Documenting the curious world of the hurdy-gurdy.

“Old Sarah” - the well-known hurdy-gurdy player

Graham Whyte has posted a wonderful piece on “Old Sarah” - a blind hurdy-gurdy player from London, born in 1786, taken from “London Labour and the London Poor” by Henry Mayhew.

“ I was born the 4th April, 1786 (it was Good Friday that year), at a small chandler’s shop, facing the White Horse, Stuart’s-rents, Drury-lane. Father was a hatter, and mother an artificial-flower maker and feather finisher. When I was but a day old, the nurse took me out of the warm bed and carried me to the window, to show some people how like I was to father. The cold flew to my eyes and I caught inflammation in them. Owing to mother being forced to be from home all day at her work, I was put out to dry-nurse when I was three weeks old. My eyes were then very bad, by all accounts, and some neighbours told the woman I was with, that Turner’s cerate would do them good. She got some and put it on my eyes, and when poor mother came to suckle me at her dinner-hour, my eyes was all ‘a gore of blood.’ From that time I never see afterwards. She did it, poor woman, for the best; it was no fault of her’n, and I’m sure I bears her no malice for it. I stayed at home with mother until I was thirteen, when I was put to the Blind-school, but I only kept there nine months; they turned me out because I was not clever with my hands, and I could not learn to spin or make sash-lines; my hands was ocker’d like”

More here and Google books scan of original article here.

Hurdy-gurdy playing satyr with a sleeping nymph

Hurdy-Gurdy Playing Satyr with a Sleeping Nymph
Master of 1515 (Italian [?], active ca. 1515)
Engraving with drypoint burr

Nice old engraving dating to 1515 of a hurdy-gurdy playing satyr with a sleeping nymph.  Part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.  The satyr appears to be left handed. 

More here.


If you thought your playing was bad…

Building a hurdy-gurdy: a medieval synthesizer

Nice photo-essay by Mark Hoogslag on Flikr as he documents the process of turning an old lute into a hurdy-gurdy.

“After 150 days of continuous work, an hour or so every day, a presentable and playable instrument has emerged. It looks as if it has been around for 150 years.

I last add three strings and a nice lady’s belt. Three more strings, a lid, internal amplifiers and microphones will still need work, but first I must learn how to play what I have. And what I have sounds ROUGH and PURE and DARK and MYSTICAL and PAGAN.

More here.


Poland’s hurdy-gurdy builder

Short piece in Jim Deacon’s blog about Polish hurdy-gurdy maker Stanislaw Wyzykowski, including a sound and video clip. 

"In Haczów, Poland 83 year old Stanisław Wyżykowski has been hand crafting Hurdy-gurdies. He has built more than sixty since 1967."

More here.

World’s biggest hurdy-gurdy in action.
Rhode Island-based composer Steve Jobe accompanies harmonica virtuoso Chris Turner with the Bosch Hurdy Gurdy. They are rehearsing towards a production, Music for Three Hurdy-Gurdies that will be performed in Providence in October 2007.

Iconography of the 16th Century hurdy-gurdy

I stumbled across a page at the University of New Hampshire, which provides an iconography (list of references to images) of the 16th Century hurdy-gurdy.  Sadly no illustrations, but a comprehensive list nonetheless.

"The purpose of this iconography is to answer the question "Where can I find an illustration of …?" I have included only works of art for which there is a published reproduction (plus some that are in the Visual Collection, Fine Arts Library, Harvard University and a few in the Bild-Archiv Photo Marburg).”

Read more here.

Caroline Phillips: Hurdy-gurdy for beginners

TED Talks

Caroline Phillips cranks out tunes on a seldom-heard folk instrument: the hurdy-gurdy, a.k.a. the wheel fiddle. A searching, Basque melody follows her fun lesson on its unique anatomy and 1,000-year history.

Californian-born, French-resident entrepreneur and musician Caroline Phillips is one half of Basque music duo Bidaia, alongside Mixel Ducau. Her searching, Moroccan- and East Indian-inflected vocals are accompanied by the distinctive, folky sounds of the hurdy-gurdy, an unfamiliar and unusual string instrument operated with a crank-turned wheel.

Throughout her years as a professional musician, Phillips has regularly performed in jazz clubs and toured with her one-woman show in the Caribbean and North Africa.

Bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies

Oliver Seeler has written a superb and detailed discussion of the hurdy-gurdy on his bagpipes-focused website (hotpipes).  The hurdy-gurdy section starts here. Beyond discussing the long historical relationship between the pipes and the gurdy, he has three detailed sections dedicated the Lisberg Museum (of pipes and gurdies in Germany), a detailed explanation of the hurdy-gurdy and how it works, plus an essay on the “Hurdy Gurdy Girls” (poor women from the 1800’s who played the hurdy-gurdy for a living but rapidly became synonymous with prostitution).

