How does a hurdy-gurdy work?
A hurdy-gurdy is a musical instrument that functions as a mechanical violin. Replacing the bow, there is a wheel attached to a crank. While cranking, the rosined wheel vibrates the strings that make contact with it. Strings are typically arranged on the instrument in 3 groups, they go from furthest away from the player to closest: low pitched drone strings, melody strings and high pitched drones strings. The melody strings feed into a keybox, which replaces a finger/fretboard and has the same chromatic key layout as a piano keyboard. The rest of the strings vibrate a continuous tone like the drones on a bagpipe. Some of these drone strings, called trompettes, will have a loose bridge that creates a “buzzing” sound upon an accent of the wheel - this creates a rhythmic pattern separate from the melody line. Finally, a trompette without the loose bridge is called a mouche and just functions as a regular drone.
What is setup and adjustment?
Setup and adjustment is the process you go through to make your instrument sound good and work properly. A hurdy-gurdy can have over 100 adjustable parts and many of them need to be delicately balanced with each other. Besides tuning every individual tangent (1 per key per string), the main trifecta is the balance of cotton, rosin, and string pressure.
- Cotton is wrapped around each string where they make contact with the wheel. The cotton protects the string and wheel from friction damage and makes for a smoother sound. Applying the cotton evenly across the string, as well as the correct amount is very important and difficult to get right at the start.
- Rosin is applied to the wheel either via rubbing a block on it or applying liquid rosin via a cloth. Rosin gives the wheel its grip to be able to vibrate the strings.
- String pressure can be adjusted by lowering and raising the bridges, which increases and decreases the pressure of the strings on the wheel, respectively. String pressure determines the tone (and volume to a certain extent). Adjustment can be done either via paper shims between the string and bridge, or some instruments will have bridge adjusters you can twist.
You can find videos on setup/adjustment on our tutorials page.
How does the buzzing work?
The buzzing works by having a small, loose bridge on a trompette string. It is not attached to the instrument and is only held in place by the pressure of the string. This bridge is called the “chien” (French for “dog”). To change the sensitivity of the buzz, the tension on the trompette string can be adjusted through a tuning peg (called "tirant") attached to the tailpiece. The chien itself acts as a hammer, and the tension from the tirant string causes the hammer to lift off the soundboard when you crank quicker. You use the fingers on your crank hand to accent the wheel briefly, causing the string to vibrate faster and at a greater amplitude, which causes the chien to hammer the soundboard, creating the buzz sound.
Here is a slow motion video of a chien activating the buzz, so you can see how the string vibration affects the chien.
Check out our tutorials page for an understanding of the finger motion to activate the buzz (referred to as “coups”).
How loud is it?
The hurdy-gurdy is about as loud as a standard orchestral instrument. The real problem is most people find the trompette very annoying. It is hard to soundproof against and you cannot play the trompette quietly. It is good to have a plan for where and when you will practice. If you are in an apartment you could rent a practice room, play during good hours, or play outside. Talk to your neighbors and make sure you have a plan before you invest.
If you need to play quietly, cranking slower and using less strings will reduce volume, but this becomes impossible while using the trompette. The trompette can be muted some via magnets pinching the soundboard near the chien. Demonstration video here. Lastly a chien with less string pressure and bulkier body can be used for a more muted sound. You can find a guide for carving your own chien on our tutorials page.
How is the instrument tuned/what notes can it play?
The two most common tunings for the hurdy-gurdy are D/G and G/C. You can read about the differences between the traditional tunings here. There are other tunings such as E/A for the Hungarian tekerő.
G/C means the open melody note is a G, while D/G means the open melody note is a D. The keyboard goes chromatically up from the open note. The range of the keyboard on a typical hurdy-gurdy is 2 octaves, but can range anywhere from 1-3 octaves.
On more modern instruments it is common to have capos that shift the drones/trompettes to other notes, such as A or D. Some instruments will have additional strings that let you have drones in any notes you desire.
Regardless of more strings or capos, the hurdy-gurdy being a drone instrument makes it a modal instrument so even with capos you may feel limited if you are used to non-drone chromatic instruments.
If you are not sure what your strings are tuned to, contact the maker or previous owner.
Where does the hurdy-gurdy come from?
You can view information on the history of the hurdy-gurdy on our history page.
Are there other names for the hurdy-gurdy?
