The Cümbüs

Jack Campin


Last updated: 6 May 2009

The cümbüs (pronounced joomboosh, there should be a cedilla under the "s", and perhaps I'd better call it a cumbus in ASCII at least once for Google's benefit) was invented by Zeynel Abidin in Istanbul in the 1920s, though there is a report that a similar instrument once existed in the nineteenth century. It's intended to have a playing technique much like the ud, the fretless lute of the Middle East, but with a banjo head and a large spun-aluminium resonator.

Normal size cumbus

These combine with the doubled steel strings to give it a far more powerful sound than the ud. It has an attack like a banjo and a long sustain like a Celtic harp. The fingerboard is flat and fretless, usually made of Formica or something similar. Unlike any other stringed instrument I know of, the action is adjustable; the neck is attached to the body by a hinge with a screw that can change its angle.

The action adjustment screw on a cumbus

Tuning is by machine heads like those of a guitar. So, think of a fretless twelve-string guitar neck attached to the bastard offspring of a banjo and a rice steamer.

As with the ud, there are a variety of tunings for it. Each pair of strings is always tuned in unison, and all tunings have the upper (melody) courses tuned in fourths. One common tuning also works well for Scottish music so it's what I use: low to high and using ABC note names it goes A, B, E A d g . This makes playing in zero to two sharps (as for Highland pipe tunes) quite easy, with lots of open strings, and gives a low A drone. It works well with the violin, and is often used that way in Turkey.

Cumbus Tuning in staff notation

Cumbus Tuning in MIDI

Don't even think of tuning it in fifths, it won't stay in tune and you could break it trying. It's not a kind of bouzouki.

The common tuning makes it a fourth higher than the Turkish ud. The usual Turkish tunings for the ud are E, A, B, E A d or C#, F#, B, E A d - Arabic tunings are a tone or a minor third lower.

The strings are steel, the lower four courses wound. Scale length (bridge to nut) is 54cm for a normal-sized cumbus. The Turkish strings I use are loop-end in these gauges:

The cümbüs is played with a plectrum, "mizrap" in Turkish. The traditional one is a strip of polythene cut from the side of a jerrycan, about six inches (12 cm) long and a third of an inch (1 cm) wide. I prefer lengths of the plastic strapping used in the construction industry for delivering packets of building materials like paving slabs - it's often reinforced with tough fibres, and it's thinner, tougher and more elastic than jerrycan plastic. You can pick bits of it up at any building site. The original material for ud plectrums was the wing feather of an eagle, soaked in olive oil; this is too light for a cümbüs. Other materials that can work are the ratcheting cable ties often used to attach placards to poles and the wooden coffee stirrers you get in Wetherspoons' pubs. Here are some of mine:

A few of my cumbus plectrums

I only play the instrument in first position. Ud technique assigns each finger to a specific semitone (more or less, there are microtonal variations from that). First finger (not used a lot) stops a semitone above the open string, ring finger a whole tone above, third finger a minor third above, and fourth finger a major third above. This gives a range similar to the violin's first position, though one tone shorter at the bottom end. No chords; it's never used as a harmony instrument in Turkey.

Dance band cumbus player
Mehmet Ali Günüç, dance band player from Mugla - the instrument has an electric pickup.

The cümbüs has similar associations in Turkey to those that the banjo once had in the US. I don't know any cümbüs-player jokes but there must be some; the idea is that you only play it if you're a chainsmoking alcoholic loser from a despised ethnic minority with a long string of petty criminal convictions. It's seen as an urban dance music instrument rather than a folk balladeer's. It seems to be particularly associated with Kurdish music, as on this cassette of revolutionary songs from a label that seems to be a cultural arm of the PKK (Communist Party of Kurdistan):

Cassette sleeve for Aram: "Dil Ax E",
                          with a cumbus in his hand

It is also a standard instrument in Gypsy bands, as in this street band from Thrace. The illustration is taken from a superb recent recording, Kesan'a Giden Yollari (Regional and Roman (Gypsy) Music from Thrace), Kalan CD 154.

Gypsy musicians from Thrace with a cumbus player

It's quite easy to find a cümbüs in Turkey, though musical instrument shops are not often enthusiastic about them and will try to sell you an ud or a saz instead. There are some very well made models I've only seen in airport shops. As with many Turkish instruments, quality control is not great and you have to know something about the instrument, or else be prepared to work on it to make it playable when you get it home. No British music shop will have a clue, and it's likely that any you buy here will have been damaged (or thrown so far out of adjustment it'll take days to stabilize) by some twit trying to tune it too high or in fifths.

I have two of these. One is the standard type, the other is a small model which I think was made around 1950 in an abortive attempt to break into the school market - I've never seen another one like it. The reason I can date it is because of an enamel badge on the pegboard:

cumbus badge text: Milli Egitim Genclik ve Spor Bakanligi

referring to a ministry that ceased to exist in 1953 - how often do you get to date an instrument by looking up a history of civil administration?

There are other Turkish instruments with the same sort of banjo-resonator body but a different neck, bridge and strings; in particular a banjo version of the tanbur (the long-necked classical three-stringed lute). These are sometimes called cümbüses in the West but as far as I know they aren't in Turkey. The usual word is "yayli tanbur", and it is often played with a bow. As with the traditional tanbur, the left-hand technique of both the picked and bowed versions is utterly unlike that of the ud and cümbüs.

Recently the firm has started making cümbüs-body versions of the Western guitar, mandolin and ukulele - the mandolin is rather strident, I haven't tried the others.

A cumbus-mandolin
A cumbus-mandolin

I have had these instruments for many years but only recently started taking them out of the house. The reason was the Scottish climate; they didn't come with cases, so they got very cold in transit. Since they have an aluminium body, steel strings, plastic membrane, brass adjustment screw and a wood-and-plastic neck, there's a lot of scope for differential heat expansion. When taken into a warm room, the instrument would go wildly out of tune and take so long to stabilize it was unusable. I have since made effectively insulating cases to transport them in. If you get a cümbüs for use in Britain you will need one. Some Scottish pubs remain thermally impossible to play in - you can get a layer of ice-cold air near the floor while waist-level is comfortably warm, so the cümbüs goes out of tune in the few seconds it takes to pick it up and get started on a new number. These instabilities are compounded by tuning shifts - don't expect to switch between different tunings as you can on a guitar.

There is a textbook on the cümbüs - Cümbüs Metodu, Zeynel Abidin Cümbüs Yayinlari, Atatürk Bulvari. S.S.K. Apt No: 9/B, Unkapani, Istanbul, ISBN 975 6723. Its material is mostly the same as that in ud texts - Turkish rhythms and how to place the commoner Turkish makams on the fingerboard. So if you have an ud tutorial (Mutlu Torun's is the best) you don't need it.

Be warned that the book notates the music a fourth higher than sounding pitch. The pitch names on Turkish strings are also a fourth higher than they sound, so a string labelled D or re sounds as A or la. Here are two packets of Turkish strings. The man with the astonishing haircut is Zeynel Abidin himself.

Avarez cumbus strings
Pelit cumbus strings

A more recent site than mine, with more detail on several aspects, is Eric Ederer's at http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~ederer/cumbus/cumbus.html

Email feedback on this page is welcome.


Jack Campin's Home Page