Music is a big part of Greek culture. From traditional folk songs to the latest pop hits, Greeks love to sing and dance. There are also many traditional musical instruments that are unique to Greece and essential to the culture and sound of its music.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at some of the Greek musical instruments. So, if you’re interested in learning more about these instruments, or if you’re planning on visiting Greece and want to know what to listen for, read on.
Up first, we’re going to look at the Oud which is an ancient instrument from the Middle East resembling a lute and is played in Turkish, Egyptian, Albanian, Bulgarian and Iraqi music to this day.
It’s made with a large hollow body made of wood that has a neck attached to it. The body usually has three sound holes, and the neck is a bit shorter than the lute’s.
But, unlike the lute which looks very similar, it has no frets and can have between eleven and thirteen strings. The strings are then plucked using a plectrum, called a risha that was once a feather but is now made of plastic, bamboo, or animal horn.
It is reputed to be the descendant of the Barbat, which was covered with animal skin.
Related: Check out our guide to Turkish instruments here.
Next we have the Bouzouki is a long-necked, wooden member of the lute family played in various genres of Greek music, including traditional and pop.
It is the national musical instrument of Greece and existed in Byzantine times when it was called the tampoura.
Immigrants from Turkey and Asia minor brought it to Greece in the 1900s where it was transformed into the bouzouki.
The three or four pairs of strings are plucked using a pick made initially of cherry wood or a feather.
It is still the central instrument in traditional rebetika and laika songs but has become popularized in folk, jazz, and even rock music since the 1960s.
The ancient Greeks first played the Aulos, a wind instrument initially made of a pair of reeds as pipes.
The two reeds had fingering holes and were blown simultaneously through various mouthpieces. It could also be made of bone, ivory, boxwood, copper, or bronze.
An aulos was typically a double-pipe instrument in the early days but later became a single pipe. One pipe could be used for melody while the other played a more supporting role.
It accompanied elegiac poetry, Greek dramas, and sports activities and was associated with Dionysian cults.
The player puffed out his cheeks and used circular breathing to make a continuous penetrating, shrill sound. As you can imagine, the aulos took considerable effort and a lot of skill to play.
4. Kithara (cithara)
The Kithara is a kind of lyre with a solid wooden body, a deep soundbox, and seven strings that was also an instrument in ancient rome. Interestingly, the modern word “guitar” is derived from the Greek word “kithara.”
To play it, the musician dampened selected strings with his left hand while stroking a “plektron” across them with his right. It was played while standing with it resting against the musician’s shoulder.
The kithara required a great deal of skill to play and was used in Greek games, dance, banquets, and songs. Only professionals called “kitharodes” played it.
Greek legend has it that the god Apollo invented it, and it was played by famous ancient Greek poet Sappho who used it as an accompaniment to her lyric poetry.
Related: Read our guide to ancient Roman instruments here.
5. Cretan Lyra
The Cretan Lyra is a wooden stringed instrument played with a bow like a violin.
Dating back to the Byzantine period in 330 AD, it’s one of the the main instruments in Cretan folk music which is still played today.
The body is oval-shaped with a bridge to support the strings and has two sound holes with the the neck and body traditionally being made from a single piece of wood.
The lyra is usually played while seated, held in an upright position, and supported on the knee but can also be played while standing, with it resting on the abdomen.
The back of the nails of the fingers of the left hand lightly touches the side of the strings to form the notes.
The Baglamas is another lute-like stringed instrument with a long thin fretted neck.
It is believed to originate from the baglama of Turkey, where it is also known as the saz.
The Greek baglamas can be plucked with the fingers or played with a plectrum.
In Greek music, the baglamas is a small treble bouzouki. It has a tiny body and a broader neck than the Turkish baglama, with six paired strings tuned to D-A-D.
The baglamas is played as an accompaniment in traditional Greek music and rebetika and comes in different shapes.
Its portability and rich sound have made it popular with traveling musicians.
Players in the twentieth century were usually outcasts, persecuted by the Greek government by having their instruments smashed by police.
The Salpinx is a wind instrument or aerophone typically made of bronze that is a type of ancient trumpet from Greece.
