What are stringed instruments? Meet the members of the string family
As their name suggests, stringed instruments use vibrated strings to produce sound – but how are these instruments played and what are the different types?
What are stringed instruments?
Stringed instruments are a family of instruments that produce sound from vibrated strings. These can be plucked with the fingers or a plectrum, like the acoustic guitar; made to sound by drawing a bow across the strings, like a violin or cello; or hit with a light wooden hammer, as inside a modern-day piano.
What are the types of stringed instruments?
Bowed stringed instruments
Modern bowed stringed instruments – violin, viola, cello and double bass – make up the string section of the western symphony orchestra. Early versions of these instruments such as the viol or viola da gamba first appeared in Spain in the mid-to-late 15th century, and were most popular in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The modern violin first appeared in the early 16th century. The viola, cello and double bass are larger cousins of the violin, which produce deeper sounds.
The body of modern bowed stringed instruments generally comprise a hollow, wooden box (or soundbox), fingerboard and four strings made or steel, nylon or gut. The bow is a wooden stick strung with horse or synthetic hair.
Rosin, a sticky substance similar to sap, is used by string players to add friction to the bow hair so that it grips the strings and allows them to ‘speak’. The player rubs the hardened cake of rosin onto the bow hair to achieve an even coat. As it’s applied, the cake becomes a white powder which bonds to the bow hair.
- The violin: when it was invented and how it has changed throughout history
- What are the differences between a violin and a viola?
- The double bass: a comprehensive guide to the orchestra's largest string instrument, and how it differs to the cello
- How has violin sound developed through the years?
- 20 greatest violinists of all time
The player holds the bow with their right hand and with their left hand holds the instrument’s fingerboard, using the fingers as stops on the strings to create notes of different pitches. The violin and viola are held under the player’s chin, while the cello and double bass are head upright against the payer’s body – a metal spike, attached to the bottom of the instrument, anchors it to the floor.
Above: Hilary Hahn plays Bach on the violin
Players of bowed stringed instruments may also put the bow aside and use their right-hand fingers to pluck the strings – a technique called pizzicato.
Plucked stringed instruments
Plucking is a method of making the instrument sound using either a finger, thumb, or plectrum to pluck the strings. Popular plucked stringed instruments include the banjo, ukulele, guitar, harp, lute, mandolin and the Indian classical sitar.
Guitars, banjos, ukulele and mandolins are played with the body of the instrument – again a hollow box generally made of wood in acoustic versions – in the lap when sitting, or held at the abdomen when standing. The right hand plucks the instruments’ strings while the left hand stops the strings to create different pitches.
Unlike bowed stringed instruments, plucked stringed instruments usually have metal frets positioned along the fingerboard which act as guides to create different pitches. Guitars can have between four and 18 strings, though typically have six. Banjos can have between four and six strings, while the ukulele has four.
- A quick guide to the classical guitar
- The ukulele: where it originated from and how it become popular
- What is a harp?
The harp is another type of plucked stringed instrument, which is broadly triangular in shape. Each string produces just one note, and the gradation of string length from short to long corresponds to pitch from high to low. A modern concert harp – used in orchestral music since the 19th century – typically has 47 strings. This type of harp has seven foot-pedals, which alter the pitches of the strings, so that it can easily play works written in any key.
Above: Héloïse de Jenlis performs Debussy on the harp
The modern Celtic or folk harp, which appeared in Ireland in the early 19th century, is far smaller, and arched or bow shaped. It does not have pedals and can be played while resting on the lap.
Hammered stringed instruments
The modern piano wouldn’t usually be categorised as a stringed instrument, as the pianist uses a keyboard to create pitches – hence its categorisation as a keyboard instrument. However, its 88 black and white keys are connected to coated wooden hammers inside the instrument which strike tightened strings of different lengths (much like the harp’s). When the key is released, a damper stops the string's vibration, ending the sound – but notes can be sustained by the use of pedals at the base of the instrument, which hold the dampers off the strings.
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- What are the different parts of the piano?
- 10 most famous pianos
- The 20 greatest pianists of all time
The hammered dulcimer is a percussion-stringed instrument which consists of strings stretched over a resonant sound board. The player holds a small spoon-shaped mallet hammer in each hand to strike the strings. Hammered dulcimers and other similar instruments are traditionally played in Iraq, India, Iran, Southwest Asia, China, Korea, and parts of Southeast Asia, Central Europe, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia. Sub-types include the salterio, hackbrett, cimbalom, santur, yangqin and khim.
Acoustic vs electric stringed instruments – how do they work?
All acoustic bowed stringed instruments have modern-day electric counterparts, equipped with an electronic output. Generally, these are made from carbon fibre, kevlar and glass and have solid bodies – the sound is magnified through an amp rather than using the natural resonance of the strings and hollow soundbox.
Acoustic violins and their cousins can also be fitted with an electric pickup to amplify their natural sound.
Like electric violins, electric guitars use one or more pickups to convert the vibration of their strings into electrical signals, reproduced as sound by loudspeakers. Invented in 1932, the electric guitar was initially adopted by jazz guitar players, but during the 1950s and 60s became a crucial component of pop music in general, encompassing genres from pop and rock to country music and blues.
The electric guitar has become synonymous with rock music and heavy metal in particular, where it forms two main functions: rhythm guitar, providing chord sequences and riffs, and lead guitar, which provides melody lines and solos.
Above: Richie Sambora performs the guitar solo from 'Dry County' by Bon Jovi
Today the most common type of electric guitar has a solid body and six strings, while the bass guitar has a longer neck and typically four to six strings.
Charlotte Smith is the editor of BBC Music Magazine. Born in Australia, she hails from a family of musicians with whom she played chamber music from a young age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from London's Royal College of Music, followed by a master’s in English from Cambridge University. She was editor of The Strad from 2017 until the beginning of 2022, and has also worked for Gramophone Magazine and as a freelance arts writer. In her spare time, she continues to perform as an active chamber musician.