Instruments from Around the World

We tend to have tunnel vision in the First World nations as musicians. When we think of the instruments that the majority of us play, our minds go to the guitar (both electric and acoustic), bass guitars (electric and acoustic), a four or five piece drum kit by the likes of Pearl, Ludwig or Tama, a keyboard of some sort such as a piano, organ (air pump and pipe or electric), a “synth” electronic keyboard and a handful of other instruments like ukuleles, mandolins, harmonicas, bag pipes, accordions, banjos, upright double basses, cellos, violas, violins and the other usual and customary “modern” orchestral instruments.

Well, music has been around a lot longer than these instruments and people have been creating instruments and playing them for all of recorded history and going back. Many of these have been lost to the ages or have undergone so many changes and modifications that the original instrument no longer exists.

Most of our really modern and newer instruments require electric power. Before the theoreticians of the 19th century like Faraday and Maxwell, the basic elements of analog circuits like capacitors, resistors, diodes, vacuum tubes, inductors, diodes and coils were all heretofore unimagined bits that were invented to massage and condition electrons as they move through a conductor in a circuit.

Inventors like Edison and Tesla took the theoretical and engineered them into the practical. The idea was to be able to ultimately make the music louder or be able to create newer versions of common acoustic instruments. The acoustic guitar to the electric guitar was one innovation. While a musician who can play one can generally play the other, the sounds, textures and stylistic utilizations are often quite different.

When we talk about the electronic synthesizer and anything that uses solid state components like transistors, solid state diodes, op amps, IC chips and the microprocessor chips, we had to wait for physicists like Einstein, Pauling, Heisenberg and Fermi to come along as solid state circuitry cannot be reliably designed and constructed without ideas like E=MC2 and quantum electronic tunneling. Well, these ideas and the resulting practical applications are less than two centuries old. The instruments, no matter who built them or where they were built, were a result of using natural and common materials.

For the most part, with the exception of the Synth or electronic keyboard, all instruments are of one of four traditional families. Stringed instruments (e.g., the violin), percussion instruments (the drum), woodwind (the clarinet) and the brass instruments (the trumpet) are those four types. Some are hybrids that utilize at least two of the families. An example would be the piano. It is a stringed instrument, but the sound is produced by the percussive hammering of the strings by mallets connected to the keys via a leveraged linkage.

From a material standpoint, most instruments are a combination of common, easy to manipulate materials of plant, animal and sometimes mineral origin. So sticks, logs, vine stems, branches animal hide, sinew, abdominal fascia (where the term “gut” as in gut strings comes from), animal hair, rendered animal hides and bone for glue, mallets made from stone, and later on certain malleable metals and alloys that resisted corrosion were introduced with brass being the most commonly thought of.

I’m going to exhibit a variety of musical instruments from the major continents. Some are variants of each other, in spite of cultural and material variations. Underneath each photograph of each instrument will be its name and a brief description of its place of origin. Most of these will be of a relatively recent construction and I’ll mention the family that it hails from if not readily apparent. Some of these may be familiar, depending on the reader’s taste in music and from where the reader hails.



Japanese Horagi- A conch shell used in Japan for centuries for ceremonial and religious purposes and would be analogous to the trumpet in our Western utilization. It’s not a true Brass wind instrument.



Japanese Biwa- A short neck fretted stringed instrument from the Lute family used in narrative story telling.



The String Bow - Found mostly on Africa, but also on other continents. It was played by striking the taut string with a stick or if tuned to resonance, could be made to sound by blowing across the string like a reed.




The Ro-Pat-In Frying Pan Electric Guitar - Invented in the United States in the 1930’s, it allegedly holds distinction as the first mass produced electric guitar. The body, neck and frets were one piece and solid aluminum. Used for Hawaiian music popular in the period.



The Hichiriki- A Japanese double reed flute used in the Gagaku style of music. It sounded most similar to a clarinet, but shared more in common with the oboe.



The Berimbau - A Brazilian string bow, single string percussion instrument used to set the performance cadence in the Brazilian martial art know as Capoeira.



Irish Bouzouki - Adapted from the Greek Bouzouki for Celtic Music. It is a four course stringed (strings are in courses of twos or pairs) instrument usually tuned: G2 D3 A3 D4.



The Mandolin-Banjo - The result of a Mandolin and a Banjo hooking up and starting a family. It was developed independently in the USA, Great Britain, France and Turkey. Usually constructed with a 14 inch scale and having four courses of strings. It is tuned in fifths like the mandolin and the violin as: GDAE.



The Appalachian Resonator Dulcimer - A traditional Appalachian or Mountain Dulcimer with a resonator plate on it that mechanically amplifies the sound. Appalachian dulcimers usually are three or four stringed instruments with the frets spaced diatonically. D3-A3-A3 is a common tuning. It‘s said that the Appalachian dulcimer is one of the easiest instruments to learn to play. It’s so easy that I understand it can be learned by even a drummer. 😉



Brazilian Pandeiro - This is a kind of tambourine for all intents and purposes. It has a tunable head and the metal jangles, having a concave shape, are drier and crisper and cleaner sounding when compared to the more traditional tambourine. The head is traditionally animal hide, but synthetic heads are more commonly in use now.



Persian Satar - This is a four stringed member of the lute family and has 25 to 27 gut frets that can be moved. It was a three stringed instrument until about 200 years ago.



The Sitar - On account of the Beatles friendship with the late Ravi Shankar in the 60’s, the Sitar became more of a familiar instrument in western countries. The Sitar is from the Indian subcontinent and took its present form about 300 years ago. It is an old instrument, but was derived from the older Persian Sitar, from which its name is derived.

-Kirk Bolas - MU Columnist
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