Hello, I just joined the world of bowed psaltery with the purchase of a used Omega strings 25 string psaltery.  It has a beautiful sound, particularly the ringing that persists after a string is bowed.  I had a few questions that I hope members could help me with.

1) What are the advantages/disadvantages of using a violin bow with a psaltery? How does one determine what size of violin bow to buy?

2) What is the best book to buy for learning BP?

3) Has anyone every experimented with using nylon or synthetic gut strings on a psaltery? How did it sound?


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Both explanations do make sense Tim. It's instinctual though not purposeful, for me trying to plan that would send me over the edge : )
Theoretically you could say that the time used to move to the new note is taken from the beginning of the new note as opposed to the end of the current note. Of course, then we're kind of getting into the whole discussion of "If a tree fell in the woods and nobody was there to hear it....."
What I love about you explaining this is that I had never even considered it before. The time to change notes must come from the music, the music doesn't allow for it, yet when I count beats in my head I'm obviously allowing for the change. Once your comfortable with the notes of the tune the amount of time to change over to the next note is miniscule, but it still takes time. The physics of music fascinates me.
Unfortunately by paying attention to when I make the bow change related to when I end or start a beat count will probably throw me off. I'm going to try though....
You're absolutely right, Donna, it is instinctual. No one would ever sit around counting like that. Indeed, it would certainly be detrimental. The counting business is for illustration only. Sometimes we take away time from the beginning of a note, sometimes from the end, but the trick is to do it in such a way as to go unnoticed.

Almost all musical instruments have some degree of mechanical time lag. In some the lag is very small (like the flute), and in others very large (like the trombone), yet we compensate by 'stealing' the time from other places by a variety of techniques. The pianist, for instance, plays a note with one finger while simultaneously reaching for the next note with another to compensate for the mechanical motion of the hammers. The pianist actually starts playing a tiny instant before the sound happens. We don't hear the time lag at all and the music flows smoothly. For the psaltery we instinctively exploit the natural sustain of the instrument to buy us the time needed for the mechanics to happen. If we don't, and attempt to play every note to its fullest measure, the extra time we need has to come from somewhere, and that results in the nasty 'extra beats' that cause the music to feel disjointed and out of step.
Sorry if I'm a bit on the literal side sometimes, I just find it all wonderful and amazing.
Susan, not only did you learn the guitar, but the struggle actually changed the way your brain works. As a tiny child, you learned to count to four. Later you learned to count again, but as a musician does. You learned. You changed.

Having worked so hard for guitar chords, you've learned a new skill set that can be applied elsewhere. You mentioned a book that could teach you any instrument. It's not a book, it's you. Having guitar chords as a skill, the ukulele will fall under your fingers with little effort (they are very similar in some important respects). Likewise, the five-string banjo becomes accessible because of the skills with frets and picks you've learned. If you tune a banjo in 'Chicago Tuning' (gDGBE), it suddenly fingers just like a ukulele with an extra drone string. So one instrument leads to the next. Guitar to uke to banjo. The thing that enables it though, is the skill set you established early on, including how to count to four like a musician.

It's not uncommon to find a trumpet player who plays the flugelhorn (a larger version of the trumpet), who then wants to take up the euphonium. A trumpeter can do it because the valves of the euphonium work on the same logic as the trumpet and flugelhorn. Once used to the larger size, the trumpeter cum euphonist might take up the trombone (their mouthpieces are identical). Even the the tuba might not be unreasonable. It is bigger still, but uses the same skill set.

Personally, my primary instrument is the mandolin. It uses the skills of the guitar, so I play that too. Other instruments like the bouzouki and tenor banjo (the four-string one) use the same tuning logic as the mandolin, so those become only minor stretches for the mandolinist. One thing leads to another.

I also play the tin whistle and Irish traditional flute. While needing different skills to blow them, the fingering is identical!

If you keep the similarities and commonalities a secret, everyone thinks you're a genius!
You certainly should be able to play the ukulele easily given all you've worked so hard for!! Well done, you've earned it! The soprano uke (and concert and tenor) use similar chord forms, but play in a different key. When you finger your guitar D chord, it comes out as a different chord, but your fingers are in the same places. This is the skill transposing itself to another instrument. It takes a bit of work to learn to think in a different key, but that too will come with practice!

And you are right, the baritone ukulele plays exactly like the four high strings of a guitar.

Just keep at all this stuff and never give up!!!
James asked a third question in his original post that we weren't able to answer: Has anyone tried gut strings?

Just for kicks I tried my psaltery bow on my ukulele. The sound is pathetic. I doubt very much that anyone would seriously pursue gut as an alternative string on a psaltery. Any uke player will tell you how hard it is to get a ukulele to stay in tune, and I couldn't imagine anyone doing that with 30 or so strings. What a nightmare that would be!

