The instruments in the string family are some of the most popular instruments out there.
You will find them in beginner music lessons, in professional orchestras, and classical concerts and they also make perfect second instruments for enthusiastic musicians to pick up alongside their main instrument.
With string instruments constantly increasing in popularity, it’s important to know what ones exist, how they work, and how they differ from each other. The string family is a huge family of instruments and there are many different variants from all over the world.
Fortunately, we have written this article to tell you a little more about them and pop them into categories so you’ll be able to recognize the most important and most popular ones being played today.
Plucked String Instruments
Plucked string instruments are a subcategory of string instruments that are played with the fingers or with a plectrum. They have a long history in China and although we are only going to go through a few, there are up to around forty different types.
They include instruments such as guitars and ukuleles, as well as more traditional instruments such as the harp.
Everyone has heard of the guitar, and chances are, you’ve probably even had a go at playing it if it’s not your main instrument. It is arguably one of the most popular instruments around and comes in a variety of forms, including both acoustic and electric versions.
Each guitar however is based on similar principles. The instrument’s body is attached to the neck and the strings are attached to the bridge on the body on one end of the instrument.
The tuning machines are at the end of the neck and this is on something which is labeled a headstock.
There are other locations where tuners are placed on the body and fuse with the bridge, but these types of guitars are not as popular or widespread.
On every guitar, strings are plucked or picked by either a player’s fingers or their plectrum. A plectrum is otherwise known as a ‘guitar pick’ and a lot of players find it easier on their fingers to use this method of playing.
The neck of the guitar has its fretboard and this is filled with metal frets. By pushing down on an individual string or a certain fret, the length of the string which vibrates is shortened and you are provided with a much higher pitch.
This is why the guitar is so often used as both a leading and backing instrument for bands and in smaller orchestras. Harmonies on the guitar can be played either ‘horizontally’ or ‘vertically’.
The guitar, has found its way into many different musical genres today and is used and played by millions of musicians all over the globe.
Electric guitars are increasing in popularity and are capable of producing a range of different sounds as a result of their development of different effect units. They can also now be paired with a range of different amplifiers.
The guitar is versatile, popular, and can be played in a variety of different settings, making it one of the most well-known and commonly played instruments in the entire string family.
Staying with the theme of guitars, we are moving on to the bass guitar. Much less popular than the other types of guitars, the bass guitar is sometimes neglected in the music world.
However, for modern music styles, the bass guitar is essential. It is one of the youngest instruments in the string family and whether you opt for either the acoustic or the electric version, it wasn’t around at all until the 1950s.
Paul Tutmarc was the inventor of the bass guitar and started experimenting in the 1930s. He created a plucked instrument that had the same tuning and could cover all the same frequencies as the acoustic double bass, yet it has more frets. Leo Fender, however, created the regular bass guitar which we all know and love and this has an electric guitar-like body with additional conventional pickups.
The bass guitar created by Fender, which was held horizontally, was then replaced by the double bass and used in modern music as we moved into the 1950s.
Fender attempted to develop bass guitars at different companies and this involved ordinary 6 string guitars, which were simply tuned an octave lower.
However, the tone of these guitars didn’t fit contemporary music styles as well and for this reason, are usually left in the past.
Bass guitars are usually plucked by one’s fingers and though it’s common to witness bass players with a plethora of plectrums, this depends on the tone of the sound they are trying to produce as well as personal preferences.
Ukuleles are often considered ‘mini guitars’ and only have four strings.
These strings are often made of nylon. Ukuleles take us back to the latter half of the 19th century and were developed in Hawaii. In Hawaii today, they are considered to be very traditional instruments yet they were developed from Portuguese instruments that were similar to the guitar and were known as ‘machetes’.
Ukuleles today are going through a soar in popularity and a huge revival in the string family. This is a result of the simplicity of the instrument and how easy it is to learn, as well as perform.
The most common type of ukulele is soprano which has G4, C4, E4, and A4 tuning, yet there are so many different types of ukuleles that if it were something you were considering trying, we would recommend trying as many types as you can to identify which ones work best for you.
The banjo is quite similar to the guitar. It’s built with the main body, a neck, and a headstock situated at the end of the neck as a guitar does, as well as having a bridge on the body and strings pressed down on the fretboard.
However, there are a few key differences. For example, the body has its frame which has a thin membrane over the top of it. The backside in most cases is always open and this allows the banjo to resonate in its unique way.
Modern banjos can have either four or five strings. A banjo with five strings has what is called a ‘drone’ string and in the majority of cases, the bottom fifth string is the same gauge and tuning as the very first string.
The fifth string however usually starts from the fifth fret and this is where its tuning machine is located. Banjos with four strings are slightly more traditional and are not as popular as five-string banjos yet they rely on the same principles.
Banjos have a history in a range of different instruments. However, these instruments have been the key part of many discussions and debates. It is usually believed that these instruments come from the Caribbean.
The modern banjo was developed primarily by African-Americans during the early half of the 19th century.
The mandolin, along with the guitar belongs to the lute family. They rely on the same principles as the guitar and have a neck, a body, and a fret.
