Category Archives: Instruments Series

Instruments #15: Guitar

“The guitar is considered to be a member of the family of musical instruments called chordophones, but it is distinguished from other chordophones by its construction and tuning. The guitar is traditionally constructed from wood and strung with nylon or steel strings.

Guitar history is long and exciting, not only because many forms of guitar that were used across millennia but also important modern inventors that shaped the way we interact with guitars today. Today we can conclude that almost every society throughout history has been found to have used a variation of this instrument.

History of the guitar is in one sense, a history of entire modern humanity. With roots that go all the way to the birth of modern civilization in ancient Mesopotamia some four to five thousand years ago, the influence of musical instruments gave us the ability to create countless traditions. Among many instruments, simple stringed guitars and harps started their journey from the Middle East and Persia to the all four corners of the world, enabling our ancestors to put their touch on the history of guitar and modern music.

Roots of modern European guitar history started during the reign of Ancient Rome when they incorporated Greek stringed instrument Chitara and carried her across all the territories they managed to conquer. This guitar became the most basic and most popular type of guitar that was used on the European continent for more than 1000 years after the fall of Rome.”


Instruments #14: Piano

“Although exact dates are unknown, most history books agree that the first piano came into being around the turn of the 18th century, and the invention is widely accredited to Bartolomeo Cristofori. Cristofori’s pianos were commonly known as fortepianos.

The fortepiano designed by Cristofori is similar to the modern piano, only smaller in size than your typical modern day grand piano and with more ornate work around the legs, compared to the simple and sleek designs seen more often today. Many great classical composers, such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, all played on fortepianos.

Towards the turn of the 19th century, the instrument underwent a period of evolution. The fortepiano’s of Cristofori’s original design steadily became obsolete, replaced instead by the ‘modern’ piano that we know and love today. The change was in response to composers and pianists crying out for a more powerful sound and the evolution was made possible by the Industrial Revolution, which provided new materials to work with.

It’s testament to Cristofori’s original design that the grand pianos used around the world today are still very similar to his original invention. Acoustic concert pianos still have the same look to them, albeit with updated technology and new ways to improve them developing all the time.

However, as technology has developed so has the range of pianos on offer. These days, learners can purchase digital pianos. Digital pianos are far more practical for everyday use, as they’re far more compact in their design. They take up a lot less space in the average living room, dining room, or hallway than a full size grand piano.”


Instruments #13: Ukulele

“It produces a characteristic sound that immediately takes us to tropical environments. The ukulele was born in Hawaii but has its roots in Western Europe.

The ukulele is a four-stringed musical instrument made from wood that resembles a small classical guitar.

English speakers pronounce it as “you-ka-ley-ley” but, in fact, the spelling of the word is an anglicized version of the original Hawaiian pronunciation “ju-ke-lei-li.”

The father and mother of the ukulele are two musical instruments from Portugal – the cavaquinho and the machete, also known as braguinha. They were developed in Braga, a city located in the north of the country.

The history of the ukulele dates back to the late 19th-century. In 1879, Portuguese immigrants from Madeira decided to leave their home island in search of a better life, and well-paid jobs. Around 25,000 people found work in the Hawaiian archipelago, also known as Sandwich Islands.

In their luggage, they carried the machete, which immediately conquered the hearts and ears of the local population.

The Portuguese started working in Hawaii’s sugar plantations, but soon they were opening their own woodworking shops where musical instruments and furniture were sold side by side.

The European immigrants were excellent guitar players, and they quickly gained the appreciation of the local community and the royal family.

In less than two decades, the ukulele saw the light of day. It was a natural Hawaiian adaptation of several four and five-string instruments developed in Portugal.

Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo are often considered pioneers of the ukulele.

The popularity of the instrument grew in the first decades of the 20th-century when Mainland American tourists discovered the exotism of the Hawaiian archipelago.

So, what does ukulele mean? Interestingly, ukulele means “jumping flea.” The name was given because of its small size, and vibrant, cheerful, and exuberant sound.”


Instruments #12: Cajon

“The Cajon is an instrument with a rich and somewhat dark history. The word Cajon literally means box (Caja) or drawer (Cajon) in Spanish. Legend has it that 18th Century African slaves in Peru created the first Cajon. These slaves brought with them their rich drum and percussion tradition. Unfortunately, the Spanish colonial government were afraid that musical gatherings could be hotbeds for unrest.

In a move to curtail such social events, slave owners and police imposed a ban on traditional African drum music. The people’s spirit however, would not be so easily dampened and a deeply ingrained rhythm in their culture prevailed. Repurposed packing boxes left behind from the day’s work became the percussion instrument of choice. These boxes were easy to disguise as a seat or stool should the local constabulary happen past.

Today, buskers on the street, as well as bands in venues of all sizes, use the Cajon. The instrument has an earthy tone that provides a solid accompaniment for guitarists and singers. They are easy to transport and reliable, especially in acoustic sets where no power is available making them one of the most popular instruments used today.”


