I brought my mandolin to play in a park this weekend and people looked at it like I’d shrunk a guitar with a shrink ray. I didn’t know a mandolin was so exotic. But it got me thinking, if they don’t recognize this very American stringed instrument, would they recognize a lute, a dobro, a dulcimer, an erhu or a sitar, the stringed instruments of the world? Take a read about these instruments and see if you find them in your favorite local park—in India.
--The modern mandolin was created in Naples, Italy in the late 18th century. It has four pairs of double strings, each playing the same notes that are plucked with a pick. The mandolin became popular in the United States because of a group of players called the “Spanish Students” played on the east coast in the 1880’s. Mandolins were fad instruments in the early 1900’s and even were dealt by the title character in the musical, The Music Man. Southern string bands adopted the mandolin in the 1930’s.
--The sitar is a popular instrument in North Indian music. It has a total of 20 or 21 strings, which include 3 or 4 drone strings, 4 main strings and 13 harmonic strings. Its body is made of gourd with a long neck made of wood. The sitar is played along with the tabla drum. A famous sitarist is Ravi Shankar, Norah Jones’ father.
--The lute is an early ancestor of modern stringed instruments in Europe and the United States. It refers to any stringed instruments with a neck and a deep, rounded back. The lute was used particularly in Renaissance and late Baroque music, often to accompany vocal works. However, lutes (the name itself is argued by musicologists) have been used to describe instruments of similar construction used in ancient Egypt, Armenia and Persia, along with other places, at the beginning of the 7th century.
--The name Dobro originated when Slovakian brothers formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company in 1928. It is a resonator guitar and includes an inverted resonator cone to amplify an acoustic guitar’s sound.
--The Appalachian dulcimer was popular in Irish and Scottish settlements in the United States. It is a long, thin instrument with few strings. Players lay the instrument flat on their laps and pluck or strum its strings with the right hand while fretting it with the other. Another variant is the hammer dulcimer which is played by hitting two cloth-covered hammers onto the strings.
--The erhu is a two stringed instrument played with a bow. Often called a “Chinese violin,” this instrument originated in China more than one thousand years ago. Scholars believe it is related to an ancient instrument called the xiqin, which originated in central China in the 10th century. Erhus are played in contemporary, as well as classical Chinese music.
Although they are very different now, it is kind of amazing to think about the huge diversity of stringed instruments all over the world, all originating from some variation of the humble lute. As we can see from the dobro, as we enter the electronic age, we are nowhere near at a standstill in thinking about the possibilities for modern stringed instruments.