Next in our series of instrument families, we will take a look at the string family. The string family is one of the oldest instrument families, producing sound via strings stretched taut. Today, strings are popular instruments that are not only fundamental to music education, but also a ton of fun for beginners and professionals alike. Be sure to look out for our next infographic about the keyboard family!
What is a String Instrument?
String instruments comprise any instrument that produces sound through the vibration of stretched strings, often made from:
- Animal gut
- Vegetable fiber
A Brief String History
- The earliest string instruments, bowl harps and tanburs, come from Ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Sumerian civilizations.
- Stone carvings and tomb paintings show that harps and tanburs were used in ensembles up to 4,000 years ago.
- In Western Europe, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a lyre bridge that dates over 2,300 years.
- A descendant of the viol, the four-string violin came into existence by 1550.
- The Italian six-course guitar came to prominence in the 17th century.
- The first banjo-type instruments in the Americas were documented in the Caribbean as early as 1689.
- Adapted from the Portuguese machete, the ukulele was introduced to Hawaii in 1879.
- Double bass
Fun fact: Pianos are technically string instruments! However, they are so unique and have become so prominent in their own right that many people consider them to be in their own category.
How Strings Make Sound
- A stringed instrument produces sound through the vibrations of its strings.
- To produce these vibrations, strings can be:
- Struck with mallets
- The pitch of the string changes based on:
- Length – The longer the string, the lower the tone.
- Thickness – The thicker the string, the lower the tone.
- Tension – The tighter the string, the higher the tone.
- On the guitar, violin, and other fretted instruments, you shorten the length of strings with your fingers to create different notes.
- On the harp and zither, each string plays a distinct note.
- You can combine notes to play chords.
Playing the Parts
While each instrument offers its own sound and style, most strings have some shared components.
- The strings
- Tuning pegs tighten or loosen the strings to change the pitch, making the strings sound sharper or flatter.
- The neck features a fretboard or fingerboard. Pressing a string against the neck changes the string’s pitch.
- The bridge sends the string’s vibrations into the body.
- The body amplifies the resonating strings, making them significantly more audible.
String It All Together: Tips for Playing String Instruments
- Fretting (pressing down the strings) differs from instrument to instrument.
- Pressing down too hard on ukulele strings will bend the pitch out of tune.
- Not fretting hard enough on guitar will mute the strings.
- Find a position that is comfortable for you while still keeping the sound clear, full, and in tune. Think gentle but firm.
- Trim your fingernails on your fretting hand to make fretting easier.
- Finger soreness is a given. Just keep at it. Your calluses will develop.
- However, if it is truly becoming an issue, consider changing your instrument’s strings to a lighter gauge.
- Strum with the wrist, not the elbow, which only expends energy.
- Practice good posture, which reduces strain, ensures comfortable and confident playing, and helps the sound ring out.
- Choose the instrument right for your size. There’s no shame in getting a smaller guitar if it means being able to fret chords and reach strings comfortably and easily.
- You shouldn’t have to strain to reach the first fret or the top string.
- Holding the guitar properly, your arm shouldn’t be as high as your shoulder when reaching over the guitar.
- Invest in a decent instrument. Cheap instruments may be tempting, but they offer low-quality sound and fail to stay in tune, both of which can discourage playing.
- If you plan to teach yourself, learn at least some basic theory, including scales, chords, tempos, and rhythms.
- Practice slowly.
- Listen widely to different musicians, genres, and musical styles.
- Have fun!
Learn to play the strings with California Music Studios | camusic.wpengine.com