Archaeological sites in Ancient Mesopotamia have given us artifacts that are over 3000 years old. They have shown us the lifestyles and customs of peoples that we can only imagine.
But these explorations have given us other things. These included some of the oldest stringed instruments that were played with a bow. So, let’s start there as we take a look at some Bowed String Instruments You’ve Never Heard Of…
Strange shapes and designs
Some have shapes and designs that show the basics of instruments that were to develop over centuries; instruments you can clearly see are the forerunners to the violin. In India, instruments that are 500 years old are found with string patterns that range from 7 to 21. All with very strange looks and functions.
The Family of String Instruments
We might think that the Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass are the only instruments played with a bow, but we would be wrong. There were instruments played with bows for hundreds of years before the first violins.
Some of those were instrumental in the development of the bowed instruments we know now. Others have been all but lost to time. But for some, we have some knowledge. Let’s take a look at a few…
1 – Arabic Rabab
This is one of the first bowed instruments we can formally identify. It is one of the ancestors of all the European stringed instruments that came later, including the Rebec and the Violin. There were three distinct types. While the originals were all bowed, the later models could also be plucked.
The long-necked variety was possibly the best known. It was fitted with a spike protruding from the bottom, hence its nickname, the “spike fiddle.” You would rest the spike on the ground and play the instrument between your knees, not unlike a Cello. Other more portable versions could be carried around.
The various conquests going on at the time meant the instrument found its way to Europe in the 11th century.
2 – Chinese Erhu
This is an instrument with a history that dates back almost 4000 years. This was also known as a “spike fiddle” for the same reasons as the Arabic Rabab. A similar design separated by thousands of miles.
It is a member of the Huqin family of instruments. They were nearly all played with bows and were a mainstay of Chinese music for centuries.
This instrument was made with great care, usually using Sandalwood. It has an octagonal soundbox and a long thin neck with only two strings and did not have a fingerboard. It was played by the fingers pressing down on just the string.
The bow that came with the instrument was made of bamboo and horsetail hair. It was placed between the two strings.
3 – Chinese Jinghu
Next on our rundown of Bowed String Instruments You’ve Never Heard Of, we have another bowed instrument that is a member of the Huqin family. This instrument is still with us today. It has two strings tuned to a 5th apart. As with the Erhu, there is a bow that is not detachable and sits between the strings. The strings were made of silk in the past, but these days are steel or nylon. The body is made of bamboo.
Likewise, the soundbox is made from bamboo. It has been designed to ensure there is a decent level of sound. The front is covered with snakeskin that is stretched tight.
The Beijing Opera
In the Beijing Opera, the Jinghu will often follow the melody of the singer’s voice. If you are using Jinghu in performances, then the melody, therefore, has to be kept within limits. This is to ensure the instrument can play the same notes. It has been used in modern times on a single release by the Japanese band “Do as Infinity.”
4 – The Mongolian Morin Khuur
To the Mongolian people, there is no musical instrument more important culturally than the Morin Khuur. This is also known as the “Horsehead Fiddle,” and is a symbol of the Mongolian nation and has been given heritage status by UNESCO.
It is shaped a little like a box and is made of wood with a long neck. There is a bridge on the body and another on the neck. At the top are two tuning pegs and the headstock. This is shaped like a horse’s head, hence its nickname.
Strings are made from the hair from the tails of horses. The bowing technique is unique and rather difficult to explain. It involves fingers on the right hand touching the hairs on the bow. With the two remaining fingers keeping pressure on the strings as the bow is used.
A fixture in many homes
This is an instrument that is found in many Mongolian homes today. Not only do they see it as important to their culture, but it is seen by Mongolians as a symbol of peace.
5 – Moroccan Rebec
We have named it that because that was the name which became popular after it arrived in Europe. In Arab lands, it often went under different names depending on the geographical location.
It had been an important instrument in Arab lands and was brought to Europe during the Arab conquest of Spain. The exact derivation of the Rebec is hard to pin down. There was a similar instrument in Eastern Europe, as far back as the 9th Century called the Byzantine Lira.
