Viol, fidel and rebec (from left to right) on display at Amakusa Korejiyokan in Amakusa, Kumamoto, Japan
String instruments, stringed instruments, or chordophones are musical instruments that produce sound from vibrating strings when the performer plays or sounds the strings in some manner.
Musicians play some string instruments by plucking the strings with their fingers or a plectrum—and others by hitting the strings with a light wooden hammer or by rubbing the strings with a bow. In some keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord, the musician presses a key that plucks the string.
With bowed instruments, the player rubs the strings with a horsehair bow, causing them to vibrate. With a hurdy-gurdy, the musician operates a mechanical wheel that rubs the strings.
In most string instruments, the vibrations are transmitted to the body of the instrument, which often incorporates some sort of hollow or enclosed area. The body of the instrument also vibrates, along with the air inside it. The vibration of the body of the instrument and the enclosed hollow or chamber make the vibration of the string more audible to the performer and audience. The body of most string instruments is hollow. Some, however—such as electric guitar and other instruments that rely on electronic amplification—may have a solid wood body.
Musical bows have survived in some parts of Africa.
Earliest string instruments
Dating to around c. 13,000 BC, a cave painting in the Trois Frères cave in France depicts what some believe is a musical bow, a hunting bow used as a single-stringed musical instrument. From the musical bow, families of stringed instruments developed; since each string played a single note, adding strings added new notes, creating bow harps, harps and lyres. In turn, this led to being able to play dyads and chords. Another innovation occurred when the bow harp was straightened out and a bridge used to lift the strings off the stick-neck, creating the lute.
This picture of musical bow to harp bow is theory and has been contested. In 1965 Franz Jahnel wrote his criticism stating that the early ancestors of plucked instruments are not currently known. He felt that the harp bow was a long cry from the sophistication of the 4th-century BC civilization that took the primitive technology and created "technically and artistically well made harps, lyres, citharas and lutes."
Archaeological digs have identified some of the earliest stringed instruments in Ancient Mesopotamian sites, like the lyres of Ur, which include artifacts over three thousand years old. The development of lyre instruments required the technology to create a tuning mechanism to tighten and loosen the string tension. Lyres with wooden bodies, and strings used for plucking or playing with a bow represent key instruments that point towards later harps and violin-type instruments; moreover, Indian instruments from 500 BC have been discovered with anything from 7 to 21 strings.
Hellenistic banquet scene from the 1st century AD, Hadda, Gandhara. Lute player far right.
Musicologists have put forth examples of that 4th-century BC technology, looking at engraved images that have survived. The earliest image showing a lute-like instrument came from Mesopotamia prior to 3000 BC. A cylinder seal from c. 3100 BC or earlier (now in the possession of the British Museum) shows what is thought to be a woman playing a stick lute. From the surviving images, theororists have categorized the Mesopotamian lutes, showing that they developed into a long variety and a short. The line of long lutes may have developed into the tamburs and pandura. The line of short lutes was further developed to the east of Mesopotamia, in Bactria, Gandhara, and Northwest India, and shown in sculpture from the 2nd century BC through the 4th or 5th centuries AD.
During the medieval era, instrument development varied from country to country. Middle Eastern rebecs represented breakthroughs in terms of shape and strings, with a half a pear shape using three strings. Early versions of the violin and fiddle, by comparison, emerged in Europe through instruments such as the gittern, a four stringed precursor to the guitar, and basic lutes. These instruments typically used catgut (animal intestine) and other materials, including silk, for their strings.
Renaissance to modern
String instrument design refined during the Renaissance and into the Baroque period (1600–1750) of musical history. Violins and guitars became more consistent in design, and were roughly similar to what we use in the 2000s and into the present day. The violins of the Renaissance featured intricate woodwork and stringing, while more elaborate bass instruments such as the bandora were produced alongside quill-plucked citterns, and Spanish body guitars.
In the 19th century, string instruments were made more widely available through mass production, with wood string instruments a key part of orchestras – cellos, violas, and upright basses, for example, were now standard instruments for chamber and smaller orchestras. At the same time, the 19th century guitar became more typically associated with six string models, rather than traditional five string versions.
In the 1960s, larger, more powerful guitar amplifiers were developed, called "stacks". These powerful amplifiers enabled guitarists to perform in rock bands that played in large venues such as stadiums and outdoor music festivals (e.g., Woodstock Music Festival). Along with the development of guitar amplifiers, a large range of electronic effects units, many in small stompbox pedals were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, such as fuzz pedals, flangers and
phaser enabling performers to create unique new sounds during the psychedelic rock era. Breakthroughs in electric guitar and basses technologies and playing styles enabled major breakthroughs in pop and rock music in the 1960s and 1970s. The distinctive sound of the amplified electric guitar was the centerpiece of new genres of music such as blues rock and jazz-rock fusion. The sonic power of the loudly amplified, highly distorted electric guitar was to key element of the early heavy metal music, with the distorted guitar being used in lead guitar roles, and with power chords as a rhythm guitar.
The ongoing use of electronic amplification and effects units in string instruments, ranging from traditional instruments like the violin to the new electric guitar, added variety to contemporary classical music performances, and enabled experimentation in the dynamic and timbre (tone colour) range of orchestras, bands, and solo performances.