Different cultures all over the world have their own name for the instrument. Hurdy-gurdy is merely the English name for the instrument. Here is a list of names for the instrument in many other cultures:
- Croatian and Serbian - Kololira
- Czech/Slovakian - Niněra
- Danish - Drejelire
- Dutch/Flemish - Draailier
- Finnish - Kampiliira
- French - Vielle à Roue
- German - Drehleier
- Hungarian - Tekerőlant (usually refers to a specific type of HG)
- Italian - Ghironda
- Norwegian - Dreielire
- Piedmontese - Viòla dij Bòrgno
- Polish - Lira Korbowa
- Portuguese - Sanfona
- Russian - Sharmanka
- Spanish - Zanfoña
- Swedish - Vevlira
- Ukrainian/Romanian - Lira
Buying a Hurdy-Gurdy
Where can I try one before I commit to the purchase?
There are a few ways to try one before you buy. Firstly is to check out nearby workshops or contact a teacher. If there are none near you, check out the GurdyWorld hurdy-gurdy CensusMap to quickly see if there are any players near you. Don't forget to add yourself after you get your hands on an instrument to help future players! You can also use the various groups to try and locate a player near you and see if they will let you try their instrument.
The best place to be is at Le Son Continu (LSC) in France. This festival hosts the largest gathering of HG makers in the world, and lets you try out a variety of instruments and speak to luthiers before you commit to any large purchase.
How do I decide which hurdy-gurdy to buy?
The hurdy-gurdy is a complicated instrument that is individually hand built by a luthier. You can find a list of makers on our makers page. The vast majority of the time you will be speaking directly to a luthier and placed on a waiting list for your instrument. Exceptions to this rule can include MM Instruments and Nerdy Gurdy.
This means you should avoid buying from places like ebay and etsy, even if it looks like a good deal - more on this in the below section on HGSOs.
Make sure you understand the challenges of the instrument before investing. Even in terms of musical instruments, the hurdy-gurdy is a difficult hobby.
Unlike a violin or cello, the hurdy-gurdy is not a standardized instrument. This makes your choice of hurdy-gurdy much more personal of a decision - there is no best instrument, but rather different instruments with vastly different shapes, sounds, and features.
The first thing you should do is decide on a budget. This can start as low as €400 for a plywood, kit instrument. With a higher budget you begin to unlock many different options and sounds.
Secondly you should be listening to a lot of hurdy-gurdy music and find the sound you like. There is a wide range of sounds from very traditional to very contemporary instruments. If you like any particular instrument, find out who the maker is and do research from there - read reviews and find out the price and wait times. Make sure to listen to both the sound of the melody- and trompette strings of any instrument.
Buying a hurdy-gurdy can take time, they cost a large sum of money and take a lot of time to build - it is recommended to not rush into any decision. Do your due diligence now and be happier in the future.
What features should I get on my hurdy-gurdy?
Since nearly no part of the hurdy-gurdy is standardized, there are a lot of different options to consider when purchasing an instrument. Even after you decide on an instrument because of the sound/wait time/cost - you still need to decide on what specific extras you want on the instrument. Talk to your luthier, as not every luthier will offer every type of extra.
Be aware of “feature fever” - the fear of skipping an add-on because you might want it down the line. A hurdy-gurdy with every add-on does not make it a better instrument, and will only complicate things when you are starting out. Each additional string or capo is just another part that can rattle, fail to function, or upset the balance. Setup and adjustment is already very difficult to start with, and oftentimes simplicity is better while you are learning. If you do get extra features you can always start with them removed (unscrew capos or remove extra strings).
Extra chanterelles mean you have more options for melody tunings and octaves when you play. Adding extra melody strings is likely one of the most difficult add-ons to deal with as a beginner. It is generally recommended to start with 1 or 2 melody strings, and not to go above 3. Not only does each string add an extra 23+ tangents to adjust, but it can make adjusting string pressure complicated. Balancing multiple melody strings is very difficult and can add a lot of frustration to a new player. More than 3 strings means the outermost melody strings will sit on the slope of the wheel, and the tangents will add or remove string pressure as you play, causing issues.
Extra drones (bourdons) are relatively simple to add. Each string can be adjusted individually without problems and gives you more options for drone pitches. They aren’t always necessary, as capos can often do a good job of giving you a variety of notes.