It can have a varying number of strings from one to five. Mostly played by holding it in one hand and pressing the body into the shoulder. The bow was used in the other hand, very similar to the violin, which came later.
It was very popular during the end of the Medieval Period of the 13th-15th centuries. But it fell out of favor, and it was replaced in European music by the viol. By the time of the Renaissance period, it had largely died out. It is still used in some Arab lands.
6 – Bulgarian Gadulka
An interesting instrument with a unique sound. It has been a traditional part of Bulgarian culture for centuries and is still used today. You will find it in string ensembles playing traditional Bulgarian dance music.
Its design is not dissimilar to the Indian Sitar. It has three strings for playing the melody and a further 16 “sympathy strings.” They resonate with the melody of the notes being played on the three principal strings. The strings are usually made from steel these days.
The bow is made from a forked twig that is bound with horsehair and then waxed with Rosin. Strings are stretched between the tuning pegs, which are at the top of the tailpiece and then pass either through or over the bridge. There is no nut at the headstock end to hold the strings in place.
7 – Ethiopian Mesengo
This is a single-stringed Lute that is used by traveling Ethiopian minstrels. It is still in use by them today.
It is box-shaped, a little like a diamond, that is made from wooden boards. They are glued together and then covered with leather. The string is made from horsehair that goes over a bridge. There is a tuning peg that allows you to tune the instrument to the pitch of the singer’s voice. It can be used either left or right-handed.
8 – European Bowed Psaltery
This is a kind of Zither that first appeared as recently as the 19th century. Some people are familiar with the Psaltery that is played by plucking. This version has the strings set at different heights to allow a bow to be used.
It has a triangular shape with a soundboard made of wood. The strings have no stopping facility as they pass over the soundboard. It has Diatonic notes on one side and the sharps and flats on the other side.
One or two bows
It can be played by being laid flat or by being held. Furthermore, it can be played one note at a time or using multiples of notes. If it is played flat, some people use two bows. Some will even hold two bows in one hand to create a dual sound effect called double-stopping. Just as the later Violin, the strings can also be hammered or strummed.
9 – The Swedish Nyckelharpa
To finish, we have an interesting traditional Swedish instrument that goes back to the 16th century. It looks like a complex piece of machinery, but it is reasonably easy to play once you’ve got the hang of it. The great thing about the instrument is the sound.
The String Pattern
It has 16 strings in total. There are three melody strings and twelve resonance strings. As well as a drone string. Thirty-seven wooden keys are set up under the strings. These are there to act as frets and also to change the pitch of the string.
It is played with the bow in the right hand. The left hand pushes down on the keys. There are three octaves, so the sound potential is quite wide-ranging, and it generates a sound similar to a crude violin.
It is still a popular instrument today. Outside of Sweden, it is played in the US and has its own players association.
Want To Learn More About Music and Instruments?
We can help you expand your knowledge of music history. Check out our detailed articles on The Romantic Period of Music, Amazing Facts About Mozart, Amazing Facts About JS Bach, Different Types of Drums, What is Considered a String Instrument, and Types of Vocal Timbre for more useful information.
You might also enjoy our in-depth reviews of the Best Kalimba, the Best Mandolins, the Best Mountain Dulcimers, the Best Hammered Dulcimers, the Best Tin Whistles, and the Best Blues Harmonicas you can buy in 2023.
Bowed String Instruments You’ve Never Heard Of – Final Thoughts
Just nine, but there are plenty of others. I have chosen these nine to show a little diversity not only in design but also in the culture from which they come from. Some are still part of those cultures, of course, and so they should be.
When you next look at an orchestra, think of the Bowed String Instruments that you’ve never heard of. Most of them are related to these.
To listen to the Erhu, check out the Music of the Erhu & The Bowed String Instruments, or how about a simple version of the Bowed Psaltery. And if you are inspired to take up the bow yourself, the Mendini Full Size 4/4 MV300 Solid Wood Violin is a great starter Violin.
Until next time, let the music play.