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Artist: Milan Opacich, tamburitza luthier -- 2004 National Heritage Award winner
Apprentice, 2001: John Miksich

Milan Opacich in his instrument workshop in Schererville. Photo by Lynn Hadley.

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Watch some excerpts of Milan teaching John to make a tamburitza.

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Glossary of terms about tamburitza making

Milan Opacich, Schererville, Indiana
Milan Opacich with his wife Roz in front of their home in Schererville. Photo by Lynn Hadley.
Milan Opacich was born in Gary, Indiana in 1928 to a Croatian mother and a Serbian father, immigrants from the former Yugoslavia. They settled in Gary, home to one of America's largest Slavic communities.

Steeped in the musical tradition of his community, Milan's love and commitment to the tamburitza was cultivated at a young age. He first became enamored with the tamburitza as a four year old through visits to family friends, one of whom was a musician, Elija Orescan, who kept his prima tamburitza on his wardrobe. Young Milan begged for a chance to play, and in order to save the instrument from potential destruction the musician finally purchased Milan a ukulele. Two or three ukuleles later, Milan's father, a motor inspector in US Steel's coke plant, made him a tamburitza out of plywood and rubber bands.

Milan began playing tamburitza when he was eighteen. He decided to try making a better tambura than the one he was playing, an idea he first had when as a child he watched his father make the plywood and rubber band ukelele. An apprenticing tool and die maker at Gary Screw and Bolt Works, Milan, then 23, applied his skills, ingenuity, and determination to make his first tamburitza - a turtleback prima. The instrument, Milan's first, required a battle with a tenacious Michigan City swamp turtle. Milan and his older brother had to wade into the swamp up to their necks to retrieve it. "I can't swim, and on top of that I have a deadly fear of water moccasins!" Milan remarks.

Getting started as an instrument maker was not easy: "When the old master tambura-makers like [Ivan] Hlad and [Andrew] Groeschl were gone, there was a void. Unfortunately, the old makers were mum to their graves. So, the members of the next generation had to teach themselves."

For years, Milan examined every instrument he saw. When Croatian immigrant Ivan Hlad retired, Milan purchased his forms and tools, equipment dating to the turn of the century. Hlad was a well-respected instrument maker from the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago who received his training as a luthier in Austria. In the years since, Milan has made exact replicas of the fragile forms from thick plywood. Milan's characteristic scroll still resembles Hlad's.

Milan has remained committed to the traditional shapes and styles of the tamburitza from the old luthiers. In addition to the information he was able to glean from and about the old master tamburitza makers, Milan consulted high school physics' books for mathematical formulae and relied upon his skills as a tool and die maker.

Milan has taught a variety of apprentices, and a five semester course in guitar/tamburitza making at Purdue University. He even taught a Seattle physician via the phone who later came to Milan's workshop to learn in person. Milan Opacich notes, "It was hard to get started as a luthier. No one of the living makers would share information or offer encouragement. There were no books in my day to read or guide you. It was all trial and error if you had the calling. I remembered those frustrating days and vowed I would help anyone who came to me for help. I have tutored many students in building guitars, banjos, and tamburitzas and continue to assist many to this day. It is my hope that this traditional art will continue on with the next generation, especially our tamburitzas." These instruments are going into the hands of the next generation. Currently, Milan's converted garage workshop is filled with thirteen tambura in different stages of completion for the Croatian Junior Strings of Lodge 170 in Merrillville, Indiana.

John Miksich, Lake County
Milan writes about fifteen-year old apprentice John:
John Miksich in Milan's shop working wood for the tamburitza cello. Photo courtesy of Milan Opacich.
"Young John comes from a good family of Croatian descent. He is one of four children and all are actively involved in our ethnic traditions. He has a keen interest in our music and plays the tamburitza brac with a local church sponsored group. He has an obvious interest in building tamburas and has expressed his desire to build a tamburitza cello. He has visited my shop often with his father, who also plays tamburitza - the bass."

"I have selected John as my student because I feel he is capable and mature enough, with enough interest to continue in the tradition of tamburitza building. Both his parents are supportive and eager for him to have this experience."


Used interchangeably, tamburitza/tambura is a series of South Slavic fretted stringed instruments. Each type of tamburitza is slightly different and each plays a distinct role in the ensemble - either as lead, rhythm, harmony, or bass.

Tamburitza luthier
A luthier is a maker of stringed instruments. A tamburitza luthier is one who makes tambura.

Tamburitza ensemble
A complete ensemble of a tamburitza orchestra has as many as eight various tamburitzas, each playing its own intricate part. The orchestra can be modified in size, especially since it is difficult to find eight available tamburashi to play together. In a large eight piece tamburitza orchestra two primas can be used, one playing the lead, (like a first soprano in a choir) and the other the second part, (like a second soprano in a choir), each clear and harmonious in presentation and importance. Usually in an eight piece group, two bracs are used, but three bracs can be employed playing first, second and third parts of a composition giving a fuller and more dominant sound. (This is similar to first and second altos in a choir or a tenor voice).

The berda or upright tamburitza bass provides rhythm along with the bugarija. A traditional Yugoslavian berda uses steel strings and a fretted fingerboard. Many bass players today use a concert bass viol instead of a berda.

Bugarija (bug):
The most important instrument of the ensemble is a guitar shaped instrument called a bugarija, which provides the chords and rhythms. The bug is unique in that it has a total of five strings, two double D strings, one A and two F sharp. It delivers an open chord of D.

The lead instrument, the prima, the smallest of the group of tamburitzas carries the melody. It measures approximately 15 to 16 inches and produces a sound very much like a mandolin. It is strung with two double D strings, one single A, one wound E, and one wound B.

A prima lead can be replaced by a brac that is proportionately the equivalent of a half-size guitar and can play the lead melody but in a lower melodious tone. The brac in the Drina orchestra plays the harmony or the second part, much like an alto is to a soprano in a choir. It is strung with two double G's, one single D, one wound A, and one wound E.

Tamburitza Cello:
The fifth instrument in an eight-piece ensemble would be a tamburitza cello, resembling a guitar but unlike a five stringed guitar, it only has four heavy gauged strings. It plays the obbligato part with use of riffs and runs that embellish the empty places in the musical arrangements. On occasion, the semi low toned instrument is given a melody solo and never fails to alert the listener and have him succumb to its beautiful mellow low dulcet sounds. The cello is strung with one wound G, D, A, and E string.

Tamburashi are players of tamburitza music.

Purfling Binding
Purfling is very thin strands of wood, pliable and decorative with layers of design and multiple colors. Several of these thin strips are selected for the in-lay around the outside edge of the top of the instrument. The outside rim is then finished with a white plastic acetate binding, thus bringing out the delicate design. This embellishes and beautifies the finished tamburitza after it is laquered and polished.

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