Instruments #11: Sitar

“The sitar is a stringed instrument played by plucking, is one of the most well known Indian musical instruments. It has gained popularity both in India and the west over the past few decades.

The origin of the sitar is however relatively unknown. It is regarded as an instrument that came in from Central Asia. It may also have descended from the 10th century long lute of the temple sculptures.

The 16th century Sufi mystic Amir Khusrow has also had a major role in the development of the instrument.

The sitar consists of a hemispherical base made out of a dried and hollowed gourd (tumba), a long half-round frame of wood (dandi), a second resonator, and wooden pegs that run through the length of the sitar. The number of frets on the dandi range from 16 to 24.
The tuning of the sitar has evolved into two very distict schools- the Pt. Ravi Shankar (instrumental style) and the Ustad Vilayat Khan (gayaki style) schools.”


Instruments #10: Accordion

“The accordion is a portable, freely vibrating reed instrument. It consists of a keyboard and bass casing that are connected by a collapsible bellows. Within the instrument are metal reeds, which create sound when air, generated by the movement of the bellows, flows around them and causes them to vibrate. The accordion is constructed from hundreds of pieces, and much of it is hand assembled. First constructed in the early nineteenth century, the accordion continues to evolve into an ever more versatile instrument.

Development of the accordion is generally thought to have been inspired by the Chinese cheng, the first known instrument to use a free vibrating reed to create sound. This instrument was invented approximately 5,000 years ago. It consists of a series of bamboo pipes, a resonator box, a wind chamber, and a mouthpiece. It has a shape that resembles a phoenix and was introduced to European musicians in 1777.

The first accordions were invented in the early nineteenth century. In Germany, Christian Buschmann introduced and patented an instrument called the “Handaeoline” in 1822. It had an expandable bellows, a portable keyboard, and a series of free vibrating reeds inside. Seven years later, Cyrillus Damian refined the instrument by adding four bass keys that produced chords. He was awarded a patent for this instrument, which he called an accordion.”


Instruments #9: Harmonica

“There are various accounts of who invented the harmonica. One candidate is Christian Friedrich Buschmann, an instrument maker from Berlin.

In 1821, when Buschmann was 16 years old, he created a flute with an iron reed for tuning organs, and he apparently showed off his invention wherever he went by playing melodies on it. It is said that various people tried their hand at altering the structure of this flute, which gradually took the form of today’s harmonica.

The harmonica was first imported to Japan from Germany in 1896. At the time, it was referred to as a “Western transverse flute.” Later, the instrument was known by such names as the “mouth organ” and the “mouth harp.” Around 1900, the modern term, “harmonica” gained currency.

Actually, when German people say the word “Harmonica,” they apparently could be referring either what they call a harmonica in Japan or an accordion. The accordion, which produces sound by pushing and pulling air through bellows, is another type of reed instrument.”


Instruments #8: Flute

“Transverse flutes made out of animal bones were used in Europe in the Paleolithic era. These instruments can certainly be regarded as the ancestor of the flute. However, it was not until the sixteenth century during the Renaissance period that the prototype of the flute that plays such a prominent role in the modern orchestra first emerged and came into widespread use.

The term “flute” was originally applied both to pipe instruments held sideways and pipe instruments held vertically. Thus, the vertically held recorder was also called a “flute.” Indeed, up until around the middle of the eighteenth century (the era of Baroque music), the word “flute” was commonly used to describe the recorder. To distinguish the transverse flute from the recorder, it was referred to in Italian as the flauto traverso, in German as the Querflöte, and in French as the flûte traversière-all of which mean “sideways held flute.””


Instruments #7: Harp

“The harp occupies a position unique in the history of music. It is the oldest known instrument, having existed in one form or another, in every land and every age.” – Lyon & Healy Counter Sales Book, 1925

The earliest evidence of the harp is found in Ancient Egypt around 2500 BC. Back then, the instrument was shaped like a bow and had very few strings. Without the column seen on modern harps, they could not support much string tension.

Between 700-1000 AD, frame harps appeared in western Europe, which had between 10 and 11 strings. They were followed in the 14th century by Irish harps, which were the first version of the instrument to have a hollowed sound box which amplified the sound.

In 1800, diatonic harps – also known as Renaissance harps – were invented. They had 24 or more gut strings, which were fixed to a soundboard with wooden pegs.

Fast forward ten years, and the double-action pedal harp was patented. This harp had seven pedals, which could be depressed twice and each string passed through two pronged discs.

It was then that the harp was introduced into orchestral music. The pedalling system, which made the instrument completely chromatic, meant that composers found the instrument much more flexible to write for.

You won’t find any harps in Mozart or Beethoven’s scores, but Berlioz, Ravel and Debussy wrote some beautiful solo and orchestral music for the instrument.”


