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~ The Hurdy Gurdy Explained ~

V: Miscellaneous Bits & Pieces

Sympathetic Strings:

Sympathetic strings are found on many string instruments. They are not played actively, but rather are tuned to resonate with other strings of the instrument, thus adding their sound to the mix. This hurdy-gurdy has a battery of four sympathetic strings, tuned in pairs (some hurdy-gurdies carry six sympathetics). Because they are steel strings tuned to a higher pitch than the instrument's other strings, they continue to sound between notes; they thus add a richness to the overall sound, even though they are not very loud.

The four sympathetic strings, running along the keyboard side

Click on the hurdy-gurdy below to hear:

click here to hear the sympathetic strings
The sympathetic strings, first plucked and then ringing

In the sound file above, the sympathetics are first plucked, to illustrate their tunings - they are not ordinarily played this way; then the drones are played for a moment - when they stop, the sympathetics can be heard, continuing to ring. The sympathetic strings run along the full length of the keyboard side of the instrument, from anchors at the crank end across a low bridge and finally to small tuning pegs set into a strengthened area of the body near the pegbox, as can be seen in the below photo.

The tuning pegs of the sympathetic strings


Straps, Cover, Pegbox, Decoration:

In the above photo a round button is seen at the back of the instrument below the pegbox. There are two more such buttons mounted on the front of the body, on either side of the crank. These buttons serve to hold a pair of straps - one to support the weight of the instrument and the second to hold it against the body of the player so it doesn't flop about during play. A seated player will often use only the second strap, the weight being supported on his or her lap.

Also visible in the above photo is part of the pegbox, showing the entry of the two bourdons through its side. Below are two more photos of the pegbox, showing the overall arrangement of the pegs & strings, and also showing the handsome terminal carving. The subject of this carving is the famous George Sand, a most unusual 19th century French woman who was instrumental in keeping the hurdy-gurdy traditions of France alive; her story is highly interesting, but beyond the scope of this dissertation.

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George Sand

Along with the carved head, there are other figural decorations on the instrument - typical Victorian decals, on the off-side of the keybox, below photo. The maker's name and town are seen between the figures. Two other features are well illustrated in this photo - the little ivory peg used to silence the trompette by hanging that string over it, and the back end of the key bars, fitted into their slots in the side of the keybox.

Figural decals, &tc.

Finally, it has been mentioned earlier how sensitive the wheel is to being kept clean and free of finger-oil, etc. Any contamination can cause the sound to either cease or become squeaky and so a quickly removable protective cover, photo below, is used to prevent accidents. The cover is a springy arch of wood, held by its own tension between the two ivory footings attached to the top of the instrument.

Wheel cover


Thus ends, for now, this exposition on the workings of this remarkable hurdy-gurdy. Of course there is much, much more that can be said about this instrument and its kin, especially about its musical parameters and playing techniques. But the purpose here was to illustrate its basic functioning, which seems to be something of a mystery to many people. I hope that end has been achieved. - Oliver Seeler, July 1999.


~ To arrange for a performance on this instrument (and much more) contact Sean Folsom ~


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Text and photographs on this page are original works by Oliver Seeler and are copyright 1999, Oliver Seeler.