1920s John Bencic Macedonian Tambura

Update 2018: I've owned this instrument since 2009 and sine then have learned a lot about it and ironed-out its various flaws. I've updated this post with new pictures, a video clip, and updated the description where necessary.

This instrument was made by John Bencic in Cleveland, Ohio and it probably dates to around 1920-1930. Since originally posting, I've worked on a number of Bencic builds and other tamburitza-family instruments, and have become much more familiar with the playing-style (very similar to Turkish saz and Greek 3-course bouzouki) and tunings.

This one originally had the uneven fret spacing (like a mountain dulcimer) that was the hallmark of the older, "Farkas" system of playing tamburitza-family instruments. I'd pulled the frets and refretted it a while back to "normal" spacing, but back in 2016 I did some more work to bring it up to spec.

This instrument gives a nice, sustained, jangly tone with smooth mids that sits well in a mix. When played higher-up the neck it gets a distinctly bowlback mandolin/bouzouki sound, too. The traditional style of playing is what suits it best -- droning and zipping around in the background of a tune and supporting both the backing-chords and the melody. Think of the rhythm bouzouki work on old Planxty albums and you'll get the idea.

Work included: a board plane, refret with medium stock, vintage parts-bin compensated maple bridge, a K&K acoustic pickup installation, and setup. It's ready to go, playing spot-on with 1/16" action at the 12th fret and has a straight neck. Steel string gauges are 17/17, 11/11 for GG-DD low-to-high tuning at the same pitch as a mandolin's lower wound strings. This is also close to the pitch of a 3-course Greek bouzouki's two higher courses. Another traditional tuning is AA-DD low to high.

Specs are: 24" scale length, 1 1/32" nut width, 11/16" string spacing at the nut, 7/8" spacing at the bridge, 8 3/4" width, and 3 1/2" side depth. The neck has a flat fretboard and U-shaped rear profile that's ~1 1/8" deep.

Materials are: solid spruce top, one-piece (maple? poplar? not-sure-what?) hardwood back/bowl, one-piece maple neck, ebony pickguard, ebony fretboard, and profuse pearl inlay in the top and board.

Condition notes: while the instrument is in good order, it does have wear and tear. The one-piece bowl has two wider cracks near the tailpiece, but both were filled/sealed long before I got the instrument and are holding just fine. It's really typical for the one-piece bowl/backs to split. I've seen it on every one of these instruments I've worked-on (about a half-dozen). Parts of the top/side seams have been reglued by me and others over time, too. There are minor missing bits of the wood purfling here and there near the tailpiece that have also been patched/replaced over time with fill. The tuning machines are also gorgeous but not 100% stable. Expect to have to retune a couple times during a set if you're really wailing on it.

Note how many times the bone nut has been modified for different string paths. I filled all the extra slots and left the original ones.

The frets are not perfectly aligned, but that's because I followed the original fret slots/locations. It plays well-enough in tune, however, as you can hear from the video. There's a little bit of glue residue around the fret bottoms from wicking superglue in to make sure they stayed-put.

Check out that pearl inlay and all the fancy multicolored purfling/rosette details! It's the fanciest one of these I've seen yet.

I removed a mandolin-style tailpiece some time ago and restring it with simple through-holes. This let the decorative touches be seen and also simplified the whole mounting.

The flattened back design allows the instrument to sit in the lap a little easier than the average Greek-style bouzouki.

The strap I made for it comes with the instrument and has cool buffalo-nickel connectors. The eyelets for strap-hanging are original equipment and it's almost necessary to have a strap to hold this instrument comfortably while playing.

Down here at the endpin/tail area you can see how I've mounted the strings. There are three unfilled tiny holes from a mystery tailpiece installed at some point, while the strap hanger goes into the original mounting hole for the tailpiece that was on this when I got it. Note the 1/4" jack for the K&K pickup installed internally. This thing is gig-ready! How about that?!


Names, names...

But this description of a 'Macedonian Tambura' fits quite well: http://www.atlasofpluckedinstruments.com/europe2.htm

Tamburitzas are smaller. Irregular fretting is great - see the malagasy kabosy.
Thanks very much! That makes 2 folks to corroborate the Macedonian tambura story. I immediately thought it was some sort of tambura when I picked it up, as I'd seen the Bulgarian kinds a number of times and the build is similar, but this makes sense.

It's interesting that one type of tuning is with all the strings tuned to the same pitch (hence you have the whole range of notes between the courses)... a clever idea to make a simple instrument for accompaniment that has generous fret spacing for the fingers higher up the neck.
Anonymous said…
Okay.. i have an instrument that was left to me by my dad ..it still has the maker labels inside showing that it was made in ohio and i was able to find info on John Bencic ..from what i could find online thought that it was as Farkus from around 1920. I think it is a bit smaller that the instrument on this page. Has the same metal plate up by the frets. Let me know if you would like to see pictures of it. You can email me at montsal@vianet for pictures.
Anonymous said…
I have an instrument made in Cleveland, OH (can barely read the label inside) that I thought was a Croatian Samika (got this off a Croatian Folk Music Website. But since that time (a few years ago), I haven't been able to find the webside or the name Samika. Mine has evenly spaced frets.
Unknown said…
I have a Tambura with label name of John Bencic. It has pearl inlay with a menta or brass plate at the head. Made in Cleveland. Looks like small guitar. Can be seen on Craig's list musical instruments under florida, pinellas, titled "Antique Tambura" Any information about it would be appreciated
Unknown said…
I own a tambura exactly like the one in the photo. It was given to me some 30 years ago by a Croatian friend whose father had played in an orchestra in the 1920s in Aberdeen, Washington. He called it a tamburitza, but the label states: "Prva Juguslavenska Tvort Tambura, I.sve.visti.zica, John Bencic, 4054 St. Clair Ave, Cleveland, Ohio."
Dave said…
I recently was given this exact instrument by my Croatian uncle, who I believe got it from a Croatian friend long, long ago. He called it a tamburitza. After searching online for information about this thing, I finally thought about shining a flashlight into the hole and looking for a label (I'm a drummer, first and foremost, so it took me a while to think of this obvious step!), and found the John Bencic info that led me to your page. Thank you very much for posting this information!
Susi said…
I don’t believe this is a Macedonian tambura, because as far as I know the Farkas system wasn’t used in Macedonia, and the decorations don’t look Macedonian. Croatian is much more likely. Croats and Serbs use “tambura” and “tamburitza” (tamburica) interchangeably. Tamburitza Association of America (TAA) can help with info. I recommend that you look into trad tamburitza music — very fun stuff.