This is one, and perhaps the most important, of the stringed and plucked instruments of Ottoman music. One view is that the tambur was an ancient development of the ‘kopuz,’ while others suggest that its own history goes back to very early times. Yet another theory is that the tambur is the first evolution and change of the bağlama family of instruments.

The word tambur comes from the Arabic ‘tunbur,’ and it is widely believed that this comes from the Sumerian word ‘pantur,’ a semispherical stringed instrument with a long stem. Another view is that it comes from the words (tabla, tabl, tabıl, tabul etc.) for percussion instruments that have been used since the very earliest times. There is mention in the Hittite civilisation of a stringed instrument called a ‘TIBULA.’ It is generally agreed that this was in all probability a long-stemmed stringed instrument. Texts from those times reveal that it was used to accaompany the spoken word and dancing. All of this inevitably leads one to the opinion that the roots of the instrument go back to Hittite and Sumerian times. The word ‘tambur’ was later used in Iran and central Asia for pear-bodied long-stemmed instruments more closely resembling the bağlama. Some instruments today played by the Turks of Asia are called ‘tambura,’ or ‘dombra’ etc. Today the tambur, described by European travellers (such as Charles Fonton and Toderini) as a visible reflection of the Turkish musical system with its fret links on the stem, is probably the only instrument solely used in Türkiye. The instrument was carried to Europe by migrants, and it is known that it was used in the 12th and 13th centuries before being abandoned.

This instrument developed with the historical process that gave rise to Ottoman music, reaching its most developed form in the 16th century and becoming an indispensable part of that music.

The body of the tambur is semispherical and made by sticking layers of wood together side by side. It generally has a diameter of up to 35 cm. The stem is joined to the body be being buried in a wedge, and is about 104 cm. long. The peg area is an extension of the stem. Each of the strings that emerge from the peforated string wedge at the edge of the body goes over the bridge and along the stem, being attached to the pegs by being tapped into the notched main bridge made of bone and the other bone bridge at the end of it. The bridge is generally made of fir, and presses onto the chest, itself generally made of thin pine. The vibration of the strings lead to that part of the chest under the bridge being indented. The bottom of the stem is round, and the top flat. The fret links used to be made of gut, although nylon is usually preferred these days. The tambur had between 45 and 55 frets. Some tambur virtuosi wanted to make the transposition of the melodic creation to several frets easier by linking 64 and even 65 of them. The oldest known form of the tambur is two-stringed, although these days it generally has seven. Eight strings were employed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The inflexible tambur plectrum is usually made of tortoiseshell. It is about 12 cm. long, 9-10 mm. wide and 1-1.5 mm. thick, and both ends can be used. However, the two ends are different to one another to allow them to be used for different timbres. The plectrum is held with the thumb and index and middle fingers of the right hand, and the thin side is used to strike the strings in a perpendicular manner. That is what gives the instrument its full-bodied sound. Apart from the kopuz, which has had its own place in courtly Ottoman music since the 16th century, the tambur is presently the only instrument to be played in this manner.

Although the tambur was a plucked stringed instrument, Tamburi Cemil Bey played it with a bow instead, which immediately became very popular. In the old way of playing the instrument, the ‘steel’ and ‘copper’ strings were struck once and the melody would be produced by using as many frets as possible before the vibration faded away. That led to it being resembled to the human larynx.

Sound of the tambur/Tamburi Cemil Bey – Gülizar Taksimi (3.14Mb)