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Chapter 4 : Stringed Instruments


Image from Pixabay

Fretted Stringed Instruments
Viola (6 strings)
Mandolin (4 or 5 strings)
Guitar (6 strings)
Banjo (5 or 6 strings)
Ukuelele (4 strings)

Unfretted Stringed Instruments
Violin (4 strings)
Viola (4 strings)
Double Bass (4 strings)


A plucked stringed instrument, the R.H. plucking the strings (the plectrum is NOT used).  It is an ancient and widely distributed family shaped somewhat like a half pear with its stalk, sliced in half, the stalk representing the finger-board which is fretted.  There is no bridge and each string is duplicated in unison – the number of strings varying at different periods and indifferent countries.  The head or peg box is bent back from the neck at an angle.

The Lute
Excerpt from Barbara Thomas' manuscript

The ancient Thespotamia Lute dates bac to 2000 B.C.  The Lute with a few embellishments is still in use in Arabia and during the 20th c has seen a slight revival in Britain where, at one time it used to be the most serious solo instrument in use.

In the 16th c. the Lute was popular as a courtly instrument throughout Europe.  By this time it usually six courses of strings and two sets of pegs (one set to tune the stopped strings and another set to tune a number of unstopped bass strings.)  It retained its popularity until the end of the 18th c. And as said before, has seen a slight revival during the 20thc. 

Lute music was played not from a notation, but from a TABLATURE which in the 16th c.  and 17thc. took the form of a staff with a space for every string and small letters  (a b, c  etc.) placed within the space to indicate the fret to be used. Small marks above the notes gave an indication as to the duration of the sound.  In the early days of the orchestra the Lute family was much drawn upon.   In the Baroque era (1600-1750) French and German composers continued to write music for the Lute. 


A plucked instrument consisting of a sound box with two projecting arms which support a crossbar. The strings run over a Bridge on the sound box to the crossbar.  It is an instrument popular with the ancient Greeks, Assyrians and Hebrews, it was essentially a small Harp.  Various types of Lyre survive in Africa where they are used to perform ritual music.  In Wales it is known as a Crwth, played with a bow.



A family of fretted stringed instruments that evolved before the Violin family, which eventually replaced it in the 17th c.  It owed to the Lute the tuning of its six strings and its use of gut frets.  The lowest string of the Treble Viol was tuned to D below Middle C, the other strings being tuned at intervals of a 4th or a 3rd (i.e. D, G, C, E, A, D)  The TENOR VIOL was tuned a fourth below the treble instrument (i.e. A, D, G, B, E, A); the BASS VIOL was tuned an octave below the Treble Viol.

The Treble Viol was played resting on the player’s knees and the Tenor and the Bass Violas were held between the knees.  The Bass Viol was also known as DA GAMBA (Leg Viol).  The Double Bass Viol was a late addition to the family.

The Viol family differed from its successor, the Violin family in the following ways:

  1. Flat instead of convex back.
  2. Sloping shoulders from the neck instead of rounded right angular shoulders.
  3. Thinner wood and deeper ribs.
  4.  Six strings instead of four.
  5.  Finger board fretted not smooth.
  6.  Sound holes in the shape of the letter “C”  and not “f” .
  7.  Bridge less arched.
  8.  Strings lighter, longer and under less tension.
  9.  Bow stick curved outwards from the hair.

 Sizes of the chief members are much like those of the Violin family.

Violins- Image by Baohm- Pixabay


 A Family of the 4 stringed unfretted bowed instruments that include:

  • The Violin
  • The Viola 
  • The Cello
  • The Double Bass

The earliest instruments of this type were the fiddles and rebees and lira da braccio which coupled with ideas from the Viol family, gave rise to the Violin family.  As stated before in the preceding pages, characteristics of the family were rounded shoulders, four strings  “f”shaped holes, no frets, and played with straight bows.

The quality of tone from these instruments is very pleasant and sensitive and can be easily varied in intensity.  The strings can be bowed or plucked with the fingers (Pizzicato)  achieving a light staccato effect.  Double notes and chords can be played; flute-like Harmonic notes are possible, and the sound effect can be dampened and subdued by applying a Mute (a small clamp) in the bridge, so producing a curious silvery tone.

Another effect, COL LEGANO is obtained by striking the strings with the wood of the bow.  


 A bowed 4-stringed instrument that is the smallest and lightest of the Violin Family.  

The strings are tuned at intervals of a 5th, the lowest tuned to G below the Middle C  (i.e. G D -A -E). It has a range of 4 octaves. The violin was first made in Italy in the middle of the 16th  C having evolved from the fiddle and the “Wia de braccio” The art of making the finest violins for 200 years lower than that of the Violin and is 7.5 cm. (3 in) longer; It is more unwieldy to play than the Violin, but has a more mellow tone.  Violas came in prominence with the string quartet of Hayden and Mozart and have since featured as orchestral instruments and in much chamber music.  Hayden, Mozart, Berlioz, Glinka, Richard Strauss and Hindemith wrote music for this instrument.

