The guitar remains one of the most popular musical instruments in the world – and that doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon.
However, in a world in which the guitar – electric guitars as much as the classical guitar – is only one of hundreds of different types of string instrument, it’s quite fun that this one is so much more popular than all the rest.
Sure, we have mass production to blame, most probably. Because before Fender and Yamaha got their hands on these things, stringed instruments came in all shapes, sizes, string numbers, sounds, and styles. From the bouzouki to the zither, from the cavaquinho to the vihuela, there have been just an enormous number of different instruments to choose from.
Of course, though, you’d probably have had to make them yourself – but at least the variety would be something to behold.
Regardless, we’re going to look here at some different types of stringed instruments. Now, we’re not looking at the bowed string instruments – such as the violin family – nor at the hammered variety like the harpsichord, but exclusively at those that are referred to by the technical term, ‘plucked string instruments’.
These, as you can image, are those like guitars, lutes, harps, and zithers. The five alternatives to the guitar we’ll look at are the banjo, lute, mandolin, cittern, and ukulele.
So, let’s get cracking. Because, yes, admittedly, whilst the guitar is awesome, there’s no harm in exploring what else is out there. Let’s take a look.
Study How to Play the Lute.
Whilst the ‘lute’ sounds like the name for a precise thing, it actually isn’t. Rather, it refers to any stringed and necked instrument with a rounded body. ‘Rounded’ is not even accurate; the proper word is ‘pear-shaped’ – which is perhaps not too flattering if you think about it.
These days, the lute is generally considered to be a bit of an historical instrument. However, over the last century, it has come back into the interest of classical musicians and folk music enthusiasts.
And so it should – because it has a wonderful sound that everyone should hear.
A Brief History of the Lute.
We said that the lute doesn’t really refer to any one musical instrument in particular. It is rather more a family of stringed instruments whose history stretches back potentially six thousand years.
Originating probably in ancient Mesopotamia, the relatives of the lute have been found in China and India as well as in ancient Europe – whilst pretty much everything that we know as a plucked string instrument is its distant cousin.
Its golden age was during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when composers like John Dowland were writing. After the eighteenth century, however, they were generally replaced by keyboards.
You can find out more about the lute in our article on Learning to Play the Lute.
Some Lutenists You Need to Know.
So, which lutenists do you need to know? Here are two.
- Julian Bream – The UK’s most beloved guitarist was also a dab hand at the lute. It is to him that we owe its recent surge in popularity.
- Joachim Held – A music professor by day and a virtuosic lutenist the rest of the time, Held has won awards that the instrument had never previously seen.
Get Started with the Mandolin.
So, now we know the lute. The mandolin, actually, is a distant relative of the lute itself – and we can compare it to the lute to understand a bit more about its particular characteristics.
The mandolin, firstly, is smaller than the lute – and whilst the lute can either be fretted or not, the mandolin needs its frets to really be a mandolin. Indeed, the mandolin’s steel strings – as opposed to the lute’s gut strings – are quite difficult to sound without a fret.
Whilst the lute is the family, the mandolin is a specific figure in that family. And whilst it was born in the eighteenth century, it is still rocking it among folk musicians, classical musicians, and traditional Italian players.
A Brief History of the Mandolin.
You remember that the lute needs a rounded back? Well, the mandolin comes in three forms, depending on where that particular model originated (with mandolins, you have Milanese, Cremonese, Brescian, and Neapolitan violins – just to name a few): these can be carved-top, round-back, or flat-back.
However, they are thought to have originated in Naples, before they became incredibly popular at the turn of the twentieth century.
Find out more about the history of the mandolin in our article on Learning to Play the Mandolin.
Incredible Mandolinists that You Can’t Miss.
If you are looking to hear what a mandolin can do, check out these amazing mandolinists!
- Chris Thile – Thile is a genre-defying multi-Grammy award-winning mandolinist, with recordings in classical, pop, and jazz. His playing is a wonder to behold.
- Bill Monroe – With the Blue Grass Boys, Bill Monroe was the first to show the modern world the full range of what the mandolin could do.
Try Playing the Cittern.
If the mandolin is a specifically Italian invention, the cittern’s origins are generally a little clouded. Yet, the fact that the cittern is quite similar to the mandolin in other respects is fairly well-agreed.
Whilst the mandolin has a strict four courses, the cittern can range between four and six. Meanwhile both have a permanent resonator, metal strings and a hollow body.
One of the primary differences is that the cittern often has re-entrant tuning – meaning that the string that is highest physically on the instrument is often tuned highest.
A Brief History of the Cittern.
The cittern is primarily a Renaissance instrument – and is not as common nowadays as the mandolin.
However, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the cittern was hugely popular – with people from all different classes playing the instrument. It was available to the lower classes, by the way, because, flat-backed, it was much easier and cheaper to construct than the lute.
If you want to hear more about the history of the cittern, head to our article on Learning to Play the Cittern.
Famous Cittern Players? Not Quite – But They’re Worth Hearing.
Let’s take a look at some of the most talented players of this stringed instrument, the cittern. Famous may well be the wrong word…
- Ale Carr – The Swedish cittern player in the band Dreamers’ Circus. He’s incredible.
- Gregory Doc Rossi – An expert on the history of the cittern, Rossi too is an awesome performer.
Learn to Play the Banjo.
The banjo, you will know, is a different instrument altogether. A round body and a long neck, banjos come from a different tradition than the other instruments here.
And the sound is completely different too: more percussive, more punchy, the banjo’s pizzicato sound is the defining tone of bluegrass, country, and much of contemporary folk-pop too.
A Different Trajectory: The History of the Banjo.
Rather than having its development in Europe, the banjo actually has its roots in the Caribbean, among African slave populations.
They would produce music with a rudimentary structure of an animal membrane spread over a circular wooden frame – something that would act as a resonator for the strings on top.
Yet, the instrument spread across rural America and become one of the most important instruments in American old time music.
If you want to know more about the history of the banjo, check out our article on Learning to Play the Banjo!
The Big Names of Banjo.
For those who don’t know, there is a huge community of banjo players around the world. Here are some of their heroes:
- Earl Scruggs – If there is one person to have changed the way that the banjo is played, it was Scruggs, who played with the Blue Grass Boys mentioned above.
- Bela Fleck – With his band, the Flecktones, Bela Fleck has pushed the boundaries of what the banjo can achieve.
Practice Playing the Ukulele.
These days the ukulele has the unfortunate reputation of being an easy, small guitar. This is not really fair at all.
Rather, the ukulele – this diminutive instrument with four strings – has a rich tradition of hugely talented musicians.
The Ukulele’s History.
Although certainly to be affixed to the image of Hawaii for all eternity, the ukulele – meaning ‘jumping flea’ in the local language – was the development of very similar instruments brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants in the late nineteenth century.
These instruments – the cavaquinho, for example – were descendants of the earlier lute, but they were all very wee.
Hawaii’s king at the time loved these instruments – and they became hugely popular both around the archipelago and in the US.
Find out more about the history of the ukulele in our article on Learning the Ukulele!
You’re Not a Real Ukulele Player if You Don’t Know these Legends.
The world is full of ukulele players. Perhaps, however, there are two that stand out.
- Israel Kamakawiwoʻole – A ukulele player, singer, and activist, Israel, or IZ, brought the instrument back into popularity in the nineties after decades of obscurity.
- Jake Shimabukuro – A viral YouTube sensation, Jake is a ukulele virtuoso – and proves the distances ukulele playing can go.