Beyond Guitar: Exploring the String Family

Of all the string instruments in the world, the guitar is the most well-known, popularized by modern music—from country to pop to rock and roll. However, the guitar isn’t the only string instrument. The world is filled with string instruments, large and small, and each brings it a unique sound and personality. Let’s explore some other members of the string family that are just as fun—and cool—as the guitar.

Violin: Classic With Plenty of Potential

Bowed string instruments were first seen in Europe during the medieval ages. These were known as fiddles and became the violin’s predecessors, though the only thing they really had in common were strings and bows.

Although the “true inventor” of the violin remains a point of contention, many credit Andrea Amati with the development of the violin. Living in Cremona from 1535 to 1611, Amati was responsible for adding a fourth string and creating the elegant, elaborate form that violins are currently known for. He set many standards for violinmaking that still hold steady today. His design was improved upon by Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri, and Jacob Steiner through the 17th and early 18th centuries.The violin proper is believed to have originated in Italy in the 1500s, merging elements of the fiddle, viol, and lira da braccio.

The violin is actually just one member of a larger family. It is followed by the viola, cello, and double bass, each of which gets progressively larger in size and deeper in pitch.

The violin is most commonly associated with classical music. It offers a distinct tone that sticks out over other instruments, making it perfect for melodies. In terms of range and agility, the violin’s only true rival is the piano. In the 1920s and early ‘30s, the violin was integrated into upbeat dance orchestras, but the introduction of swing music in the mid-1930s caused a significant dip in the violin’s use and popularity. It wouldn’t resurge in popular music until the late 1960s.

Today, the violin is used in nearly all genres, including jazz, folk, and rock. One of the most notable modern violin players is Owen Pallett, formerly performing under the name Final Fantasy. He’s a great example of a modern musician transforming the fundamentals of the instrument with a unique, modern twist. Pallett uses loop and effects pedals to turn a single violin into layered, sweeping arrangements that couple with his witty lyrics to create some tender masterpieces.

Ukulele: The Jumping Flea

The ukulele is often associated with Hawaiian music, but it is actually based on similar stringed instruments—namely the machete and cavaquinho—brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants on the S.S. Ravenscrag in 1879. Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo are credited with being the first ukulele makers. With their craftsmanship and the amazing playing abilities of such musicians as Joao Fernandez, the ukulele’s popularity in Hawaii quickly grew.

The ukulele was—and still is—the perfect instrument. It’s simple to play and easily portable, but don’t underestimate its abilities. It is surprisingly deep, offering varying playing styles and a lot of range. If you’re used to simple rhythms, you can simply strum and sing. Campanella allows for a more classical style that is reminiscent of playing a harp. You can even play ukuleles with a clawhammer style as you would a banjo.

While many musicians see the ukulele as something of a fun-but-silly quirk of an instrument, there are many artists who are bringing out the ukulele’s more serious potential. Zach Condon of Beirut uses a wide range of instruments in his arrangements, and the ukulele was originally bought as a joke gift by his girlfriend. It has since played an integral role in his music.

If you want a ukulele of your own, pick up either a Laniaki LU-21 or Kala K-S with Aquila strings. They are affordable and provide excellent volume and tone for their price. The Aquila strings are actually the most important element. They are the best ukulele strings around and can make lower-end ukuleles sound amazing.

Banjo: Old-Time Staple

The banjo is associated with bluegrass, folk, and American old-time music, but it has roots in various African instruments featuring animal skin stretched tight over a shell or gourd. The banjo was brought to America during the slave trade in the 17th century, spreading among plantation workers in the south.

The banjo is one of the most rhythmic instruments in the string family. Playing the banjo is often characterized by staccato, arpeggiated plucking. Clawhammer is the most popular method of play. In other styles, you would pick in an upward motion with your fingers and downward with your thumb. In the clawhammer style, all fingers hit in a downward motion with much of the movement occurring in the wrist. When done right, clawhammer can provide a full sound that includes melodies, harmonies, and percussion, all within a single play. Steve Martin, legendary comedian and veteran banjo player, often alternates between clawhammer and three-finger picking.

Beginner banjo players should expect to spend around $500 for a solid instrument with reliable sound and volume. Look into the Epiphone MB-250 or Deering Goodtime for a solid banjo that will take you through your beginning years and beyond.

Mandolin: From Traditional Celtic to Jug Band

The mandolin came into the world in the 15th century in Naples, Italy, as a variation on the classic lute. Much like the violin, the mandolin is actually just one member of the larger family. Other members of the mandolin family include the:

  • Mandola
  • Octave mandolin
  • Mandocello
  • Mandobass

The mandolin is the only string in this list featuring courses of doubled strings. The standard mandolin features four pairs of strings, with each pair tuned to the same note. This makes for a uniquely harmonic sound that fits every type of music. In fact, many mandolin players can ostensibly play violin music as the mandolin has the same tuning as the violin.

The mandolin has been particularly significant in traditional Celtic music. In America, it has played an integral role in southern string bands since the 1930s. The mandolin was used in bluegrass, blues, Western swing, and jug bands, and today, the instrument spans all genres and nations.

Beginner mandolin players should look into the Mid-Missouri M4. It may not have the frills of other mandolins, but it’s an affordable instrument made from real wood that offers a great sound with classic looks.

The guitar might be everyone’s favorite member of the string family—and it’s a great choice—but that doesn’t mean the other superstar stringed instruments aren’t worth checking out too. You never know, you might find the instrument that’s just perfect for you!