastgāh, and fact that a makam keeps its name and fingerings no mattter what actual pitches are sounded or what relative tuning is used are evidence pointing to makam as reflecting hand position.

Cümbüş as index of "gypsiness" in Turkish cinema: above - a scene from "Bal Kιzι" (Honey Girl, 1974), below - a scene from "İki Ruhlu Kadιn" (Woman with Two Souls, 1971). (Thanks, Francesco Martinelli!)  

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