Skip to Content Skip to Navigation
Join the email list!

Chris Smith: Words & Music

Instruction: World strings

(Chris Smith)
World Strings

strings 'n' frets

From the Lecture-Demonstration World Strings - Plucked Instruments from 6 Continents

[Proviso: This is a very brief, very cursory glance at just a few plucked string instruments in world traditions, and at their travels and mutations. It is of necessity very selective and incomplete, but I hope that it will be useful and interesting.]

The migration of the Greek bouzouki from its Aegean home to the world of Irish music is only a recent example of an ancient and ongoing process of cultural transmission. There are many other examples of instruments migrating and mutating over time and across geographical boundaries. Some of these relationships exhibit clear historical ancestors and descendants, while other's history is not so clear, and is more indicative of an "idea" of an instrument which is shared across adjacent cultures. In the former category you could put the 6-string acoustic guitar, and all the myriad locations, styles, and ways of playing in which it has become essential: everything from Portuguese fado to Zulu izihlabo to American country-and-western to Indonesian folk styles and on and on. Examples of the latter category (an "idea" of an instrument migrating across time and cultures) include things like the jazz drumset, the result of turn-of-the-century adaptations of orchestral and marching-band instruments into the West African idea of a "family" of drums, but here arranged to be played by one person rather than an ensemble, and some of the plucked strings cited below.

Interestingly, while there are hundreds of permutations of plucked strings around the globe, and while some are closely related by genealogy or history and others unrelated, in many cultures these instruments often share certain characteristics, functions, or associations. These might include:

* contrasted use of either a "finger-picking" technique usually but not always employed to arpeggiate chords in an accompanimental role or a plectrum technique, used to sound full chords, or, more often, articulate single-note lines. Examples of the former would be country-blues guitar or Renaissance theorbo; examples of the latter might include Irish backup guitar or jazz melody playing.

* in the case of "fingerstyle" technique, some use of polyphony or combined melody & bass line in one part; in the case of plectrum technique, these instruments when played solo often employ a melody-over-drone texture.

* in terms of social and cultural associations, plucked strings' ability to play either melodically or in an accompanimental fashion has led to their application in a range of contexts. Interestingly, though, across many cultures the plucked strings' portability and accompanimental capacity its ability to "travel light" and to accompany singing, has often led to specific associations for players of these instruments. Those players often take the cultural role of minstrel-poet (the Turkish asik, playing saz, or the Irish filidh, playing cruit or harp), the oral historian or praise singer (the West African griot or the Bulgarian epic singer), or the iconoclastic rebel or social critic or outcast (the punk rock guitarist or the Greek rebetica player, on bouzouki). In some cases, the social/cultural associations for players of plucked strings are so strong that the instrument itself is a symbol of office (the saz is this sort of symbol for the Turkish asik, the vina for Hindu deities).

Examples of a few instruments or instrument "ideas" and their travels.

I. skin-faced lutes: "banjo family"
That is, a instrument, often hollowed from a log or made from a gourd, with a soundboard made of stretched skin or rawhide. Often the instrument uses a "through-the-body" construction to anchor the strings at both ends; often fretless and played with the right hand either fingerpicking or playing some repetitive down-stroke oriented rhythmic pattern. Begins in West Africa with instruments like the Mande doussou n'goni, Senegalese xalam, or Gnawa sintir (a bass version); the "idea" travels across the Black Atlantic and is reborn as the North American banjar (the earliest versions of which were fretless, built on a gourd, and had only three strings).

II. harp-lutes: "kora family"
So-called by colonial ethnomusicologists because the instrument combines elements of both: the multiple plucked strings of the harp or lyre family, and the bowl-shaped body and thin soundboard of the lute. Begins with things like the Senegambian kora and Wassoulou kamelengoni; not the instrument, but the idea of playing arpeggiated patterns over an alternating bass in the thumb gets picked up by Georgia Piedmont-style blues.

III. short-necked double-strung lutes: "oud family"
Usually a bowl-shaped back, thin and often unbraced top, soundhole(s) reinforced with a carved rosette, a short neck (originally fretless, then with tied frets, then eventually with wooden or metal permanent frets), strung with pairs of gut strings in unison (for volume). Usually played with a plectrum technique, oriented toward melody-plus-drone textures. Begins as the Near Eastern oud (an ancient and ubiquitous instrument), moves West through North Africa and Spain into Europe as the Renaissance lute (from the Arabic l'aoud meaning "gourd" or "wood") before acquiring more strings, a longer neck (for more bass range), and a fingerstyle technique to imitate Renaissance and Baroque keyboard functions. Moves east through Asia Minor, into Central Asia, mutating both in its name and its design. Arrives in (what is now modern) Afghanistan and North India as the sarod (from the Arabic sir ud, "master of the lutes).