BTW, I don't recommend any uke players repeat this experiment. It didn't do my ukulele any good. I need to re-string it because I can't get the rosin off. (And they were new and just settling in, dang!)
Tim, that's very interesting. My ukulele is strung with synthetic gut "Nygut" strings, however, I will heed your warning and not try to bow it. Some early harps were strung with gut strings and some harpists still use them, although they are temperamental, especially with changes in humidity. In this link (http://www.music.iastate.edu/antiqua/psaltery.htm) it is mentioned that early plucked psalteries used gut strings, which makes sense.

I found the following on a website that discusses gut-core strings (http://www.stringsmagazine.com/issues/Strings95/coverstory.shtml)


Musical-instrument strings have been made of sheep or lamb intestine since the earliest days. Until the end of the 19th century, gut strings were the only strings available. On the violin, the E, A, and D strings were usually plain unwrapped gut. The G string has taken different forms to reduce mass, using forms of twisting, braiding, and wrapping. Today, musicians specializing in early-music performance are among the few using plain gut strings. Most who use gut-core strings use those that are wrapped with silver or aluminum.

Gut-core strings have their own unique sound, which is very full and complex with lots of overtones. Of all types, these strings have the slowest response. On many instruments there is a slight resistance, or "catch," on note or bowing changes, an effect that is more pronounced on some instruments than others. Because they are lower in tension, gut strings tend to feel softer and more pliable under the finger.

The major disadvantage is that they are rather unstable in response to temperature and humidity changes and thus tend to go out of tune frequently. When first installed, gut-core strings need about a week to stretch out before they have any kind of stability at all. Some musicians get tired of the constant tuning. The sound of these strings, however, can be beautiful, and although manufacturers of synthetic-core strings often claim their strings sound just like gut, they usually don’t."

I originally wondered in my first post about gut strings because I thought there might be some psaltery players who played in early-music ensembles.
I managed to clean the strings with rubbing alcohol, but I still wouldn't recommend doing it. My strings are Aquilla synthetic gut, is that what you have?

That's some interesting info you found, thanks for posting it. I found similar info, but this group claims that medieval plucked psalteries may have sometimes used metal strings. They were bronze, brass, or even gold, and had little in common with modern strings. But these authors suggest that metal was available. if rarely used. Here's that link:


What I find interesting is the idea that early metal strings, when available, were supposedly reserved for plucked instruments while bowed instruments used gut. That suggests that if the bowed psaltery existed in the middle ages as is often claimed, it would probably have used gut strings. Given the impracticality of my experiment, I can't believe a BP would ever use gut. So in order to exist, it would need metal strings. If those were only readily available in the late 19th century, as attested by the site you found as well, it fits exactly with our claim that the BP is a 'new' instrument. (In my opinion only!)
Dear Tim,

Yes, I have the "nygut" Aquilla strings (the white ones). In reading up on the harp, I read that early Celtic harps like the famous Brian Boru harp that was made in the 15th century, used bronze or silver strings. This was considered something that was special to Celtic harps and part of the "lost" art of fingernail playing. There is an interesting anecdote that a famous harper invited to play upon ths Brian Boru harp ended with bloody fingers because he did not realize the effects of playing metal strings with the fleshy finger tips since harps (then and now) largely did not have metal strings.

The Celtic connection is interesting because the bowed psaltery is thought to be related to the Welsh Crwth. Some of the strings are plucked while others are bowed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crwth), so it may be a kind of "missing link" in the evolution of the bowed psaltery. This instrument uses gut strings.

However, there is information on the web which claims the bowed psaltery is a relatively modern invention (http://www.diabolus.org/myths/bowed-psaltery/bowed-psaltery.htm, see also wikipedia). "It was invented by a German schoolteacher as a cheap and useful instrument for teaching children the rudiments of music. It was later taken up by folk musicians, and it was often sold at country fairs. It's not medieval. Please don't be misled by a large number of people on the Web who would really like someone to have invented it in the thirteenth century. It does look sort of medieval, and they had psalteries then, and they must have thought of bowing one, mustn't they? Well, no. There are NO convincing illustrations of a medieval bowed psaltery, and there are no literary references to one either. If anyone comes up with such evidence, I'll happily eat my words, but no-one has yet."

It sounds like an interesting topic to conduct some real research on (not just surfing the web like I have). Regardless of when it was invented, I think it is great instrument!
James, that's good information you have. Would you mind re-posting those links in the thread on History and Traditions of the Psaltery? I think they'd make a good extension to that discussion rather than have them buried in this thread where they could be lost in the future. I'm especially interested in your thoughts about the crwth as a relative of the BP and would like to explore that idea further. Your research parallels several ideas that have been offered, and I think we can add to our earlier discussion very profitably with those links.


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