Paolo Zebolino

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My main instrument  is a three chanterelles (melody strings)  hurdy-gurdy made by luthier Paolo Coriani in Modena (Italy) in 2002.

It has a mahogany soundboard while the body is alternate Brazilian rosewood and maple (11 staves).

Important repair jobs and modifications were made by luthiers André-Marc Huwiler (Geneva, Switzerland) and Giordano Ceccotti (Assisi, Italy). 

My other hurdy-gurdy was made by Lino Mognaschi (Colorno, Parma, Italy) in 2006.

N.B. On this site (and elsewhere), there are pictures of me with other hurdy-gurdies: an instrument made by luthier Mario Buonoconto (Maiano, Italy) and another one made by luthier Neil Brook (Preston, UK).

Made by Mario Buonoconto in 1999.

Made by Neil Brook in 2009.

Two easily confused (but very different) instruments.

On the left, there is an illustration of an "organ-grinder".

His barrel organ played tunes when he turned the handle. His pet monkey amused children, and also collected pennies in a hat or box.

Let's start saying that this isn't a hurdy-gurdy, this is a barrel organ.

More or less at the same time (1851), another instrument was played in Victorian London by a blind woman: "Old Sarah".

The instrument she's playing is a hurdy-gurdy and it's a real musical instrument.

How does it work?

The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument that produces sound by a crank-turned, rosined wheel rubbing against the strings. The wheel functions much like a violin bow.

Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses "tangents" — small wedges, typically made of wood — against one or more of the strings to change their pitch.

Like most other acoustic stringed instruments, it has a sound board to make the vibration of the strings audible.

Most hurdy-gurdies have multiple drone strings, which give a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, resulting in a sound similar to that of bagpipes.

A buzzing bridge (commonly called the "dog") is an asymmetrical bridge that rests under a drone string on the sound board. When the wheel is accelerated, one foot of the bridge lifts from the soundboard and vibrates, creating a buzzing sound.

View from the crank.

Tangents inside the keybox.

Detail of the buzzing bridge (the "dog").

Origins and (short) history.

One of the earliest forms of the hurdy-gurdy was the organistrum, a large instrument with a guitar-shaped body and a long neck in which the keys were set (covering one diatonic octave). Due to its size, the organistrum was played by two people, one of whom turned the crank while the other pulled the keys upward.

Abbot Odo of Cluny (died 942) is supposed to have written a short description of the construction of the organistrum entitled Quomodo organistrum construatur (How the Organistrum Is Made).

One of the earliest visual depictions of the organistrum is from the twelfth-century Pórtico da Gloria (Portal of Glory) on the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain.

There are many speculations about how the organistrum was used, the most likely theory is that it was employed as a demonstration instrument, an intonation aid for the singers.

Around the 13th century, the instrument became smaller and was also known as symphonie, sambuca or chifonie.

In the Middle Ages the hurdy-gurdy was used for secular as well as for sacred music. The hurdy-gurdy was a popular instrument of the pilgrims and was expressly mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales as one of the instruments which the Canterbury pilgrims played: "With harpe and pype and simphonye" 

The first known depiction of a buzzing bridge on a hurdy-gurdy comes from The Garden of Earthly Delights (painted between 1490 and 1510) by Hieronymus Bosch.

During the Renaissance, changing musical tastes demanded greater polyphonic capabilities than the hurdy-gurdy could offer and pushed the instrument to the lowest social classes.

By the end of the 17th century, French Rococo tastes for rustic diversions brought the hurdy-gurdy back to the attention of the upper classes, where it acquired tremendous popularity among the nobility, with famous composers writing works for the hurdy-gurdy. At this time the most common style of hurdy-gurdy developed, the six-string vielle à roue. This instrument has two melody strings and four drones. The drone strings are tuned so that by turning them on or off, the instrument can be played in multiple keys (e.g., C and G, or G and D). The instrument was also built, for the first time, with a rounded lute-type body made of staves (between 1716 and 1720 by the lute-maker Henri Bâton of Versailles).

Georges de la Tour

The Hurdy-Gurdy Player


Unknown Artist
The Lady with the Hurdy-Gurdy

c. 1750-60.

Playing range.

Most contemporary hurdy-gurdies have 24 keys that cover a range of two chromatic octaves. The pitch depends on the string used.

