Paolo Zebolino

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My main instrument is a hurdy-gurdy with three melody strings and four drones built by luthier Paul Coriani of Modena in 2002.

It has a mahogany soundboard while the body alternates eleven ribs of Brazilian rosewood and maple.

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

My other hurdy-gurdy was built by luthier Lino Mognaschi (Colorno, Parma) 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 (Majano, Udine) and another one by luthier Neil Brook (Preston, UK).

Hurdy-gurdy built by Mario Buonoconto in 1999.

Hurdy-gurdy built by Neil Brook in 2009.

How does it work?

The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument in which the sound is produced by a wheel, driven by a crank and covered with rosin, rubbing against the strings. The wheel has the same function as a violin bow.

The melodies are played on a keyboard with sliding keys provided with "tangents" - small wedges, typically made of wood - which, by pressing the key, come into contact with one or more strings to change the vibrating length and then, the note produced.

Like most string acoustic instruments, the hurdy-gurdy is equipped with a soundboard that makes it possible to hear the vibration of the strings and a soundbox that amplifies it.

Most of the hurdy-gurdies have one or more drone strings, which support the melody with fixed notes, resulting in a sound similar to that of the bagpipe.

A vibrant bridge (commonly referred to as "the dog") is an asymmetric bridge underneath a drone on the soundboard. When the wheel rotation is accelerated, a foot of the bridge rises from the table and vibrates, creating a buzzing so

View from the crank.

Tangents in the keybox.

Detail of the buzzing bridge: "the dog".

Origins and (short) history.

One of the earliest incarnations of the hurdy-gurdy was the organistrum, a large instrument with a guitar shaped body and a long neck in which were placed the keys to produce the notes. Because of its size, the organistrum was played by two people, one of which turned the crank while the other operated the keys.

Abbot Odo of Cluny (dead in 942) wrote a brief description of the construction of the organistrum called Quomodo organistrum construatur.

One of the first representations of the organistrum dates back to the 12th century and is located on the Pórtico da Gloria in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain.

There are many speculations on how the organistrum was used, the most plausible theory is that it was a theoretical-demonstrative instrument, a reference for the pitch of the singers.

Around the thirteenth century, the instrument became smaller and was also known as symphonia, sambuca o chifonie.

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

The first known representation of a buzzing bridge on a hurdy-gurdy comes from Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Early Delights (painted between 1490 and 1510).

During the Renaissance, the new musical tastes required greater polyphonic capabilities than the hurdy-gurdy could offer and this led to the downward fall of the instrument to the lowest social classes.

At the end of the 17th century, the French taste of rococo for the pastoral figures brought the instrument to the attention of the upper classes, where it gained a considerable popularity among the nobility with famous composers who wrote for the hurdy-gurdy. During this period the most common type of hurdy-gurdy was developed: the six-string instrument. This instrument has two melody strings and four drones. The drone strings are tuned in such a way that, when placed or not in contact with the wheel, the instrument can play in different tonalities (e.g., C and G or G and D). Always at this time, it would appear that the instrument was first constructed with a rounded body made up of ribs and shaped like a lute back (between 1716 and 1720 by the luthier Henri Bâton of Versailles).

Georges de la Tour

Le Vielleur


Unknown artist

Lady with the Hurdy-gurdy

c. 1750-60.

Playing Range.

Most modern hurdy-gurdies (soprano) have 23 keys that cover a range of two chromatic octaves. The root note depends on the string used.

Here are two traditional French tunings for the melody strings:

Auvergnat, from G4 (the middle G on the piano) to G6

Bourbonnais, from D4 (the middle D on the piano) to D6 + one string tuned to the upper octave (D5-D7) played in parallel.

Of the four traditionally available drone strings (called in French: gros bourdon, petit bourdon, mouche and trompette) two or three strings are commonly used together.

The drones are traditionally tuned as follows:

C3, G3, C4 for the Auvergnat tuning in C
G2, G3, D4 for the Auvergnat tuning in G
D1 or G2, D2, D3  for the Bourbonnais tuning

Other Characteristics.

  • Historically, the strings are made of gut, which is still the favorite material today. Modern instruments are fitted with violin, violet 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 chanterelle (D5): gut, ø 0.60mm
  • 2nd chanterelle (D4): gut, ø 1.10mm
  • 3rd chanterelle (G4): gut, ø 0.95mm

  • Some instruments have resonant sympathetic strings. My four sympathetic strings (tuned: C, D, G and A) are 0.28mm (.011 inches) metal strings.

  • In order to obtain good intonation and good sound quality, each string must be wrapped in cotton or similar fibres.

  • It is often necessary to adjust the pressure of each individual string (especially the melody strings) on ​​the wheel by adjusting the height of the string itself, this is traditionally done with small pieces of paper inserted between the string and the bridge and it is called shimming.
  • On French-style instruments, the vibrating bridge sensitivity (the "dog") can be adjusted by turning a peg - called tirant - which is located in the tailpiece and connected by a wire to the trompette string. The peg adjusts the lateral pressure on the trompette and therefore determines the dog's sensitivity to changes in the angular speed of the wheel.

Capos for the drones.

Capos for the trompette.

Some hurdy-gurdies have sculpted heads at the end of the pegbox (musketeers, Turks, women, angels, moors, crowned heads, etc.).

The pegbox can have different shapes depending on whether it is designed to accommodate traditional wooden pegs, banjo, guitar or Pegheds ™ mechanics.

  • The traditional wooden pegs, usually identical to the viola ones, with a conical shape and measuring 9mm, can be made of several exotic hardwoods and are typically tuned using a tool called tourne-à-gauche.
  • Banjo mechanics are used instead of wooden pegs on traditional shaped pegboxes but need concentric holes for their installation.
  • Guitar mechanics are better suited to suitably designed pegboxes, but are also used on traditional shaped designs.
  • Pegheds ™ look like traditional pegs but conceal within them a mechanism that allows a 4: 1 ratio between the head and bottom rotation for a finer tuning and better holding.

Pegbox with female head and Pegheds™.

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

The Right Hand Rhythm.

There are several techniques that can be used to rotate the crank, briefly accelerating the wheel at various points in its revolution. This technique is often known for its French term coup-de-poignet (or, simply, coup). The acceleration is made by hitting the handle of the crank with the thumb, fingers or thumb base at different points in the wheel revolution (often described in terms of the clock dial: 12, 3, 6 and 9) in order to get the desired rhythm. A long buzz can also be obtained by quickly pushing the crank through the entire rotation: it is known as the coup gras.

Modal Playing.

The hurdy-gurdy is not an instrument for playing chords, it is an instrument for playing a modal melody over drones, like the Indian sitar or the bagpipes.

The fact that it is a modal instrument means that every note played by the melodic strings is performed (and tuned) in relation to the drone or the drones.

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

Another drone note, sometimes called "dominant", is often added to the main one. In traditional styles this note is usually a fifth higher (e.g., C3-G3). More experienced modal players can use other intervals for the drones in order to accentuate the peculiar structure of any mode. For example, the Hypodorian mode (protus plagalis, 1st plagal mode) should have a Re as its main drone and Fa as its second drone (a minor third). For this reason, by adopting a modern terminology, it can also be called the Re/fa mode.

14 modes, showing finals, cofinals, mediants e 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.