The hurdy-gurdy in Spain

Interesting article on the history of the hurdy-gurdy (zanfona) in Spain:

“Can the hurdy gurdy be considered as part of the musical tradition of Spain? Can the bagpipes be considered a traditional instrument in continental Europe? The answer to both questions can be “Yes”, but to justify that, on both cases you need to look back to the origins, and mainly to the development of these instruments. In the Middle Ages, both bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies were instruments played by the minstrels throughout all the old European kingdoms. There are numerous representations of pipers and hurdy gurdy performers in the sculptures of Romanesque & Gothic cathedrals and churches, as well as on ancient illustrated books and icons. Together with harps, flutes, lutes, etc…, they were quite popular, at least until the Renaissance or even later.”

More here.

What to look for when buying a hurdy-gurdy

Simon Wascher has compiled some useful advice for what to look out for when buying a hurdy-gurdy.  It’s available on his website here, but I’ve reproduced it below for simplicity:

The instrument should have:

  • 1-2 melody-strings
  • 1-2 trompettes, or 1 trompette with a capo to raise its pitch a tone
  • 2 drones

More strings cannot be controlled by a beginner. If an instrument with more strings is bought the extra drones and trompette strings shouldn’t be used, extra melody strings be slacked off for the first years (just enough not to influence the playing pressure for the left hand).

A standard keyboard with all chromatic keys and a range of two full octaves. That is, 14 keys in the diatonic (‘lower’) row of keys and 10 keys for the chromatic pitches in the ‘upper’ row of keys. Traditional French instruments lack one key in the diatonic row (the seventh in the second octave) so it’s 13 on those. The traditional Hungarian tekerš has a smaller range.

Standard measures:

  • length of melody-string from sliding nut to bridge:
  • 345 mm (+/- 5 mm)
  • crank length 65 - 70 mm

For best playability, the keys of both rows should be positioned so that the divisions of neighbouring chromatic keys are positioned in the middle of the diatonic keys. Where semitones appear in the diatonic row, the divisions of the diatonic and chromatic keys should be aligned. Some traditional keyboard setups do not follow these guidelines which means that some key combinations are harder to play.

All keys must function and sound well, especially at the high pitches. Because one needs to learn how to play these high keys well, this should be tested by an experienced player, or let the seller play those keys for you. Comments like ‘these keys are not used anyway’ should make you very skeptical.

Question all statements by the seller deeply: even buying directly from a maker does not guarantee a functioning instrument since the philosophies (authenticity, discount) and opinions about quality vary widely.

And the main reason why instruments are sold second hand is that the owner was not satisfied with what he had.

Ask for the reasons for the sale and for the price, listen carefully to the answers and keep asking questions. For example, what exactly is the difference between the cheaper and the more expensive instruments of a maker.

With prices of less than 1000 Euro/US-Dollar I would be very skeptical. There will be some limitations that one will have to take into account. There are quite recommendable but also very bad instruments on the market for 1400 to 1600 Euro/US-Dollar. And finally a warning: there is also junk for sale for 3000 Euro/US-Dollar.

Hurdy-gurdies should always be bought directly from a maker and not from distributors, since those have usually no info and support at all. Ask the seller about included support.

Ask the following questions:

What is the wheel made of?

  • wrong answer: one piece of solid wood, a plank
  • right answer: plywood, MDF, plastic, …

How can I remove the wheel?

  • wrong answer: ‘you never need to’, ‘you have to remove the top’
  • right answer: description of the method which can be followed by anyone

Sit down with the instrument on your lap and let the seller fit the belt around your waist to secure the instrument.

The next step is to lift the wheel cover and the strings from the wheel (the seller can show you how). Now take the wheel at its sides with your hand (do not touch the rim) and try to move it left and right, back and forth and up and down. Then take hold of the axle directly where it comes out of the instrument and again try to move it. The wheel and the axle should not move and should make no noises, knocks, or bumps at all. This is a test to verify the quality of the bearings to see if they are OK.

Now with the strings still off, turn the wheel with the crank and listen for any sounds. There should be no bumping, scratching, knocking or similar noises (these noises can come from defects of the axles or the knob’s bearings).

If there are no strings engaged with the wheel, the drag when turning should be very low and equal at all positions of the wheel. If the drag is strong in general or stronger in certain positions of the wheel: this needs repair.

