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.
- 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.