While modern Greeks have used the word “kithara” to describe the guitar of today, the ancients would have used the word to describe the seven-stringed instrument of the harp family of stringed instruments. The ancient kithara, would have been played by professional musicians using a stiff plectrum of dried leather. It was the instrument for the big occasion and was played solo at receptions, dances, recitations of epic poems and lyric songs, banquets and other major events.
Some consider that Terpander of Lesvos (the father of Greek music and lyric poetry) to have invented the instrument in the 7th Century BC. However, the instrument is thought to have originated from Anatolia.
The poetess Sappho was a virtuoso of the instrument and composed many songs. Yet another native of Lesvos, Phrynis, is the first man to have played the kithara in Athens.
In mythology it was Hermes who is credited with creating the kithara from tortoise shell which Apollo the god of music adopted as his chosen instrument.
The lyre was the popular four-string version of the Kithara that was easier to play and was mostly used as a folk instrument in rustic events.
The bouzouki is the king of long-necked stringed musical instruments of modern Greece. It is derived from the plucked musical instrument family of the thabouras (tambouras) instruments dating back to Ancient Greece from which the lute is derived.
The bouzouki was brought into Greece in the early 20th Century by immigrants from Asia Minor. It’s steel strings are played with a plectrum. There are two types: the Trichordo with three pairs of strings and the tetrachordo (four pairs) which was developed in 1950s and made popular by Manolis Chiotis. The bouzouki has 27 frets along its neck.
It became central instrument of the rebetiko music and despite the best efforts of the authorities, it has since become the key instrument of Greek laiko/popular music. In the last century, Musicians playing the bouzouki or its smaller cousin, the baglamas were often persecuted and their instruments smashed by the police.
3. The Lute (Laouto)
The laouto or lute is another descendant of the Tabouras family of long-necked stringed instruments. It has evolved into the present variant of 11 moveable frets along the neck and up to nine fixed wooden frets on the sound board. In the Greek world there are three variants characterised by their differing size and tuning with the Steriano (mainland Greece), the Cretan Laouto also known as (lagouto) and the Cypriot laouto as the main variants.
4. The Lyra
The lyra is a bowed instrument that was popular in the Byzantine era and is the forerunner of the violin family of instruments. Cretan tradition has it that the instrument was developed on the island before 961 AD and after the invasion of the island by the Byzantine forces of Nikephoros Phokas. The lyra is played throughout the islands of the Aegean. There are Cretan, Madedonian and the Politiki (Constantinopolitan) variants of the instrument.
5. Bagpipes (askaulos)
The bagpipe or Askaulos of Ancient Greece allowed the musician to play without taking pauses for breath. The bagpipe of Crete is the askomandoura. The Tsampouna is a droneless bagpipe played in the Greek islands. The Dankiyo is played by the Pontian Greeks originating from Trabzon and Rize in present-day Turkey. The Gaida is the bagpipe of Northern Greece
The floghera is a simple bamboo flute with seven finger holes used in traditional folk music. The souravli (fipple flute related to the recorder) is played in Crete, and the Cyclades.
7. The Aulus, Karamuza and klarino
The Aulos was a single- or double-reed instrument from which the Karamuza is derived. The klarino, a variant of the clarinet, is used in the music of Epirus to accompany the slow dances of the region like the tsamikos, koftos, metsovitikos among others.
8. Percussion instruments
The toubeleki is a traditional drum made of metal with skin stretched over it and is much used in all forms of Greek music. The tambourine (rhoptron) is thought to have originated in ancient times in Egypt and was adopted by the Ancient Greeks.
The santouri belongs to hammered dulcimers (struck zithers) family of instruments. It is a Greek name for an instrument that is also played in central and eastern Europe as well as the Middle East. In the Greek imagination, it was the instrument loved by Nikos Kazanzakis’ seminal character Alexis Zorba. Its origins though are Iranian or Mesopotamian dating back to 7th Century BC. Another variant is the Kanonaki or box zither. The name is derived from Arabic word “qanun” that, in turn, is derived from the Greek word “kanon” meaning rule. Petros Tabouris is a noted player and composer for this instrument.
10. The Hydraulis, water organ
This water-driven pipe organ, attributed to Ctesibus of Alexandria (3rd Century BC), is considered to be the world’s first keyboard instrument and a forerunner of the European church organ.