Here are two traditional French tunings for the melody strings:

Auvergnat, from G4 (the G of the central octave on a piano) to G6

Bourbonnais, from D4 (the D of the central octave on a piano) to D6 + one string tuned one octave higher (D5-D7)

Of the four available strings (called in French: gros bourdonpetit bourdon, mouche and trompette) three strings are commonly used together.
The drones are traditionally  tuned to:
C3,G3,C4 for the Auvergnat tuning in C
G2,G3,D4 for the Auvergnat tuning in G
D1,D2,D3  for the Bourbonnais tuning

Other characteristics.

  • Historically, strings were made of gut, which is still a preferred material today and modern instruments are mounted with violin and cello strings.

Here's what I use on my instrument:

  • Gros bourdon (G2/A2): silver wound gut, ø 1.90mm
  • Petit Bourdon (C3/D3): silver wound gut, ø 1.50mm
  • Mouche (G3): gut, ø 1.35mm
  • Trompette (C4/D4/E4): gut, ø 1.10mm
  • 1st melody string (G4): gut, ø 0.95mm
  • 2nd melody string (G4): gut, ø 0.95mm
  • 3rd melody string (D4): gut, ø 1.10mm

  • Some instruments also have optional metallic sympathetic strings. My four sympathetic strings (tuned: C, D, G and A) are 0.28mm (.011) steel strings.

  • In order to achieve proper intonation and sound quality, each string of a hurdy-gurdy must be wrapped with cotton or similar fibers.

  • Individual strings (in particular the melody strings) often have to have their height above the wheel surface adjusted by having small pieces of paper placed between the strings and the bridge, a process called shimming.
  • On French-style instruments, the sensitivity of the buzzing bridge can be altered by turning a peg - called tyrant - in the tailpiece of the instrument that is connected by a wire or thread to the trompette. The tirant adjusts the lateral pressure on the trompette and thereby sets the sensitivity of the buzzing bridge to changes in wheel velocity.

Capos for the Bourdons.

Capos for the Trompette string.

Some hurdy-gurdies have carved heads at the end of the pegbox (musketeers, Turks, women, angels, Moors and even crowned heads.

The pegbox can have different shapes in order to accommodate classic wooden pegs, banjo tuners, guitar tuners or Pegheds™.

  • Classic tapered wooden pegs, usually the same as 9mm viola pegs, can be made from a variety of exotic hardwoods and are typically turned using a tool called tourne-à-gauche.
  • Banjo tuners are mechanical tuning machines used in place of tuning pegs on a classically shaped pegbox but they need multiple concentric drills.
  • Guitar tuners fit better on a specifically designed pegbox but are often used on the classically shaped ones.
  • Pegheds™ look exactly like traditional wood pegs, but they have an internal gearing allowing 4:1 t tuning ratio with no external visible difference to tapered wooden pegs.

Pegbox with female head and Pegheds™ tuners.

Pegbox with scroll and tourne-à-gauche for the classic wooden pegs.

Playing a rhythm with the right hand.

There are various stylistic techniques that are used as the player turns the crank, briefly accelerating the wheel at various points in its revolution. This technique is often known by its French term, the coup-de-poignet (or, more simply, the shortened coup), with the acceleration being applied by striking the handle with the thumb, fingers or base of the thumb at one or more of four points in the revolution of the wheel (often described in terms of the clock face, 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock) to achieve the desired rhythm. A long buzz can also be achieved by pulling the handle rapidly through the rotation, known as the coup gras.

Modal playing.

The hurdy-gurdy isn't an instrument for playing chords, it's an instrument for playing a modal melody over drones, like the Indian sitar or the bagpipe.

The fact that it is a modal instrument means that every note played by the melody strings is played in relation to the drone/drones.

The main drone is usually the final note of the melody.

Another drone note, sometimes called the "dominant", is often added to the final. In traditional styles this note is usually one fifth higher (i.e.: C-G). More advanced modal players can use other intervals for the drones in order to accentuate the peculiar structure of each mode. In this case, the Hypodorian mode (protus plagal, mode I plagal) should have D as main drone and F as second drone (minor third).

The 14 plainchant modes, showing the finals, cofinals, mediants, and participants, according to W. S. Rockstro, "Modes, the Ecclesiastical", A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (A.D. 1450–1880), by Eminent Writers, English and Foreign, edited by George Grove, D. C. L. (London: Macmillan and Co, 1880), 2:340–43.