However, what’s so different about them is that they have string courses which are doubled strings and both tuned to the same note. Mandolins have a total of eight strings and four courses of two strings each.
The history of the mandolin stems back to traditional Western Europe.
The Western European instruments included the lute, the gittern, and the mandola and within the different styles that were developed, Lombardic and Neapolitan ones were the most widely spread.
The Neapolitan style is common in modern-day playing and there is a range of different sub-types of Neapolitan mandolins. The ones we see most often are the A-style and the F-style ones.
The harp is slightly different from the other instruments we have mentioned in this article and this is because they don’t have a neck.
Moreover, every individual string has its own pitch and they are all placed at an angle to the soundboard. You can change an individual pitch but you would need to use a lever or a pedal.
Harps can be quite expensive and real professional or semi-professional harps are some of the highest-priced string instruments in the family.
Harps date back thousands of years and though they included simplified instruments such as the lyre, they remain a very traditional instrument.
Bowed String Instruments
A bowed string instrument is a string instrument that is played with a bow and by rubbing the strings.
Bowed string instruments are not only limited to the violin, viola, cello, and bass and there are string instruments that are played with a bow all over the world, which date back centuries within their cultural traditions.
We are starting with arguably one of the most common bowed string instruments and that is the violin. The word, ‘violin’ dates back to the latter half of the 16th century yet all bowed instruments descend from the Arabic instrument rehab.
This led to the Byzantine Lyra and older concepts of the modern violin, which emerged during the 16th century in Northern parts of Italy.
The violin has a body and a resonant chamber that is attached to the neck. The end of the neck contains a pegbox and this is where the tuning pegs are found.
On the body, we have a bridge and a tailpiece with fine tuners and as the body starts to resonate, the sound protrudes from the “F-shaped” sound holes on the front.
Violins also don’t have frets. This is common across a lot of bowed instruments and though you can get certain fretted versions, they are often very rare.
Electric violins with piezo pickups have also increased in popularity in recent years and they are a much more practical solution for modern bands that incorporate violin players.
Also belonging to the violin family and looks the same as the violin, yet slightly bigger is the viola. It also has a lower pitch than the violin and this is why it is sometimes referred to as the ‘alto voice’.
This additionally impacts the instrument’s overall timbre and makes it sound slightly ‘darker’ compared to the violin. It’s usually used only as an accompanying instrument yet is played the same as you would play the violin.
The cello is also from the violin family and features four different strings. It is tuned one octave below the viola and is noticeably larger than other instruments in the family. It is played vertically and whilst sitting down. A player will hold their instrument between their legs.
The word ‘cello’ stems from the Italian word, ‘violoncello’ and translates to ‘little violone’. Violone is a large bowed instrument and is similar to the double bass. This was prominent throughout the renaissance, Baroque, and Classical eras of music.
It is another example of a fretless instrument and although it serves as a backing role, it also has a spot as a lead instrument.
Double Bass (Bass, Contrabass)
The double bass, contrabass, or just the bass is the largest bowed instrument as well as the lowest-pitched instrument in the subcategory.
Similar to the cello, it derives from violones and comes with four different strings. It is also tuned the same way as a standard bass guitar.
Striking String Instruments
Striking string instruments are played by striking the strings into a vibrational action. A common striking string instrument that people often get confused by is the piano.
What many don’t understand about the piano is that it is a string instrument.
As we have just mentioned, the sound is produced by striking the strings until they make a vibrational action. In the case of a piano, there is a mechanism and this involves piano keys and hammers that are located inside the piano, and these are what hit the strings.
The sound then resonates in the large body of the piano itself.
Other Common String Instruments
Though there are subcategories in the string family, there are a few instruments that do not fall into these categories that we are going to cover in this last section.
Despite belonging to the string family, the aeolian harp actually produces sound using wind. It features a body with a sounding board and its strings are stretched across two bridges.
It is an instrument that only plays harmonic frequencies and this is what makes it unique and different from other instruments in the family.
The Hurdy-gurdy is a medieval instrument that has in recent years increased in popularity. Though it is a string instrument, it relies on entirely different principles to the rest of the instruments in this article.
There is a hand-cranked rosined wheel that can rub against the strings. Then there is also a keyboard that helps shorten the length of the strings.
This keyboard can produce beautiful melodies and change the instrument’s pitch. However, hurdy-gurdy’s come with ‘drone’ strings and these can produce fixed background notes.
It is a very traditional instrument used a lot in folk music and is beginning to be used in experimental music a lot more too.
It’s even crept its way into modern music and can be interpreted in a variety of different ways.
String instruments have an incredibly important place in the music community, from being an integral part of any orchestra to being the star of a classical music group or even incorporated into a modern music band.
Some of the instruments in the family are some of the most widely played instruments on the planet, from the violin and cello to guitars and even harps, they are common instruments picked up at school and which players fall in love with, continuing to play throughout their life.
Most recently, even the ukulele has picked up popularity, being an all-time favorite at summer camps and schools, as well as in modern music bands.
If you start to play a string instrument, we promise you won’t regret it, and before long, with lots of patience and practice, you might even find yourself in a professional orchestra.