Start composing your own music—here's how
The world of instruments is extremely diverse and offers a wide range of choice, and not just recently. Many old stringed instruments have shaped traditions and still exist today. But what should you look for when buying such an instrument, and what are the differences? Let's take a look:
Hundreds of years ago, there were stringed instruments that were significant in the musical field and can still be found in our modern instruments. Thus, many of the old and traditional instruments bring to mind the guitar at first glance. The workmanship of the instruments—which at that time were mainly made of wood—is also something special. It's a testament to a high level of quality.
From the viola to the balalaika, (which originated around 1700) a wide variety of styles await you. Even if many of the traditional and old stringed instruments are now more likely to be found in museums, their way of making music set a standard that would transcend eras of music. As a musician, it's all the more rewarding to get to grips with such instruments yourself and to discover how music was made at the time. For this purpose, we will show you in more detail what distinguishes the various stringed instruments and how they work.
A look at the history of stringed instruments reveals many variants that visually consist of a long body, a small sound hole, and an elongated neck. Thus, in many cases, the instruments are reminiscent of an old-fashioned guitar, with sounds that aren't too far from the guitar either. However, most of them have much more to offer, as they differ here and there from the guitar we know today. In any case, the following stringed instruments are ones you should know as a musician:
The harp (learn more in the linked article) is a very special stringed instrument that is also considered a plucked instrument in terms of tone production. To produce the first notes yourself, you place the harp between your legs, tilt the instrument slightly and then stroke the strings. While some harps have pedals, you can play other types of the instrument directly without additional devices. Instruments like the Thomann Celtic Harp Ashwood 36 Str. or the Salvi SALTIT-ASS Titan Natural offer a good start with up to 38 strings:
The lute is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world. Its predecessors date back to 1800 BC, and the lute is believed to have originated in the Arabian region. However, it became really popular during the Renaissance, when it was called the queen of instruments. The lute is distinguished by its pear-shaped case, which gives the instrument its special style and design. Thus, until the end of the 17th century, the lute was still a highly demanded instrument, even if it is not quite as present now.
A special form of the lute, this time from Turkey, is the bağlama. This has its origin in Anatolia and is preferably used as an accompanying instrument. To produce the tones even better and clearer, the bağlama can be played with a small plectrum made of cherry wood. If you want to use the traditional finger technique, you can play the bağlama without a plectrum. Should you be interested in one of the typical bağlama with a maple body yourself, then choose for example your Matsikas BG6-112 bağlama with 11 shavings:
As a mechanical stringed instrument, the hurdy-gurdy is a true classic that has been important in music since the Middle Ages. Even though the strings are not bowed manually, the hurdy-gurdy can still be classified as a stringed instrument due to the built-in wheel. The wheel is used to strike the strings, which creates the unique sound. In this way, the hurdy gurdy becomes an exciting choice especially in jazz, but also in rock or street music. You can find a suitable hurdy gurdy for example right here from Scala Vilagio:
The cuatro is a guitar-like musical instrument that is widely used, especially in Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The history of the cuatro dates back to the 18th century, when it first appeared in Venezuela and has played an important role in the traditional music and folklore of this region ever since. The instrument is about 70 cm long and has an oval shape with a flat bottom. Compared to the guitar, the cuatro has a smaller sound box and a shorter neck, which gives it a higher pitch.
The domra is a plucked string instrument that originated in Russia and plays an important role in traditional Russian folk music. The history of the domra dates back to the 18th century, when it was developed as a kind of mandolin. The instrument usually has three or four strings and is about the size of a violin. Its soundbox is round or oval and has a flat fingerboard. The strings are usually played with a pick to produce the clear and penetrating sound. You can find a suitable variant right here:
The ukulele is a small and guitar-like instrument that originated in Hawaii. The history of the ukulele dates back to the late 19th century, when Portuguese immigrants brought the instrument to the islands. The instrument usually has four strings and a small, flat, hourglass-shaped soundbox that can be made from different types of wood. The sound of the ukulele is typically bright and cheerful, making the instrument a great fit for various styles such as Hawaiian music, pop, folk, and indie.
If you're interested in learning the ukulele, you'll find info on that here, too.
The balalaika is a traditional, plucked stringed instrument from Russia. It has a triangular or pear-shaped soundbox and is usually played with a pick. The history of the balalaika dates back to the 17th century, when it was used as an accompanying instrument in folk music in Russia. From classical folk music to modern pop, the balalaika has many uses. Instruments like the 6-string Gewa Prim Balalaika with a solid spruce top make a very good impression in this regard:
With the zither, you can expect a culturally diverse stringed instrument with a tradition dating back to ancient Egypt. Thus, the instrument already exists in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The zither usually has a flat, trapezoidal soundbox and several strings that are plucked either with a plectrum (pick) or with the fingers. Its sound is very soft and soothing and is often used in folk music, classical music and popular music. Models like the C.Robert Hopf Chord Zither 100/3 Alder are a good choice here:
If you are looking for a stringed instrument that is powered entirely by wind, the wind chime is guaranteed to please. The history of the wind chime dates back to ancient Greece, where it was known as the "aeolian harp." The style of the instrument is especially suitable for sound therapy and improvisation pieces, as the quiet tone production is relaxing and soothing. Thanks to the chimes being made in a wide variety of materials, there are many options to achieve multiple timbres and pitches and constantly develop your own music.
Stringed instruments are still present in many pieces today and help to keep the music of past centuries in our memories. Instruments such as the harp, the ukulele, or the zither embody a special view of history and stand for a great musical diversity. The traditional instruments also serve as models for newer instruments. It's no wonder that the construction of many traditional stringed instruments has been adopted today.
Did you enjoy discovering these instruments? Then we recommend you take a look at our article on eight more instruments that you certainly don't know yet. Especially in the field of music history, it's fun to investigate the many predecessors of today's instruments and learn more about the work of instrument makers. After all, who knows today what the world of instruments will look like in 100 or even 500 years and what will be possible by then?
Many traditional and old stringed instruments stand for a special style and show how music making was possible some centuries ago. Even today, many of the instruments make a good impression in collections or can sometimes even be integrated into modern music. If you are interested in instruments like the ukulele, feel free to read about it here. If you like to exchange ideas with others about the variety of instruments, you should definitely register here at mukken.
Originally published on April 12, 2023, updated on April 12, 2023
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