It has been compared to a trumpet but is much longer and is thought to have been invented by the Etruscans who occupied parts of Northern Italy.
It is a long straight tube with a conical or bell-shaped end and was used primarily in the military.
As such, it was used for signaling orders to Greek hoplites (soldiers) with different tones of the salpinx having different meanings, making it possible to give coded orders to an entire army on the battlefield.
It’s thought that it was also used to call crowds to chariot races and some historians believe it was also used during street festivals.
The Tambouras also known as a Tampouras or Tambura, is another ancient instrument originating from the Byzantine period that is a cousin of the Turkish instrument the Tambur.
To look at it resembles a lute with a long fretted neck that’s usually made out of wood. They typically have three strings which are plucked with a pick.
What’s unique about it as a fretted string instrument is that the frets are moveable!
It was used to play traditional Greek music and is used primarily in traditional and religious music in Greece, Syria, Armenia, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey.
The Sistrum in an instrument that originated in ancient Egypt and is a type of rattle used for ceremonial religious purposes.
It’s a very simple percussive instrument that is shaken to make jangling or clanking sounds. The discs of the sistrum can also be stroked to create a quieter sound.
The frame can be made of wood, clay, or metal and is in the form of an oval hoop with a handle. The oval hoop holds horizontal rods on which moving beads or discs are mounted.
Greek dancers holding sistrums are depicted on ceramic vases from past centuries. They are thought to have been used in harvest festivals and other folk celebrations.
Related: Read our guide to ancient Egyptian instruments here.
The Gaida is a type of bagpipe traditionally made of sheep or goatskin that originates from southeastern Europe and is played in Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Turkey.
The player uses a blow pipe to fill the bag with air which is then squeezed out through a chanter to play the melody. The chanter is a pipe with finger holes in it and contains a reed.
The pitch of the notes created by the chanter can be changed by a “flea-hole,” which is smaller than the other finger holes of the chanter.
It is made of a small tube and is kept covered by the left index finger until the player wants to raise the pitch.
The Tzouras is a long-necked, lute-shaped instrument that falls between the bouzouki and the baglamas in size. Its ancestors are the tambouras and pandouras of the Byzantine era.
It was brought to Greece in the 1900s by migrants from Asia Minor.
The tzouras is famous in Greek rebetiko music and is surprisingly loud for its size. Its popularity waned for a while before it made a comeback, and it is still made and played today.
The musician picks a melody on the higher string while using the remaining strings to provide a droning accompaniment.
The Pandura, also known as a Bandora, is yet another lute-type instrument. In its Greek form, it typically had three strings and moveable frets.
The oldest image of a pandura dates from the fourth century BC, but it has a long history and was taken up by the Arabs of North Africa, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Assyrians and the Persians at different times. They all had their own variations of the instrument.
The strings were usually plucked with the fingers or a plectrum, and it was held horizontally with the fingers of the left hand used to press down on the frets.
13. Pan Flute
The Pan Flute, also known as the Panpipes or Syrinx, is a series of reed pipes of different lengths fastened together in order from longest to smallest.
It is an ancient wind instrument that shepherds first played in the third millennium BCE. The panpipes are therefore strongly associated with pastoral music.
The player blows over the top end of the pipe, not directly into it, so no mouthpiece is necessary.The base of each pipe was closed off with wax. The pipes have no fingerholes and so can only make one note each when blown normally.
However, a skilled player can obtain sharper or flatter notes by tilting them slightly and using jaw movement to restrict the pipe’s opening.
14. Hydraulis (Water Organ)
The Hydraulis is an ancient Greek keyboard instrument that uses pressurized air blown through pipes by mechanical means to play notes.
The hydraulis was also called a Water Organ because water was sent through a pipe to mingle with and pressurize the air.
The pressurized water and air mixture then reached the wind chamber, where they separated. The air was diverted to a wind trunk which led to the organ pipes.
The hydraulis is thought to be an early prototype of today’s pipe organ.
Not much is known of the instrument or the music the Greeks played on it. But, Ctesibius of Alexandria, who lived between 285 and 222 BC, is credited with the invention of the hydraulis and is said to have been a remarkable player.
