It’s the childhood dream of every person, that first time you see a guitar in real life and hear the wonderful melodies that echo forth from that gorgeous, timeless instrument: the dream of being a rock star. From there, it’s constant air guitar sessions when your favorite song comes on, and feverish visions of bright lights, a crowd of thousands, the amplifiers’ reverb in your head, and performing the perfect solo. That’s usually the part where we wake up in the morning and realize we’re not quite there yet, but that’s the beauty of music – it’s never too late to start. However, for every person starting their musical journey or, even those who are well on their way, a well- rounded knowledge of the instruments we love isn’t always easy to come by. Today, we’re breaking down the insurmountable-seeming wall between us and understanding one of the oldest instrument groups in the world – String Instruments. So, let’s dive in and check out a few classics of this venerable class of instruments.
Guitars: The Celebrity of String
Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Bo Diddley, Eddie Van Halen – Some of the all-time greats and masters of the stringed instrument we know as the guitar. The word guitar traces its roots to the ancient Greek word κιθάρα (“kithara”), and other well-known examples of the ancient guitar include the Arabic instrument known as an Oud and the European Lute. In Spain, the vihuela was the progenitor of the modern acoustic guitar as we know it, with movable frets that could be used to tune the guitar, and a standard six-string style.
The classic acoustic guitar uses either a flat or arched top and commonly uses steel strings which are played with a pick instead of simply plucked with the fingers. It has gone through the highs and lows of being both a rhythm and background instrument to a leading presence in many bands and orchestras. Charlie Gibson (of the Gibson guitar fame) introduced one of the first truly popular arch-top acoustic guitars, which were later innovated on by guitar makers (known professionally as luthiers) such as the famed Les Paul, or Leo Fender and his successful electric guitar, the Fender Esquire.
Aside from its storied history and impeccable legacy of music, learning to play the guitar provides a host of incredible benefits. For one, it’s great for developing fine motor skills as you learn to pluck and play the strings. Developing fine motor skills can also be great for other activities like martial arts, knitting, and even performing surgery (not that we assume you’re playing the guitar to get your medical degree). Playing the guitar is also a great way to improve your memorization skills and overall focus as it requires great concentration to learn new parts. Lastly, one of the best parts of playing the guitar comes from relaxation and enjoyment of the music itself. The guitar has been a part of practically every genre of music, so no matter your tastes, you’re sure to find that playing the guitar will connect you to the music you love the most.
Ukuleles: The traditional and humble classic
Though certainly not as boisterous as the modern electric guitar, the Ukulele is perhaps one of the most important of the string instruments. It’s an eminently popular instrument for beginners given its smaller size and price point when compared to something like a modern guitar, and we have to say – we love the gentler sound of the Ukulele.
Many of us likely assume the Ukulele to be a Hawaiian invention, but in fact, the Ukulele is of European origin. Off the coast of Portugal is an island called Madeira (made famous largely due to the fortified wine of the same name) which once housed a thriving lumber industry. Madeira was also home to a small four-string guitar known as the braguinha or machête. However, during the 1800s this industry faltered and large numbers of Madeirans began to look to other places for work.
Enter, Hawaii. During the 1840s and 50s, Hawaii was famous for its’ large sugar plantations but also suffered from an insufficient workforce after years of European colonization and the diseases that came from it. The Madeiran population was soon to immigrate in record numbers, and it is said that when the SS Ravenscrag, landed in Oahu in August of 1879 with a load of fresh immigrants recently sign to the plantations, one of the ship’s passengers immediately began to play music on their braguinha as they landed on the harbor – introducing the early ukulele and its’ wonderful plucked sounds to Hawaiian ears.
The origin of the name ‘Ukulele’ is said to translate to ‘jumping flea’ given the propensity of the ukulele players to run their fingers quickly and excitedly over the strings while playing. One of the earliest major proponents of the Ukulele was the last king of Hawaii, David Kalakaua, (whose daughter Lili’uokalani also composed ‘Aloha Oe’ later in life), who was said to hold lavish parties and perform the ukulele, and encouraged the native Hawaiians to learn it as well. The ukulele has had a rise and fall as a fashionable instrument, though it has been making a large comeback in recent decades not only for its beloved sound but for the many advantages the ukulele holds. For one, the ukulele is a small and easy-to-carry instrument that makes it ideal for travel. This smaller size makes it a more affordable instrument for those on a tighter budget, and easier for young children to learn as they can hold it more comfortably. A ukulele commonly uses nylon strings that are easier to press down on, and with only four strings, it is less complicated to memorize notes for than the guitar or other stringed instruments. In short, Ukuleles are a wonderfully straightforward, easy-to-learn instrument that has a sound like no other.
Banjos: The Folk music of Africa
The Banjo has been an instrument long identified with the rural populations of the USA, but its origins are distinctly West African. The Jola people of Gambia practice a three-stringed instrument made with a long neck and body built from a calabash gourd called an ‘akonting’ that would have been brought to America along with slaves from Africa. This would have also included other stringed instruments like the ngoni and xalam. The akonting was used as a folk instrument by the everyday people of the Jola tribe, who learned and played it and carried this knowledge down through the generations. The akonting was likely hybridized with the more European guitar style after the slaves arrived in America and were exposed to European style guitars, such as the introduction of a flat fingerboard and tuning pegs to create what we now call the Banjo. The banjo’s strong identity with Africa, with slavery, and with folk music in general, has made it one of the most enduring cross-cultural instruments of the past centuries. It has been a tool of cultural resistance to slavery as well as an earnest expression of love of music and love of community, one that wasn’t defined by slavery. It is a uniquely American, and uniquely African, instrument in many ways.
Playing the banjo may seem daunting, much like the guitar, but in fact, has some key benefits that make the banjo ideal. Aside from its longtime connection with bluegrass music, jazz, and folk music, the banjo has a sound that’s all it's own. With only five strings (instead of guitar’s six) to play on, it’s easier to learn the notes and memorize them. The banjo has several different styles of playing to it, such as with a pick or by plucking the strings, which can offer a more approachable and personalized experience than other instruments. The banjo is truly one of a kind, with a huge range of musical styles within its capabilities.
Whether you’re looking to pick up your first instrument or want to diversify your musical skills, look no further than www.ashthorpe.com for the best quality instruments at a price you’ll love.
- http://www.athenslibrary.org/athens/services/make-music-at-your-library/history-of-the- ukulele
- https://historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/summer- 2017/chronicling-americas-african-instrument-laurent-dubois-on-the-cultural-history-of-the- banjo