The Violin
Illustration by Barbara Thomas


A bowed, 4 -stringed instrument that is the bass instrument of the Violin Family.  Its strings are tuned in 5ths the lowest being C - 2 octaves below the Middle C (i.e. C – G – D – A).  It has a range of over four octaves.  Dating from the late 16th C., the cello was used chiefly as an accompanying instrument, until the 18th C when it developed a role as a solo instrument in and the string quartet. The end pin, used to support the instrument, was adopted in the late 19th C. The instrument rests on the ground and is held between the player’s knees.  The left hand slides up and down the neck while the right hand wields the bow.  Music for this instrument includes Bach’s six suites for solo cello, Concerto by Haydn, Dvorak and Ellgar and Sonatas by Beethoven Brahms and Debussy.  

The Cello 


A bowed 4- stringed instrument that is the lowest and largest of the Violin Family.  Its strings are tuned at intervals of a fourth the lowest being E, 3 octaves below Middle E (i.e.  E – A – D – G).  Its range is about two and a half octaves bit this  can be extended downwards by tuning down the bottom string or by adding a fifth string “tuned to C four octaves below Middle C.  This can be reduced a semitone (i.e. B – 4 octaves below Mid B)  to continue the tuning in 4th.

Two types of bows are used :

  1. The French Bow – held overhand
  2. The Simandl Bow – held palm up

The instrument was developed in the 16th C. from the Violine (belonging to the Viol family) and has been a standard orchestral instrument of the String Section since the 18th C.  Boccherini, Beethoven, Schubert and Richard Strauss have composed some of its music.  This instrument is used extensively in Jazz and Popular music usually being played pizzicato (plucked) 


Musician plucking a double bass


A plucked stringed instrument with a pear shaped body and a flat probably originated in the 15th C.  in Southern Europe, from the fiddle.  Amateur musicians used them widely , being easier to play than the Lute. By the beginning of the 19th C. the Guitar replaced the Cittum.  An early version of the Cittum was called a Cittole.  

The Cittum
Illustration by Barbara Thomas

ZITHERS (not to be confused with the Cither)

A group of ancient stringed instruments in which the strings run the whole length of the instrument body.  They are favourite intruments of the Tyrol land adjacent mountain regions and consist of a closed wooden box with 30-40 strings stretched over its surface.  A few melody strings lie over frets and these are “stopped” by the thumb of the left Hand whilst that of the Right hand, equipped with a plectrum a small metal ring with a protruding tongue paced over the thumb), plucks them.  Meanwhile the 3 larger finger of the Left Hand pluck the accompaniment strings.

Excerpt from Barbara Thomas' manuscript


A plucked stringed instrument in which the strings run diagonally from the sound board to the neck. It is of very ancient origin and in its simplest form was known as the Bow Harp.  The modern 3 sided Frame Harp can be simply defined as an open frame over which is stretched a graduated series of stings set in vibration by plucking with the fingers.

The modern harp is diatonically tuned to the key of C Flat (B) and has a range  of five and a half octaves from C flat  three octaves below the Middle C.  There are pedals which when depressed raise the pitch of the strings. Half depressed pedals raise the pitch a semitone and fully depressed pedals a tone.  This is known as Double Pedal or Double Action Harp

A Chromatically tuned harp exists with a string for each semitone, so requiring no pedals: on this the sweeping” action or “Glissando” for chords or diatonic scales is of course not possible.  With invention   of Erard’s double-pedal harp, 19th c. composers were encouraged to include harp parts in the  orchestral music and many composers, including Bizet, Ravel and Tchaikovsky, have written music 

The Harp
Image by Richard Revel- Pixabay


A type of Zither in which the strings are sounded by wind.  The strings are all the same length, but being of different thicknesses, they sound a chord when placed in a draught.  It could be placed in window embrasure, parks and ruined castles where the wind could catch and vibrate the strings to produce a ghostly, chordal effect.  The period of this harp seems to be from the end of the 16th C. or beginning of the4 17th C.  to near the end of the 19th C.


A small lute like instrument that evolved in the 18th c. in Italy.  It is not as musically valuable as the lute, possessing 4 (or 5) pairs of wire strings each string of each pair being tuned to the same pitch.

The four pairs are tuned as those of the Violin i.e. G – D -  A – E) and are plucked with a plectrum, generally in a tremolo fashion.  Characteristic Mandolin music is provided by Neapolitan folk songs, but Beethoven, Mahler and Mozart all wrote for the instrument.  It is a development of the Mandola.

The Mandolin
Excerpt from Barbara Thomas' manuscript


A type of guitar with a hollow circular body covered with stretched parchment strained over a metal hoop.  Its back is open.  It has from 4 to 9 strings (usually 5 to 6)  The most common now is the four stringed Tenor Banjo which is tuned like a Violin (i.e. G – D – A – E) some have an extra string on which the melody is played by the thumb.

The origin of the instrument is supposed to be Africa, kand it was in use amongst slaves of Southern U.S.A.  In the 19th c. it became the accepted instrument for the Song and Dance groups called the “Negro Minstrels”. Subsequently it was used in jazz band.   

The strings are usually of gut but the smaller Zither banjo uses were strings.  These strings are stretched over a bridge and are played with the fingers or plectrum. 

The Banjo
Illustration by Barbara Thomas


An instrument of the Guitar family that developed in Hawaii in the 19th c. from the “Portuguese machete” (a 4 stringed lute with a flat back and body shaped like a fish)  It became popular in the  

 A larger but similar instrument is the Hawaiian Guitar.  whose strings are stopped by a steel bar giving the opportunity for an exaggerated portamento the carrying of one sound into the next without a break – legato fashion, capable of picking up microtones momentarily.)

The Mandolin
Image by Jasmin Campoya- Pixabay


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