The bandora (sometines spelled pandora) is reported to have been invented around 1562 by the English instrument builder John Rose, who was best known as a maker of violas da gamba. It appears to be more like a guitar than a lute, since the body has parallel sides and the back is flat or only slightly arched, but the body’s outline is much more imaginative. The sinuous shape of the pegbox, with transverse pegs and a carved head, is more like those of viols of the period than those of lutes, guitars or vihuelas. The barring, or bracing, behind the soundboard was probably similar to that of contemporary lutes.
Early instruments were made with six courses, but an expansion to seven double courses took place near the end of the sixteenth century. The tuning is unique, having a pattern of fourths with one major third and one major second. The instrument seems typically to have been pitched in “a” as shown below, although that may not have been universal.
The bandora is strung in wire, like the cittern and orpharion. The lower-pitched strings were originally made of several wires twisted or roped together, since the technology to make overspun (wound) strings was unknown. The brittleness and lack of elasticity of the wire strings may have resulted in an unusual scalloped, or “washboard” fingerboard, seen in the photo below. The shallowness and smooth curve of the depressions between the frets limits the amount of bending and stretching stress that is applied to the strings as they are fretted.
Another unusual feature of the design many bandoras, seen in the picture at the top of this page, is the fact that neither the bridge nor the nut is perpendicular to the strings, so the frets, which are of metal and inset into the fingerboard, form a fan pattern, providing the bass strings some increased length relative to the trebles. This innovation may have been introduced along with the addition of the seventh course, since instruments made before the 1590s apparently did have the bridge, nut and frets all perpendicular to the strings. The string length of the instrument pictured ranges from 75 cm for the treble to 80 cm for the bass.
The playing technique of a bandora is similar to that of a lute. The strings are plucked directly with the fingers, without employing a plectrum, so that polyphonic music (music consisting of several independent parts) can be played with facility. Plucking near the bridge produces a bright, penetrating sound in spite of its low pitch.
Over one hundred pieces of music from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries specifically designated for bandora are known today, most of which is English. At least 15 solo pieces for bandora by Anthony Holborne are known, and two of these were printed in the bandora section of William Barley’s A nevv Booke of Tabliture (London, 1596). The bandora was primarily used in ensembles, where the sound of the wire strings cuts through and provides a powerful support for the bass line and the harmonic structure of the piece. It was employed in that capacity in the “broken consort,” one of the first examples of a mixed ensemble with standardized instrumentation, consisting of flute or recorder, violin or treble viola da gamba, lute, cittern, bandora and bass gamba. The bandora was sometimes used as an accompaniment instrument in larger ensembles in continental Europe, and its use may have persisted longer there than in England. References include descriptions by Michael Praetorius in volume 2 of Syntagma musicum from 1619 and by Marin Mersenne in his Harmonie Universelle of 1636-37. The last known historical reference to its active use is in an inventory from Berlin done in 1667, although a bandora is illustrated in Johann Gottfried Walther’s Musiklexicon of 1732.
No historical instrument has survived that can clearly be identified as a bandora — museum instruments called bandoras, those in the Musikhistorisk Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, for example, are rather the French pandore-en-luth. That particular instrument is clearly not a typical example of a bandora, since it has too many courses, it does not have the characteristic slanting bridge and nut, and its shape is not correct.
- Nordstrom, Lyle. The Bandora: Its music and sources. Harmonie Park Press, Warren MI (1992)
- Bandora in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed. New York NY (2001)
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ed Greenhood and Lyle Nordstrom for assistance in the construction of this page.