Extra trompettes are like drones, in that they can be individually adjusted without affecting the rest of the instrument. But unlike drones, the chien needs a flat surface to function. This is commonly done via [chien platforms]. While they give the chien a flat surface to hammer on, the effect is dulled compared to a chien that sits directly on the soundboard.
Sympathetic Strings (resonance strings) are strings that lie flat on the soundboard, while not touching the wheel or being played directly by the performer (except occasionally as an effect through strumming). They are played indirectly through the tones that are played by the rest of the instrument, based on the principle of sympathetic resonance. The resonance is most often heard when the fundamental frequency of the string is in unison or an octave lower or higher than the catalyst note, although it can occur for other intervals, such as a fifth, with less effect. The effect that is created could be described as an “acoustic reverb” sound and is used to increase the resonating sound of the instrument. Keep in mind the types of tuners they are attached to. Some makers use guitar tuners for hand tuning, but some tuners require a separate tuning key you must carry around.
Drone capos are levers that stop the vibration of a drone string short, increasing the pitch of them, usually by 1 whole step (C capo’d to D for example). Sometimes instruments will have multiple capos per string to increase the pitch by more than 1 whole step at a time. This is an easy way to increase the amount of drone tones without adding extra strings. The most common type of capo is a harp lever, but it comes with the downside of increasing the amount of string pressure on the wheel when activated. This is especially detrimental to the trompettes, as you will need to adjust the tirant after capoing anyways, which will require re-tuning the string anyways.
Another type of drone capo is the sliding capo, that lets you move the capo to the exact pitch you want, giving you even more tones to choose from.
Chanterelle key lock capos are a type of capo for the melody string. They work by depressing a key and locking it in place with a small lever. This holds the tangent against the string, making the pitch assigned to that key the new “open” note, but also lowers your range while playing, since you can no longer play any note below the locked note.
Electronics involve adding a pickup or piezo system into the instrument for recording or amplification purposes. There are many different systems and you should speak to the luthier to make sure it is what you are looking for. Some systems have a built in pre-amp, while others are a passive system and require external electronics to activate. Oftentimes makers will attach multiple channels for each set of strings (chanterelles, drones, etc).
Adjustable melody bridges involve attaching wheels between the soundboard and the melody bridge, letting you adjust string pressure without having to shim the string. These work best with 2 chanterelles, since you get 1 adjuster per string - but with 3 or more chanterelles, you will still have to shim 1 or more melody strings.
String engage/disengage buttons are tools to quickly activate or deactivate different strings on your instrument, without touching the strings themselves. The buttons are usually placed on the side of the keybox closest to the player. There are many different systems and you should always speak to the luthiers on how they work.
Why do they cost so much?
One of the most common questions we get asked is “why are there no cheap hurdy-gurdies available on the market?” You can buy a working ukelele, guitar, or whistle on amazon for less than €100, but with hurdy-gurdies - even €1000 will only get you a basic, plywood instrument.
The cost of the hurdy-gurdy does not come from the cost of materials - but rather from the precision required in these instruments. The hurdy-gurdy in some ways is closer to a machine rather than a musical instrument.
The delicate precision of bowing a violin is something the player must take years to learn. Small changes in bow pressure can change the sound from a beautiful tone to a screechy mess and a tinny, quiet sound. On a hurdy-gurdy, the amount of string pressure is decided by the craftsmanship of the luthier, as well as the setup of the player - the thickness of a sheet of paper can be the difference between proper sound and horrible noises.
This is just one aspect of the delicate and precise work that goes into the construction of a hurdy-gurdy. Makers spend years perfecting the engineering of their gurdies, and oftentimes work for poverty wages as a labor of love.
Some makers have attempted to make budget instruments in a number of ways. This includes laser wood cutting, 3d printing, using cheaper materials such as plywood, reducing the number of strings, and cutting any fancy features or decorations. These instruments focus on being simple and functional just to get someone started on their journey.
Why are there such long wait lists?
Waitlists for hurdy-gurdies can range from 6 months all the way to 5+ years. Alongside everything listed above about the cost of the instrument, the hurdy-gurdy has gained a ton of popularity in the modern day. Because of the intense labor of hand making hurdy-gurdies, there are not nearly enough luthiers compared to aspiring players who desire their instruments. This causes luthiers to end up with a backlog of customers.
