Folk World String Instruments

String musical instruments, also known as chordophones, produce a sound when the tensioned strings are vibrated using a bow or when they are plucked or struck.  

Musicians can pluck the strings with fingernails or a plectrum, which is also known as a ‘pick’, whilst a bowed instrument is played with a bow made of horsehair being stroked across the strings to cause them to vibrate and produce the sound.  

Folk musicians use both methods to create their distinctive style of music.

Types of instrument

There are three principal groups of string instruments:

  • Zithers – This is where the strings are mounted on a frame or body, instruments like harpsichords, pianos and a cimbaloms fall into this category
  • Lutes – Instruments where the strings are supported by a next and a bout, or ‘gourd’, and include guitars, fiddles and violins
  • Harps – This is where the strings are contained within a frame

Techniques for playing string instruments

There are three common techniques for playing string instruments:

  • Plucking – This is where strings are plucked using a finger, thumb or a plectra
  • Bowing – A bow is drawn forwards and backwards across the strings so they vibrate
  • Striking – The strings are struck by hammers to give a percussive sound

String instruments favoured by folk musicians

Folk musicians use a range of string instruments that aren’t usually associated with an orchestra.  These include:

  • Banjos – These can include four, five or even six strings that sit above a thin resonator membrane sitting over a frame, known as the head.  The strings are plucked by the musician to create a unique sound
  • Dobros – A form of acoustic guitar that uses a metal resonate in the body that acts as an amplifier but unlike traditional acoustic guitars, the resonator replaces the sound hole
  • Fiddles – A classic string instrument for folk music and played using a bow, it is similar to the violin but is usually slightly smaller and can be set with a bridge and a flatter arch that allows multiple strings to be played at the same time
  • Acoustic guitars – A form of chordophone, it can be built with four to eighteen strings but usually a guitar has only six strings.  It is played by plucking or strumming the strings to make them vibrate and produce a sound
  • Dulcimers – With three or more strings, one plays the melody whilst the others act as drones
  • Mandolins – has double strings and is played using a plectra to produce its sound, and is also able to play a full range of chords.