If you’ve never heard a hurdy gurdy, I find it easiest to think of it like a mechanical fiddle. The instrument is strapped to the body in a manner similar to a guitar. A crank is manipulated by the right hand that drives a wheel inside the body of the instrument that bows the strings of the hurdy gurdy. Notes are played by the left hand by pressing keys on a keyboard that stop the strings inside the keychest, shortening the vibration length and raising the pitch.
The Hurdy Gurdy is given its characteristic sound through a combination of the percussive keys pressing against the strings, drone strings that accompany the melody, as well as the ability to provide its own percussive rhythm with a buzzing wooden bridge. I like to describe the sound of a hurdy gurdy as a cross between a violin and a bag pipe, while someone keeps time on a kazoo.
What surprises many people is just how loud the instrument is! Since it is a medieval instrument, it was used before musicians had electronic amplification systems, so it’s been designed to throw sound as far as it can. This, combined with the many drone strings, allows the Hurdy Gurdy to function quite well as a standalone solo instrument.
As my main weapon of choice, I enjoy playing both acoustically as well as amplified. In venues that allow for it, a multi effect processor allows me to provide a new dimension to the sound, as well as to the versatility of the instrument.
Pipe and Tabor
Perhaps one of the oldest “one man band” style instrumental setups, the Pipe and Tabor are two separate instruments played together more often than not. Melody is provided by the Tabor Pipe, a three holed end blown flute, that is held between the lips and the pinky and ring fingers of one hand. Pitch is controlled by both covering and uncovering the holes as well as the strength of breath blown into the flute.
While one hand plays the Tabor Pipe, the other keeps rhythm on the Tabor Drum, which is suspended by a strap from the arm holding the Pipe. This drum is made from a wooden frame with stretched goat skin on both sides forming the drum heads. A thin cord is stretched down the middle of one side of the drum to create a snare like buzzing sound when it is struck.
Named for the material they were historically made from, Bones are one of the oldest forms of musical instruments. Traditionally made from the ribs of goats, today’s percussion bones are frequently made from a variety of woods. Different woods provide a different timbre, allowing for a brighter or deeper sound from song to song.
The Bones are a pair of semi-curved sticks held between the fingers of one hand. There are various playing positions from tradition to tradition, however there are always these constants: One bone is held firmly in place while the other bone is held loosely enough for it to sway back and forth. By quick rotations of the wrist, the loose bone clacks against the stable bone, and when timed properly, can create a variety of rhythms.
Used frequently in both Celtic and Bluegrass music, the Bones offer a distinct percussive flair that evokes an old world feel.
While maybe not the most historically accurate instrument in my repertoire, the ukulele is perhaps the most familiar instrument on this list for many people. Known for it’s cheerful, gentle sound, the ukulele in native to Hawaii. Descended from other small, guitar-esque instruments brought over seas, the ukulele needs little introduction. The four strings are made of nylon and provide a soft, pleasant tone. The small size of the instrument coupled with the nylon strings lend the ukulele to being better suited for smaller gatherings.
Great for vocal accompaniment, the ukulele is a simple way to fill the air with music. Complementing both chipper songs of love as well as melancholy tales of woe, the ukulele may be small, but its performance capabilities are huge!
The Cittern? The Lute? What about a Sackbut? I dunno, you tell me! I’m always on the lookout for my next wild and unusual renaissance instrument. If you think of one that I have just GOT to learn to play, let me know about it! If you’d like me to be able to afford a new instrument to learn, consider giving me dollars. I’ll make it worth your while!