What is a HGSO and why shouldn’t I buy one?
A “hurdy-gurdy shaped object”, or HGSO, is a term for an instrument considered unsuitable for learning on. Many of these are fun toys to show off and can create melodies, but if you wish to advance your skills past an extremely basic level - these should be avoided at all costs. They range in price anywhere from €400 to €1700, so a higher price tag isn’t always a guarantee that something isn’t a HGSO. But a cheap hurdy-gurdy also isn’t automatically a HGSO either. These HGSOs are simply instruments that have been found to be unsuitable for learning by experts and professionals. HGSOs usually involve poor construction, missing features (such as the trompette), bad materials, and extreme difficulty with setup and adjustment.
Many are sold from Etsy and Ebay - if you have purchased one of these, they usually have a good return policy in order to avoid bad reviews. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for a return!
Here is a list of known HGSOs to be avoided
- Ugears HG model
- Galloping Gurdies on Etsy
- Fairygurdies by Galdrshop on Etsy
- Workshop Medieval on Etsy
- Gateway Gurdy from Kickstarter
- Chinese Song Gurdy on Ebay
- Musicmaker kit from Harpkit
- Anything on "Lark in the Morning"
A US maker named “Altarwind” nearly falls into this category. These instruments are not recommended as they range from broken and unplayable to just overpriced. A Brazilian maker "ELZ" should also be mentioned as flawed, highly problematic instruments that should be avoided when possible.
You can read about these makers in multiple of our online community groups.
Why are there so few makers in the US?
The hurdy-gurdy is a rather new instrument to North America. There were some reputable makers but they have since retired. The most known US maker, Altarwind, is infamous for high cost, low quality instruments and are generally not recommended. Right now HurdyGurdyUSA is the only recommended maker in the US.
Thankfully, shipping from overseas is usually not a huge deal. There are additional shipping costs and import taxes, but it is worth it for the quality of instruments that come from Europe. You can also check out NA based groups for the HG on our groups page.
What accessories should I buy with a hurdy-gurdy?
Right at the start, the most important accessories you should have are a nice block of rosin, nice clean cotton, a clean cotton cloth, and a simple strap for your instrument. Your maker can advise you on what type of rosin/cotton is best for your instrument if they do not provide any, but otherwise you can find good options on our rosin & cotton page.
For a basic strap you can use any regular guitar strap. If you are pretty small you may need a childs size, or a strap that is highly adjustable. You can find videos on how to use the strap and good playing posture on our tutorials page.
At some point you will need a tool for adjusting the tangents (some types can be hand tuned) if your maker does not provide one. A screwdriver or allen wrench of some size.
A clean, cotton cloth is required to clean the wheel and smooth out rosin after application.
Finally, a tuner is important. A clip on tuner is convenient, but a phone app can be used as well. If you plan to tune individual tangents with a tuner, make sure you get one that can be adjusted to alternative temperaments. Though it is usually preferable to tune tangents to a drone for proper sound.
Should I buy a left handed hurdy-gurdy if I am left handed?
The short answer is no, unless you have a disability that requires it.
Traditionally we play the keyboard with the left hand and crank with the right hand. Because both hands are of equal importance, a left-handed gurdy will only make your life more difficult when shopping for an instrument. You will rarely be able to buy used instruments, and many luthiers will not make them at all.
It is best to learn the instrument as it is traditionally constructed.
Learning to Play the Hurdy-Gurdy
Where can I find an instructor/workshops?
Where can I get sheet music?
If you are looking for D/G or G/C sheet music, you can find a lot of it over at our sheets page. If you have an instructor, you can often talk to them about what type of music you like so they can point you in the direction you need.
How difficult is it to learn?
At the start, the hardest part is the setup and adjustment aspects of the instrument. Diagnosing screeches and unwanted buzzing sounds is very difficult. Everything needs to be in balance and sometimes multiple, subtle changes are necessary. See the above question on “Setup and Adjustment” to learn about this process. Even after you get better at this, it is a time consuming thing to keep your instrument sounding good - it is forever a part of the instrument you have to deal with.
Playing a melody can be relatively simple, but the trompette technique is very unintuitive and takes a lot of time to learn. Combining it together with the melody is probably the hardest part, because you need to do entirely different motions and rhythms with your left and right hand.
Michalina Malisz made a great video discussing this subject with other players in the community.