Bizarre: The Hurdy Gurdy

In this series, we’re taking an in-depth look into the weird, wonderful and often forgotten instruments; some old, some new, but always bizarre! Hopefully, through our mini-profiles of these instruments, they will inspire you to find some new sounds or get creative with some obscure charity shop finds.

Most people's only exposure to the term ‘Hurdy Gurdy’, would be from the song ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’, written by Donovan in the late 60’s; which has its own folklore in and of itself. Having either been written whilst studying Transcendental Meditation with the Beatles in Rishikesh, India, or, in a Rum and Ganja-infused haze in Jamaica (he can’t remember which), it also has a lost verse, written by George Harrison, as well as features from Jimmy Page and John Bonham as musicians on the record, pre-Led Zepellin!

In the song he references the Hurdy Gurdy man as a troubadour who speaks a timeless truth and the Hurdy Gurdy is indeed an ancient instrument, with its earliest incarnations being traceable back to the 10th century.

History of The Hurdy Gurdy

The Hurdy Gurdy is a stringed instrument that produces sound via hand-cranked wheel that bows the strings from underneath, which, when played well, can be used to add a slight rhythmic element to the sound. At the other end is a keyboard, which is used to create the melodies by pressing tangents - small wedges, that press against the strings to change the pitch. This is also combined with multiple drone strings, which give the melody a constant-pitched accompaniment, similar to the bagpipes.

The Organistrum is the earliest ancestor of the Hurdy Gurdy family, dating back to the end of 10th or beginning of the 11th century. The Organistrum differed from the Hurdy Gurdy, in that it required two people to play it. Being larger than a regular Hurdy Gurdy, one person would turn the crank, whilst the other pressed the keys to create the melody.

Through the Ages

Known in France as the ‘vielle a roue’ (wheel fiddle), it was one of the most popular instruments in Europe, becoming a staple in folk tradition in countries such as Poland, Belarus, Hungary, Ukraine and beyond. One of the key factors that could have led to its popularity was the fact that it was the first stringed instrument to have the keyboard principle applied to it.

Its spread was also proliferated by wandering troubadours who found employment in courts and towns and their acceptance into religious processions and similar events. In this way, the instrument found its way into every strata of society, from nobility to peasants. However, when it arrived in Britain, it was known derogatorily as the ‘hurly burley’.

The Hurdy Gurdy was very much in vogue during the reign of Louis XIV, with music being written by popular composers in the baroque period, including Vivaldi and Mozart, with its popularity continuing through to the end of the reign of Louis XV. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the instrument underwent some modifications, increasing its range to two octaves and thus catalysing a lot of new music to be written on it.

After the French revolution, the instrument drifted off into relative obscurity, save for the renditions of traditional Baroque-era songs, which, if you’re lucky enough, you can catch street musicians still playing on the castle walls of St. Malo to this day.

The Hurdy Gurdy in the Modern Day

In the early 20th century, the instrument is played by Der Leiermann, in the last song of Schubert's Winterreise and also featured in the film ‘Captains Courageous’ in 1937.

After this, levels of intrigue in the folk community were piqued by Donovans’ song as mentioned at the start of the article, which, ultimately, led to annual hurdy-gurdy music festivals in Washington, USA and Saint Chartier, France (to name a few) each year and a museum in Montluçon, France.

Technical Aspects

Traditionally the stings were made of gut, which they sometimes still are, although you will also find metal strings now as well, especially for the heavier ‘drone’ strings, with cotton wool being spun around them where they meet the wheel, to soften the sound. The most common, French-style, of the instrument, is tuned to C or G, with the melody strings being tuned to G1, with the odd regional exception (tuning in A or E), most likely to be found in or around Hungary.

The Hurdy Gurdy is a challenging instrument to master; hanging around your neck at an angle that allows the keys to fall back in place after being pressed from playing the melodies, whilst meticulously turning the wheel to draw out percussive rhythms makes it quite a skill to produce a good sound!

Whilst the sound of the Hurdy Gurdy will definitely not be to everyone’s taste, it holds a fascination in people that has never quite faded away. The allure of being able to play an instrument that has been around since Medieval times will always endure. There could be something in there that taps into an ancient part of your brain and inspires you to push your palette of sounds that little bit further than is normally comfortable!


Related Articles

  • The Legend of Technics 1200’s

    The Legend of Technics 1200’s

    Way back in October, 1972, The Matsushita Electric Company, better known as Panasonic, launched the SL1200 turntable under their Technics brand. This was the second in their new range; the first being

    Read More 2
  • The Legend Of The Amen Break

    The Legend Of The Amen Break

    It’s a spring day in 1969, a band named ‘The Winstons’ are tirelessly working away in a studio in Atlanta, Georgia. They’ve just cut their new single ‘Color Him Father’ and are struggling

    Read More 2
  • Gear Love: Akai MPC

    Gear Love: Akai MPC

    Introduced by AKAI in 1988, the MPC series delivered a pioneering and intuitive piece of digital equipment that would go on to revolutionize electronic music, and, in particular, Hip Hop. Developi

    Read More 2
  • How To Go Lo-Fi With Tape

    How To Go Lo-Fi With Tape

    In the age of Lo-Fi Hip Hops’ burgeoning popularity, it has become de-rigeur in modern day production, in multiple genres, to achieve a sound that has a more real-world, gritty aesthetic as a direct

    Read More 2
  • Gear Love: The Beardytron 5000 MKII

    Gear Love: The Beardytron 5000 MKII

    The Beardytron 5000 MKII is the brainchild of multi-vocalist, musician and beatboxer Darren Alexander Foreman, aka Beardyman. Having started out his live performances in cafes using guitar looping ped

    Read More 2
  • The Legend of Mini Moog

    The Legend of Mini Moog

    Created by Moog Music and released in 1970, the Minimoog was one of the first portable synthesizers to hit the market, became an instant classic and has gone on to change music forever! The Birth

    Read More 2
  • Bizarre: Circuit Bending

    Bizarre: Circuit Bending

    This week we’re looking into the creative world of Circuit-Bending, an experimental and innovative world involving the customisation of the circuits within electronic devices to create new musical o

    Read More 2
  • The Legend of Prophet-5

    The Legend of Prophet-5

    The Prophet-5 is up there with the Minimoog as one of the all-time timeless synths... Released in 1978 after being developed by Dave Smith and John Bowen at Sequential Circuits, the Prophet-5 was

    Read More 2
  • Bizarre: The Octobass

    Bizarre: The Octobass

    We’re back again with our foray into the world of lesser-known, undiscovered and sometimes bizarre instruments that we’ve scoured the archives for. We hope that these brief glances into the more u

    Read More 2
  • 5 Production Tips to Boost Creativity

    5 Production Tips to Boost Creativity

    It’s all too easy to get caught in a routine when being creative; going through the motions that you’ve ingrained into your process can suck the creativity from your session fast. Drawing for the

    Read More 2