A versatile instrument with a rich history, the guitar has been popular for thousands of years and is still well-liked in popular culture today. Forms of the guitar were thought to have been played in Egypt 5000 years ago. Around 1500 AD, the guitar became a prevalent instrument in Spain. Centuries later, in the 1920s, the guitar started overtaking the banjo in popularity in the United States. Now, the guitar is still a very popular instrument, especially in folk and rock music.
The guitar consists of a hollow sound chamber and a neck with frets, or small strips of metal, in chromatic order, across the fingerboard. The standard guitar has six strings, which are made of either steel or nylon. Nowadays, there are three main types of guitars. The classical acoustic guitar produces a soft clear sound, while the steel-string guitar produces a harder but louder sound. The electric guitar, which is also fitted with steel strings, can produce an array of sounds and volumes depending on how it is amplified.
The harp is one of the most ancient instruments in existence. It is thought to have been around for over four thousand years. The modern harp has 47 strings and seven pedals which control the pitches of the strings. The harp is played with both hands with four fingers from each hand. The natural key of the harp is C major, but by use of the pedals, string pitches can be altered up to two half-steps. Therefore, the harp can play all the notes of a chromatic scale. Harpists can play individual notes as well as chords, but they usually play the notes of a chord in rapid succession instead of all of at once. This technique is also used on other musical instruments and is called an "arpeggio," which means "played like a harp."
The pianoforte, more commonly known as simply the piano, is a large stringed instrument played with a keyboard. When a pianist strikes a key on the piano, a hammer hits a string inside the frame of the piano. These strings reverberating is how sound is produced on the piano. The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori. It was much like the harpsichord, an earlier keyboard instrument, except the harpsichord's strings were plucked, not hammered. The modern piano has a range of about seven octaves. It is used in a variety of music, from classical to pop.
Appalachian Dulcimer >>
The Appalachian (aka "mountain") dulcimer is an instrument that is unique in many ways. Unlike other instruments, it's tuning, shape, and size are regularly changed because there isn't a standard like there is for other instruments. The Appalachian dulcimer is a common folk instrument in and around Appalachia in the USA. It is not to be confused with the hammered dulcimer, which is a totally different instrument. The Appalachian dulcimer is a form of zither that usually has three or four strings.
The dulcimer is unlike most other stringed instruments because although it is fretted, or has strips of metal on the fingerboard to define notes, it is not fretted chromatically. It is usually fretted to match a major scale, or in the pattern of musical steps in whole steps and half steps. (We will abbreviate these steps here to W=whole step H=half step.) A major scale uses the musical step pattern of WWHWWWH. Because of this, the dulcimer can never play all the notes of a chromatic scale at any one time. It can only play songs in the mode that it is tuned to. Modes are the patterns of whole and half steps used in a song. The dulcimer is one of the few instruments where the mode of the song must be known before playing it. Some examples of modes are Ionian (modern major scale -- WWHWWWH) and Aeolian, which is the modern minor scale (WHWWHWW).
The violin is a instrument played by drawing a bow across its' four strings instead of plucking them. Violins have a long history, but they have been constructed in a standard fashion since the 1600s. The violin is usually made of several kinds of wood, including maple, ebony, and pine. The bow is made out of a long shaft of wood and horsehair. It is over two feet long. The viola is constructed and played like the violin, but it is a bigger size and has a lower pitch.
Instruments similar to the violin have been around for over a thousand years. The kemantche from Persia dates back to the 900s. It's body was made out of half of a coconut and it's neck was made of a stick. The rebec was another early instrument similar to the violin. It was popular in medeival times. The first modern-style violins didn't start developing until the 1500s.
The banjo is a stringed instrument that is part of the lute family. It has four or five strings stretched from the head to the body supported by a bridge across the body. The banjo's body is usually made of hide stretched across a wooden hoop, but it can also have a metal top. The banjo is common in folk, county and bluegrass music where the player usually fingerpicks or strums it. It's twanging sound is the banjo's unique characteristic. The origin of the banjo is uncertain, but some think that it originated from West Africa. Others think the name "banjo" is a corruption of "bandore," which is another instrument in the lute family, and the instrument is a form of bandore.
Other Lutes >>
The category of lutes, which are chordophones with strings parallel to one another, is large. Instruments such as the violin, banjo, and guitar as all lutes. However, lutes such as the mandolin, balalaika, sitar, and shamisen are less commonplace. The mandolin is a plucked lute which is usually pear-shaped. Early mandolins were large and had six to eight strings or pairs of strings, but most modern mandolins only have four pairs of strings. Each pair of strings is tuned to the same note and plucked as one to enhance the mandolin's sound. The balalaika, which is popular in Russian folk music, is a triangular shaped lute with three strings that is tuned in intervals of fourths or fifths. Some say it has a melancholy sound. A lute known as the shamisen, which has a nasal tone quality, is used in Japan. The sitar, which is a large instrument with a bright, jangly tone, is an instrument from India which has been popularized around the world by Ravi Shankar, a sitar virtuoso.
An instrument called the lute also belongs to the lute family. Similar to a mandolin in appearance, the lute similarly has a pear shaped body and with a flat top and a fretted neck. The lute was popular in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, but today it is mainly used only by musicians interested in early music. The lute's most distinguising feature is it's head, which is bent at a right angle away from the fingerboard. Most instruments in the lute family do not share this feature.