15. Laouto (Lute)
The Laouto is similar to the oud but has a longer neck and is used as a solo or accompaniment in Greek music.
The body is tear-shaped and made of wood with typically only a single sound hole.
Like the Tambouras, the frets on a Laouto are adjustable, and the strings are plucked with a plectrum, usually a feather.
It has four pairs of strings, similar to the mandolin, with the top strings tuned in unison and the others in octaves.
The bowl of the body is relatively deep and makes a lovely bright sound.
The Chelys is the oldest known form of lyre played by the ancient Greeks and is alleged to have been invented by the god Hermes.
Legend has it that Hermes used a tortoise shell for the soundbox and attached a wooden frame to it across which he stretched the strings.
Later, the soundbox was made of wood. There are images of people playing the chelys on classical Greek pottery.
This instrument is unknown today, and researchers reconstructed it experimentally to see how it would sound.
They decided the historians were correct in saying it was used to accompany singing.
The Phorminx is a stringed instrument that falls somewhere between the lyre and the kithara in design.
It is one of the oldest Greek instruments and is a member of the yolk lute family.
The soundbox is roughly crescent-shaped and has two sound holes. The strings are then stretched over the soundbox by a square or slightly rectangular wooden frame with tuning pegs running along the crossbar. Typically there are seven strings, but it could have as few as two.
Professional Homeric bards would sing their epic songs while improvising their melodic accompaniment on the phorminx. Every performance was different due to the bard’s improvisational skill.
The Zurna is a type of double reed instrument that is a member of the woodwind family.
Essentially, it’s a shorter relative of the oboe that is made from a short cylindrical tube with a conical or bell-shaped end.
Typically made from peach or apricot wood, the sound is loud and penetrating, and the instrument is usually played outdoors in traditional village celebrations.
Variations of the zurna in Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey differ in pitch, depending on the kind of music they are used to play.
It requires considerable air pressure to play and to make a continuous sound, the circular breathing technique is used.
It has been used for crowd calling due to its strident, far-reaching sound.
The zurna is still played in Turkey, South-Eastern Europe, central and west Asia, and North Africa, usually with a bass drum as accompaniment
Related: Read our guide to other double reed instruments here.
The Daouli is a double-headed drum played in Greece, Turkey, and other Arab countries that is used as a rhythm instrument in folk dancing.
It is played suspended by a shoulder strap by striking the drum heads with specially constructed beaters at traditional Greek village fairs, festivals, and dances.
The beaters are two different sizes, a smaller, thinner one for the non-dominant hand and a bigger, thicker one for the dominant hand.
Daoulis are made in various sizes to suit the strength and anatomy of the player.
The pitches of the two goatskin drumheads differ, and the player can make a wide variety of sounds depending on where the head is struck and the size of the beater used.
The Tsambouna, also known as the tsampouna, is the Mykonos bagpipe and has been used for centuries, although there are now fears that playing the instrument is a dying art.
It is a wind instrument used in Greek folk music and is typically played in small community gatherings where the old musical traditions still cling on.
The tsambouna is played in traditional Greek songs, folk dances, weddings, religious celebrations, and folk ceremonies and differs from one island to another.
Unlike other bagpipes, the tsambouna has no drone. The bag is made of goatskin and has double chanters that are played in unison.
Two reads, hidden within the bag, are fastened onto the ends of the chanters and help to form the sounds.
The Toubeleki is a metal or clay drum shaped like the doumbek or the African djembe. Nowadays, it is made of metal. It has a conical open pedestal and a single drumhead beaten with both hands to create different rhythms.
The head is usually made of goatskin, and strings or other mechanisms are arranged around the sides to stretch it taut.
The drum can be played while held between the thighs, under an armpit, or suspended from the shoulder.
The toubeleki is played in Macedonia, Thrace, and the Aegean islands and is popular in Greek rebetiko and laiko music.
Summing Up Our List of Greek Instruments
Although the popularity of Greek music has diminished over the years, the instruments used in traditional Greek music are still played today all over Greece and many parts of the world.
Have we missed off an instrument that you think deserves to be in this list? Let us know and we’ll be sure to add it in.