Instruments on the Recordings

Many of the instruments heard on this recording are relatively rare today, though most were common and important in the days when acoustic music was common and important. This page tells you something about the instruments used.

Bouzouki (Cittern, Octave Mandolin)

BouzoukiAn instrument found in several traditions. If used for Greek music, it is
usually called a bouzouki. If it’s Irish, where is it very popular, it’s a cittern. On the rare occasions a classical musician uses it, the likely name is an octave mandolin.

The general construction is like that of the mandolin family, though with a much longer neck than on a normal mandolin. Like mandolins, bouzoukis usually have eight strings, though ten-string models are not uncommon. The strings are strung in pairs, usually but not always with the bass strings tuned in octaves (that is, with one string pitched an octave above the other). The common tuning is GDAE (like a violin, but an octave lower).

The cittern played by Don Clark of Walking on Air was fairly similar to the one shown here, though the body was somewhat narrower. The bouzouki played by Brian Miller is somewhat different; it is somewhat larger, and is tuned all in courses (that is, every pair of strings is tuned to the same pitch, not in octaves), and it has a deep back like a “taterbug” mandolin.

Almost without exception, the bouzouki is played with a plectrum.

For another member of the mandolin family, see the mandocello below.

(Clawhammer) Banjo

BanjoDescended from African instruments made from gourds, the banjo might be defined as a drum with strings. The instrument consists of a round “pot” over which a thin membrane (originally skin, now usually plastic) is stretched; this forms the drum. A neck is attached to the drum, and strings stretched over it. The noises made by the strings are picked up by the bridge, which presses against the drum; the sounds are amplified by the drum, giving a sound quite unlike most stringed instruments.

There are now many members of the banjo family: Tenor banjo, clawhammer banjo, bluegrass banjo. A tenor banjo has only four strings, and is usually tuned like a member of the mandolin family; it is common in Irish music and in some jazz forms such as Dixieland. Clawhammer and bluegrass banjos have five strings, with the fifth string shorter than the others and played as a drone; these instruments are usually tuned to a smaller set of intervals, such as DGBDg (where g is the fifth string); this is the standard G tuning. (It is common to retune a banjo to play in other keys.) The main difference in the construction of bluegrass and clawhammer (“old-time”) banjos is that bluegrass banjos place a back (“resonator”) on the drum, making them even louder than the other types. Occasionally you will see a fretless clawhammer banjo; this is very rare in other types of banjos.

The real difference between clawhammer and bluegrass banjos, though, is not construction but playing style. Bluegrass banjo is played with three fingers, and picks on each finger; the player alternates finger and thumb in a regular patterns known as a roll and built around a regular rhythm in 2/4 time. Clawhammer uses only one finger and the thumb, and no picks; the thumb plucks the drone string and then the finger picks down on one of the other strings to play the melody. There are, of course, variations on each style.

You can see Curtis of Curtis & Loretta playing clawhammer banjo in the video of “Sweet Bessie From Pike.”

Celeste

The celeste (celesta) is a little bit piano, a little bit handbell, and a little bit steam engine. It is a keyboard instrument (though the celeste Loretta plays is much smaller than a piano or even most electronic keyboards), and uses steam or mechanical power to strike metal bars such as are found in a xylophone. This gives it a very high, tinkly sound unlike any stringed instrument.

If the instrument sounds familiar — Tchaikovsky wrote the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies for celeste. This was one of the very first uses of the instrument, which was invented in the 1880 by the Augustine Mustel and his associates. It was sort of a mechanized glockenspiel.

You can see Loretta of Curtis & Loretta playing celeste in the video of “The Farmer Is the Man.”

Concertina

ConcertinasAlthough a relatively recent invention, the concertina quickly became popular with travelling people such as sailors, because it is small and easy to transport. The basic principle is much like the accordion: The instrument contains reeds which are blown by air being pushed into or pulled out of the bag of the instrument.

The concertina is held in the hand, with the thumb and pinky supporting it on each side; the other three fingers on each hand press buttons to activate the reeds. The arms are used to expand or contract the instrument, which forces the air over the reeds. The photo shows a concertina with the bellows fully compressed and another (actually the same one, with the photos merged via Photoshop) partly open, showing how it expands — “concertina” style.

There are two kinds of concertinas, English and Anglo. English concertinas play the same note if pulled open or pushed closed; Anglos play different notes. The model shown here is an English. It has 49 buttons, 48 white ones to play different notes (with the notes of the C scale starting in the center rows and the outside rows for sharps and flats) and the one black button silent, to let the player fill or empty the bellows without making a sound.

Appalachian or Mountain Dulcimer

DulcimersOne of several instruments called a “dulcimer” (the other common kind is the hammered dulcimer, which has many more strings and is played by striking the strings with small hammers or mallets), the Appalachian dulcimer was common in the mountain regions of the eastern United States. Appalachian dulcimers took many shapes, two of which are shown here. The one on the left is “single-bouted,” that is, it has only one wide spot. This is said to be the most common style in Virginia. The model on the right is “double-bouted” or “hourglass-shaped”; this is the Kentucky version, and now probably the best-known; Jean Ritchie, probably the most famous Appalachian Dulcimer player, was born in Viper, Kentucky and used this style.

There are several similar instruments known in Europe; Stephen Reynolds listed the Swedish hummel (though there are several types of instruments called hummels), the German Sheitholt/Scheitholz, the French epinette des Vosges, and the Icelandic langspil (played with a bow rather than a pick or a feather). One or another of these is probably the ancestor of the American dulcimer, but there is disagreement about which.