Instruments #6: Lyre

The lyre is a musical instrument from the string family that dates back to the Ancient Greek world. In Greek mythology the lyre, chelys, phorminx, and kithara (all string instruments) were created by Hermes. Hermes made the lyre from a tortoise shell, and used it to steel cattle from Apollo. Hermes gave Apollo the lyre when the theft was discovered. In Ancient Greece the lyre was either played as a solo instrument or along with poetry or singing. It was played at most important events in Greece and is depicted in much of the early art dating back as far as 2000 BC to the Middle Bronze Age, but the lyre existed for at least 1000 years prior to this.

Instruments #5: Banjo

“Banjo, stringed musical instrument of African origin, popularized in the United States by slaves in the 19th century, then exported to Europe. Several African stringed instruments have similar names—e.g., bania, banju. The banjo has a tambourine-like body with a hoop and a screw that secure the vellum belly to the frame. Screw stretchers are used to vary the tension of the belly. The strings pass over a violin-type, or pressure, bridge and are hitched to a tailpiece. In the 1890s, frets were added to the long neck, and a machine head with screws replaced the tuning pegs.

Variants of the standard banjo abound. Banjos played with a plectrum, or pick, rather than fingers lack the chanterelle. On a zither banjo the vellum is suspended in a resonator that throws the sound forward; the chanterelle, tuned from the head, passes under the fingerboard to emerge at the fifth fret. The banjo is widely played in U.S. folk music and has also been used in jazz ensembles.”


Instruments #4: Singing Bowls

“Bronze bowls have undoubtedly been produced in Himalayan region for centuries. They were widely used as begging bowls, chalices or kitchen bowls, although there appears to be no written historical evidence that they were widely used for the production of sound. Furthermore, there is no evidence that singing bowls formed part of traditional religious practices, as bells other musical instruments are known to have done. However, bronze ‘kitchen bowls’ have always been highly valued possessions in the homes of Northern India, Nepal and Tibet, and they were passed down from one generation to the next.

Western interest in the sound produced by these old bronze bowls seems to have taken hold in the Sixties, as these areas became part of the ‘Hippie Trail’. Singing bowls are now produced throughout the Himalayas and India to satisfy demand in the West.

Special Resonances
Although the way the Himalayan people used these bowls is open to question, one thing is certain – Westerners are often affected in a particular way when they hear the unique sound of a singing bowl for the first time. The resonances cannot be reproduced by any instrument in Western culture, nor can a recording of the sound produce the same effect. Many people feel their spirit has been touched when they hear the sound.

Increasingly, sound therapy is being used in healing. Powerful vibrations emanate from a singing bowl when it is played, and these can spread quickly through the cells of the body. Physiotherapists also make use of the phenomena of internal massage with ultra-sonic sound waves. It is claimed that the harmonic frequencies of singing bowls can be used to stimulate the natural harmonic frequencies of different parts of the body.

Mystics throughout the ages have used music and chanting to achieve altered states of consciousness. The normal state of the brain produces Beta waves, whilst Alpha waves are present when the brain is in a state of meditation and calm. The sound wave pattern produced by some singing bowls is equivalent to the alpha waves produced in the brain. These bowls can induce a sense of deep relaxation and access to the inner self.

Furthermore, healers and mystics often the powerful vibrations of the singing bowl to clear negative energies within a room.”


Instruments #3: Digeridoo

“The didgeridoo is a wind instrument made from hollow wood. The first didgeridoos, played by aboriginal peoples in northern Australia an estimated 40,000 years ago, were made from fallen eucalyptus branches that had been naturally hollowed out by termites. It is also known that the mayan people of Central America had a similar instrument made of yucca or agave and today referred to as “la trompeta maya” (the mayan trumpet).

Modern didgeridoos are commonly made from eucalyptus, bamboo, and agave. In theory, any enclosed column of air, such as a PVC pipe can be made into a didgeridoo by blowing through it.

The didgeridoo is both a pitched instrument and a percussion instrument. Each didge has one fundamental tone as well as a series of overtones that can be altered by the lips of the player. The didge can also played rhythmically, serving as both a bass and a time keeping instrument.”


Instruments #2: Steel Tongue Drum

“The tongue drum, also referred to as a steel tongue drum, a tank drum, or a hank drum, is a relatively new instrument belonging to the idiophone family of percussion instruments. An idiophone is an instrument that produces sound via the vibration of the instrument itself. Tongue drums are similar to, and were inspired by, other percussion instruments like the hang drum, slit drum, whale drum and tambiro. Today, however, they are well-known in their own right as they have become very popular for meditation music, yoga practice and sound therapy. The drums, which look a bit like UFOs, are not from another planet, but the music they can create is otherworldly! Tongue drums are an excellent instrument for anyone wishing to get creative, jam, enjoy beautiful melodies and relax. They can be enjoyed by anyone at nearly any age.

The History of Tongue Drums

Idiophones are one of the oldest types of musical instruments based on archaeological finds. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors throughout Africa, Southeast Asia and Oceania carved or constructed these instruments out of bamboo or wood. These “slit drums” look like a box and have one or more slits on the top. Two examples of this type of instrument are the African log drum and the Aztec teponaztli drum, the oldest ancestors of the tongue drum.”