Have a close look at the rim of the wheel. Turn it so that you see it’s whole surface and edges. The surface and the edges should look sleek end even and show no scratches, slots or depressions. The wheel surface should be in perfect condition when finished by the maker. The condition declines from use and from time to time the rim has to be reworked. Do not believe remarks that the wheel ‘has to be played some time’ to improve.

You can test if the wheel is truly circular the following way: Let one melody string touch the wheel (the seller can do this for you) and then turn the wheel and let the string sound. Observe with a tuner if the pitch keeps the same or if the pitch goes up and down according to the turns of the wheel. If these changes of the pitch depend on the position of the wheel (and thus the handle) this is an indicator that the wheel is not truly circular and needs work.

The knob should turn freely in your hand: there is a bearing inside the knob which it turns on. If it does not turn freely, it’s damaged. The size of the knob should be such that if you close your hand around it with the thumb touching the index finger, there should still be a gap between the knob and the hand.

Try to turn the tuning pegs. Naturally you cannot tune the instrument, but you can find out if the pegs turn smoothly and keep position when you loosen your grip, or if they jam or jump up.

Let the seller tune the instrument for you: observe if the seller can do this without trouble, if the pegs can be turned easily and whether they stay in position when released. In a good instrument, well made, adjusted and maintained, friction tuning pegs should be turnable without an extra tool, a ‘tourne-a-gauche (tuning wrench)’.

Let the seller or another person play something for you, both without trompette and with the trompette. It must always sound nice. Have a look if the instrument is played with one or two melody-strings: ask that it is played with two melody strings (without and with trompette). That way even a beginner can hear if the instrument is well adjusted.

Press any chromatic key and open the lid of the key box. The key should not interfere with the lid. This would be a construction problem which is nasty when you try to tune the chromatic keys.

With instruments with two or more melody strings the tangents (like frets; the part of the key which touches the string and shortens it to change the pitch) must touch all melody strings simultaneously. Lay the instrument flat on a table and put all melody strings ‘on’ (the seller can show this to you). Now push all keys gently against the strings and have a very close look if all tangents really touch both strings.

If the strings do not touch simultaneously with wooden tangents, this means some hours to days of simple but exhausting adjustment. It is still about an hour of adjustment with metal tangents.

If you have a close look at the tangents also look for wear; heavily used tangents show notches.

In general as a beginner, one should go for the expertise of an advanced, possibly professional player. Even if it takes some time to find such a person, it saves a lot of money and prevents needless trouble and frustration.

It makes sense to participate at hurdy-gurdy classes with a borrowed instrument as part of the purchase process. One can have first experiences with the instrument and at these meetings there is a chance to hear and try a number of instruments by different makers and ask people’s opinions about different hurdy-gurdies.

AntiQuated Strings - build your own gurdies

Graeme McCormack emailed me to let me know about his site - AntiQuated Strings - that documents a number of beautiful hurdy-gurdies that he has made - including one recycled from an old acoustic guitar body.  What’s more, he has detailed and beautifully drawn plans for his Sinfonye and Oud Backed Hurdy-gurdy which you can download for free.  Even if you don’t attempt to make the instrument, they would make a great poster for walls of your practice room.

Great site, well worth a visit.

Birth of a hurdy-gurdy

Thanks to Pieter Lambrechts for pointing out this website, which documents the birth of a hurdy-gurdy - from planks of wood through to the finished article, complete with sound sample.  Made by amateur luthier, Johan Kayaert, this is a detailed photographic essay.  Words are in Dutch, but the process is clear just from the photos.

Making of a Marchand 1775 hurdy-gurdy

British luthier Nicholas Nourse has an interesting page illustrating his construction of a hurdy-gurdy based on the Marchand 1775 hurdy-gurdy.  He is also offering full-size drawings for sale to allow other experienced craftsmen to make this instrument.   More here.  He has posted a similar page illustrating his construction of a hurdy-gurdy based on the famous Hieronymous Bosch painting, after plans by Marcello Bono - see here.


Antonio Poves has published a wonderfully detailed site dedicated to the organistrum, the earliest incarnation of the hurdy-gurdy.  Although often thought of as an instrument for two players, Antonio points out that there are examples of instruments for one player, and that the defining characteristic is the location of the keybox (to the side of the body, rather than on top) rather than the number of players.  The site is based on his doctoral thesis on the organistrum, which won an award for the best thesis in the area of Fine Art at the Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain.  The site includes information on a number of organistrums that he has reconstructed with the help of luthiers, as well as linked to recordings and videos he has made of the instrument.  A very rich site and well worth visiting.  Online here.