The “standard” dulcimer had three strings, but instruments with four or five or six strings were also made; most modern dulcimers, including the two shown here, have at least four. Often the two highest strings are paired. This is so that the melody, which is played on these strings, will sound more clearly.

If you look carefully, you’ll see that the Appalachian dulcimer is fretted, but with an unusual fret pattern: Only the notes of the scale have frets; there are no frets for accidentals. The dulcimer is played in only one key, and must be retuned either to play in a different key or in a different mode. Dulcimers are tuned in many tunings. If the lowest string is tuned to D, two of the most common modes are DAA (that is, bass string tuned to low D and the next two tuned to the A above that) and DAD (that is, bass string D, middle string A, high string D an octave above the low string). The tuning used on “The Colorado Trail” is DAD.

The Appalachian Dulcimer is played on the lap, with the left hand fretting the strings and the right hand picking them. The usual form of picking is to just brush a flatpick (or other pick — some people use things like a turkey feather) across the strings at the other end.

The dulcimer is considered very easy to play, because you can’t really hit a wrong note (because the only notes you can fret are in the scale, just about every note at least harmonizes with the right note). Many people just use a stick, called a noter stick, to fret the high string, with the two lower strings sounding as drones.

Classical (nylon-strung) Guitar

ClassicalGuitarAt first glance, this may look much like a regular acoustic guitar. But there are subtle differences between steel- and nylon/gut-strung guitars. A steel-strung guitar is subjected to much greater forces, and as a result must be built much more heavily (a 12-string guitar needs even more bracing). The nylon-strung guitar therefore tends to have a more delicate sound.

In addition, the classical guitar has a wider neck (possible in part because it takes less force to pressure a nylon string). The body shape is usually subtly different as well. Thus playing nylon- and steel-strung guitars does take somewhat different skills. And that is why both still survive, because they have different capabilities.

Unlike a steel-strung guitar, a classical guitar is never played with a flatpick; there are different styles of play, from flamenco to classical to folk, but all are based on some sort of fingerpicking.

12-string Guitar

Guitar12StringGuess what: It’s a guitar with twelve strings!

The strings of a 12-string guitar are placed in pairs, so that the fingering is just like a “regular” guitar, but the extra strings give an especially rich sound. Normally the four lower pairs of strings (the E, A, D, and G pairs) are tuned in octaves, the top two pairs (B and high E) in courses. This means that the highest-pitched string on a 12-string is actually the higher string of the G pair, not the high E strings.

Because of the large number of strings on a 12-string, it is often tuned several steps below a normal 6-string guitar. (And even so, it is often hard to keep one in tune. This is probably one of the main reasons so many people play 6-string rather than 12-string guitar. Also, a 6-string guitar, because it is strung with heavier strings, often has a much stronger bass component than a 12-string.)

The 12-string guitar was largely popularized by Huddie Ledbetter, known as “Lead Belly,” a famous Black performer of the first half of the twentieth century. He played it in a fingerpicking style, which took advantage of the instrument’s larger range, though probably the majority of people today play with a flatpick. The majority of 12-string songs on this recording are played fingerstyle, with a thumb pick but no fingerpicks.

Harmonica

HarmonicaOne of the few instruments on this recording which is not stringed. Instead, the harmonica is a “reed” instrument (though the reeds in a harmonica are in fact made of metal). You put it to your mouth and blow on it. Harmonicas come in a variety of different styles; normally a particular harmonica will play only in a single key and scale. (There are chromatic harmonicas which can play all twelve notes, usually by pressing a bar to shift the pitch, but most players prefer to have different harmonicas for different keys.)

You can see Curtis of Curtis & Loretta playing harmonica in the included videos.

The harmonica is often a good instrument for young people because it is relatively inexpensive and easy to slip in a pocket, plus it is hard to hit a really wrong note. True, it is easily lost — but, generally speaking, people will return it to you, because using someone else’s harmonica is not generally something people want to do….

Celtic Harp

HarpLorettaCalled “Celtic” because it is so strongly associated with the music of Ireland, the Celtic harp is generally similar to the concert harp, but smaller and with fewer strings; it does not have the range of the much bigger concert instruments. Nor does it have pedals, so the pitch of a string must be set before it is played.

Note the red and blue strings on this instrument. These show the player where the C and F notes are located. Note also the “sharping levers” on these strings, which can shift them from C and F to C# and F#, allowing the instrument to play in more keys. (Some Celtic harps have more sharping levers, some have fewer.)

The Celtic Harp is played with the bare hand (one on each side, obviously); no picks are used.

The photo at right shows Loretta Simonet of Curtis & Loretta with her Celtic Harp. You can also see her playing it on the video of “Gerry’s Rocks.”

Mandocello

MandocelloCurtisThe Mandocello is so-called because it’s built like a mandolin and tuned like a ‘cello. It’s pretty simple, really: The mandolin family parallels the violin family: The (standard) mandolin and the violin are tuned GDAE. The mandola and viola are half an octave below that. The ‘cello (properly violoncello) and mandocello take the octave below that. But whereas the violin family members have four strings and are played with bows, the mandolin family members have eight strings (tuned in pairs) and are played with picks.

The mandocello, like the ‘cello, is noteworthy for its beauty in playing notes in its lower register. Although the range is not too different from a guitar, the feeling is very different.

The photo at right shows Curtis Teague of Curtis & Loretta with his mandocello. You can also see him playing it on the video of “Gerry’s Rocks.”

For another member of the mandolin family, see the bouzouki above.

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