Instruments | Stringed
Throughout its history, the guitar has – perhaps more than any other instrument – managed to bridge the gap between the often disconnected worlds of classical, folk and popular music. Its roots go back to Babylonian times; by the 1500s it was prevalent in Spain, and is still sometimes called the Spanish guitar.
Medieval versions – like the lute – sometimes sported rounded backs and paired strings: the 12-string guitar still exists (as heard on The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’). The standardized modern acoustic guitar has a flat back and sound board with a pronounced curved ‘waist’ to the body.
The acoustic guitar remained relatively unchanged until the twentieth century, when additions included steel strings for greater attack in dance-band settings, where it took over from the banjo. This marked the beginning of the guitar’s rise to a major role in popular music, leading directly to the development of the semi-acoustic and fully electric versions.
The aeolian harp is one of the rare instruments that does not require a human player. Even more significantly, there is no automatic or mechanical replacement for the performer, as there is in the player piano, for example. All that the aeolian harp requires is the wind to activate its other-worldly sound – it takes its name from Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds.
The harp’s origins are somewhat obscure, although it was certainly in use from the end of the sixteenth century. In construction it is not unlike the dulcimer: a box-like rectangular frame, about a metre long, with a range of strings made of gut laid across it. Each of these strings is tuned in unison (in other words, all to the same note) and the instrument is positioned at a suitable location to catch the wind. The current of air vibrates the strings to produce a soft humming sound; the stronger the wind the more harmonic overtones come into play, creating disembodied chords.
There have been efforts to modify the harp’s simplicity by tuning the strings to a chord, but it is generally accepted that the purest form is the best. Some organs attempt to imitate its soft sound with a stop called the Aeolina or Aeoline.
The triangular shape of the balalaika is universally recognized, but few people are aware of the importance of its role in Eastern European music; the balalaika is the Russian guitar. Lute-like predecessors were known from as early as the twelfth century, but it was a Russian nobleman called Vasily Andreyev, a virtuoso balalaika performer, who improved, modified and standardized the traditional instrument in the late 1800s.
Andreyev’s basic balalaika is characterized by the familiar shape: three strings and a fretted neck. The most common version is the ‘prima balalaika’, which unusually has two of the three strings tuned to the same note: despite this apparent restriction the instrument has a surprisingly large range. In addition the top two strings are...
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