String instruments are those that produce sound by creating a vibration of the strings. Also called chordophones or stretched instruments, most have strings supported by a neck that is attached to a hollow body. When the strings vibrate, the vibrations transfer to the body of the instrument and the air inside of it, making it audible. This doesn’t apply to instruments that rely on electric amplification, like an electric guitar, which have a solid body, or framed string instruments, such as the harp.
Each string on a chordophone has a different frequency depending on the size, material, and tension, resulting in different sounds. The strings may be plucked, struck or bowed (rubbed) to produce sound, each causing the strings to vibrate in a specific pattern. Some string instruments, like the sarod, have a number of thin extra strings that are not touched but still vibrate when the main strings are struck. These are called sympathetic or resonance strings, and they produce a slight echo of the main strings.
The body of a string instrument is typically made from wood but can also be made from vegetable fiber, metal, silk, or artificial materials like plastic or nylon. The material the instrument is made of determines the timbre, or character and quality, of the sound it produces. The same is true of the strings themselves. Strings can be made of steel, brass, nylon, or gut. Some strings are made from two materials, having a core of one material wrapped in others, called wound strings. All of these different elements come together in unique combinations to produce the desired sound.
String instruments have been around for thousands of years, with some of the earliest artifacts found in India and Iraq dating back to 2000-500 BCE. While development of stringed instruments varied from civilization to civilization, many historical examples are clear precursors to the instruments that are popular today. For example, Indian literature from the 2nd century referenced a string instrument that resembles the modern veena and an early version of the violin emerged in 5th century Europe.
Many of the early instruments were rudimentary in shape and strings. The first breakthrough in design came from the Middle Eastern rebec, the first instrument to have a half pear shaped body. Design and construction were refined during the 12th century onward, especially during the Medieval period and the European Renaissance. It was during this era that instruments more closely resembling modern versions emerged, such as the guitar and sitar. Throughout this era, string instruments became more intricate and consistent in design, woodwork and stringing.
While high-quality instruments have always been hand-crafted individually, the 19th century introduced mass production, leading to standardization and widespread use of popular instruments. The next major change to stringed instruments came with the 20th century and the advent of electricity. By the 1920s, electronic instrument amplification had been developed and the violin became one of the first electric instruments. Soon, power amplifiers and external speakers were developed, making way for the modern electric guitar and electronic tanpura.
While there are many ways to classify different stringed instruments, they can generally be divided into three main groups: lutes, harps, and zithers.
Lutes refer to any instrument with strings running the length of a neck, which is connected to a body. Most lutes have soundboards, which is a surface for the strings to vibrate against, typically in the form of a bridge. Soundboards can be simple or very intricate, depending on the instrument and the desired quality of sound. Lutes come with or without frets - small bars or ridges along the neck of the instrument - that divide the neck into segments. The number of strings on a lute varies greatly, from just one to several dozens. Examples of this type of string instrument include:
Harps are instruments that contain the strings within a frame. Some of them have strings stretched across a soundboard, while others - like the traditional open harp - have strings running at an angle to the soundboard. They vary greatly in size, with some small enough to be played on the lap up to ones that must rest on the floor. While harps typically only have one set of strings, some have up to three rows of them. Like most string instruments, the strings are attached to tuning pegs that are able to adjust the tension of the string. Most harps can change pitch via a lever or a pedal, usually depending on the size. Although there are many kinds of harps from all over the world, they typically share the same name.
Zithers are instruments with strings stretched across a thin, flat body. Zithers can be played by plucking the strings with fingers or a plectrum, rubbing the strings with a bow, or most commonly, hitting the strings with specially shaped hammers. Like lutes, zithers have a body that serves as a resonating chamber but unlike lutes, they don't have a neck. The number of strings on a zither varies from a few to over 50. Examples of this type of string instrument include:
String instruments are typically played using one (or more) of three techniques: plucking, bowing, and striking.
Plucking involves using a finger, thumb or plectrum (pick) to vibrate the strings of the instrument. The most commonly plucked instruments include the guitar, harp, mandolin, sitar, and banjo.
Bowing involves rubbing the strings with a bow made of hair stretched between the ends. The most common material is horse tail hair, which is then rubbed with rosin to allow the bow to grip the strings. The most commonly bowed instruments include the violin, cello, rebec, and sarangi.
Striking involves hitting the strings with a small hammer, and sometimes a bow, to produce a sharp vibration of the strings. Some instruments use felt hammers but much more commonly a mallet hammer is used, such as with a dulcimer or santoor.
Other methods of playing strings are usually dictated by a unique instrument. The aeolian harp, for example, is made to be played by the movement of air. Keyboards with strings attached are also classified as string instruments, like the piano, clavichord, and the harpsichord. Although the strings of those instruments may also be plucked or bowed by hand. Electric string instruments, such as the electric guitar, can be played without touching the strings at all by using audio feedback. The pitch of these sounds is determined by the proximity of the guitar to the amplifier.
The wide range of sounds produced by various string instruments depends largely on being able to change the pitch of the vibrating string. One of the ways to change pitch is by varying the length of the string - longer strings result in a lower pitch, while shorter strings result in a higher one. While strings are typically fixed in length on an instrument, many have strings of varying lengths. Almost all string instruments can adjust pitch by turning a peg to which the string is attached. A looser string with less tension results in a lower pitch, while a tighter string with greater tension results in a higher pitch. This is how string instruments are tuned to certain keys or pitches. Pitch can also be varied by changing the density of the string. Heavier strings produce a lower pitch, while thin strings produce a higher one. Large bass strings usually have extra weight added by winding them with metal, while a very thin string may be made of brass or steel.
The world of string instruments has been home to a great number of renowned experts, both in history and current day. Below are some of the most talented and well-known modern day string musicians from around the world.