IV. long-necked double (wire)-strung lutes: "saz family"
Usually a small bowl-shaped body, thin and unbraced top, small (or no) soundholes), long neck (originally fretless, then with tied frets, then eventually with wooden or metal permanent frets), strung with pairs (or trios) of wire strings tuned in unison or octaves and under low tension, yielding a buzzy, quiet sound. Usually played with a plectrum technique, oriented toward melody-plus-drone textures, but often with a wide range of highly virtuosic right-hand strumming and polyrhythmic textures. Known in medieval Europe (and pictured in manuscripts) as the Moor-associated gitarra saracenica; shows up throughout the circum-Mediterranean in various forms and under various names but with the basic "idea" intact. Modern versions include the Greek bouzouki, Turkish tanbur and saz, Central Asian dotar, North Indian sitar.

V. early European plucked strings: "cittern family"
Usually a small body, often (originally) carved from a single block later built up in ribs and with a tin, often arched or carved top. Strung with single gut strings under fairly high tension. Played with various permutations of plectrum technique. Earliest known depiction is the Graeco-Roman lyre, a 4- to 8-stringed instrument like a small harp, but with the soundboard in the same plane as the strings (rather than perpendicular). Tuned to a simple scale or tetrachord, primarily used to accompany speech or song (hence its associations as the symbol of the poet-God Apollo, similar to the harp's old-testament association with poet-King David). Adapted in North Europe (especially the British Isles, Ireland, and Scandinavia as the lyre, crotta, crowd, or cruit. Actually predates the lute as the first European plucked-string. Adapted with added fingerboard, and melded with lute/fiddle ideas, as the gittern (plucked) which is closely related to the vielle (bowed). Later melds again with the vihuela (a synthesis of lute and indigenous Spanish instruments) as the cittern or "English guitar", a sort of overgrown mandolin employed a r'entrante tuning (e.g., one that starts on the lowest string with a high-pitch, descends in pitch to the middle strings, and then ascends in pitch again to the top strings (e.g., rather like "Nashville" guitar tuning, where the low E, A, and D are replaced with strings pitched an octave higher). Viheula-plus-gittern yields baroque and then modern guitar.

VI. "slide family"
Related to the long-necked lutes above, but really more of an "idea" about how to play and instrument, rather than how to design it. The Hindusthnai vichitravina that is, a vina (ancestor of the sitar) played with a smooth stone as a slide in the right hand to "fret" the strings, and thus imitate the microtonal inflections of North Indian singing styles. This idea of stopping the string with a slide rather than a finger or fret, came to the South Pacific with the influence of Indian culture. It was picked up on in Polynesia and in Hawaii, and when Spanish guitars came to the Islands in the 19th century with Argentine and Spanish cowboys imported by colonists, local players began adapting the slide idea to this new plucked string instrument. There was a fad for "things Hawaiian" after the 1898 World Exposition in Chicago, where Hawaiian musicians performed, and early recordings of these musicians were made for demonstration purposes. These demo records were sent along with early gramophones, and players in the American South heard them. They picked up on the use of the guitar, recognizing the similarity of the Hawaiian slide technique to indigenous West African one-stringed slide instruments, and the Delta version called the "diddley-bow" (a string nailed to a wall, with a rock wedged under it to change pitch; also related to the Afro-Brazilian berimbau), and the result was the slide-style Mississippi Delta blues of Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. The beautiful recording A Meeting By the River, featuring blues scholar Ry Cooder and vichitravina player Vishna Mowan Bhatt, is thus a most logical (and very successful) melding of two instruments with strong historical connections.

Comments on bouzouki

Bouzouki is a Greek instrument, part of a family of long-necked, wirestrung lutes played from South Italy, through the Ionian peninsula and the Balkans, to Turkey, into Central Asia and finally to North India. They're known by different names and have different specifics throughout these regions (bouzouki, baglama, saz, cura, dotar, tar, sitar, etc).

Four people are initially and principally responsible for the incorporation of the bouzouki into Celtic/Irish/Scots styles: Andy Irvine (Sweeney's Men, Planxty, solo stuff, Patrick Street) and Johnny Moynihan (Sweeney's Men, Planxty, De Danaan), both of whom encountered the instrument while busking in Eastern Europe, and Alec Finn (De Danann) and Donal Lunny (Planxty, Bothy Band, Moving Hearts), who picked up on the idea. Also Brian MacNeill of the Battlefield Band, who a couple of years later (c1974) went a separate route in commissioning an instrument from Stefan Sobell, and Dave Richardson of the Boys of the Lough, who essentially asked Stefan Sobell to build him a wooden tenor banjo with double-courses like a mandolin.

The instrument (and the many adaptations specifically for Celtic music, called variously "cittern," "mandocello," "bouzouki," "octave mandolin," etc) is especially useful because (in contrast to guitar)

a) its tunings can literally mimic those of the fiddle, making fiddle tunes easier to finger;

b) its tunings can greatly facilitate using moving chords or lines against open drone strings, which in turn helps bring out the modal and drone-oriented character of much Celtic music (cf bagpipe drones),

c) it can be either percussive/rhythmic or melodic/contrapuntal.

Primarily utilized as an accompanimental instrument, but cf also the melody/lead work of Gerald Trimble, Roger Landes, and the above players.