Types of String Instruments

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    • Played by plucking or strumming the strings with fingers, fingernails, picks, or plectra, pluck instruments include some of the best-known instruments in modern music, including the guitar and banjo. This category also includes traditional favorites like the lyre and harpsichord.


    • Bow instruments are played by pulling a stick strung with hair, usually horsehair, across the strings to make them vibrate. Most bow instruments, including the violin and cello, can be played by plucking, too.


    • Instruments played by a hammer striking the strings fall into this category. Famous striking-string instruments include the piano and dulcimer, although some guitars can now be played by hammer. The clavichord uses an alternate form of percussion by relying on a brass tangent, or wedge, to push strings onto a hard surface to make sound. Bow instruments can be struck, as when a violist uses the back of her bow to play a musical piece, and strike instruments can be plucked.

    Alternate Names

    • String instruments can also be classified as lutes, harps, or zithers. Lutes are string instruments with necks, like guitars, violins, and mandolins, while harps are strung to a frame. Zithers, including autoharps, dulcimers, and pianos, contain strings mounted to a body.

    Unusual String Instruments

    • An autoharp in concert

      An Aeolian harp stretches strings of various thicknesses across a wooden frame and is then left in a windy spot, often an open window, so that the wind creates music in a modified version of wind chimes. The autoharp relies on dampers to silence chords not necessary for a given note. The musician plucks only the exposed strings needed to produce a given sound.

      The hurdy-gurdy is a percussion-string instrument in which a rosined wheel causes a hammer to strike strings inside an organ box. A soundboard makes the music audible. Unlike many string instruments, the hurdy-gurdy has drone strings that play a constant pitch while other strings provide the melody.

      Moving a magnet over steel-string instruments creates music by vibrating the strings.

    Ancient String Instruments

    • One of the oldest string instruments still being played is the yue qin, a Chinese lute dating to 200 BC. It is nicknamed the moon guitar because its round base resembles a full moon. The rebab is an 8th century Arabic bow instrument, while the kanoune is a 10th century Arabic instrument similar to a piano. The spike fiddle, named for the spike on which it rests, is an 8th century Persian lute without frets. Europeans of the 11th century played the psaltery, a forerunner to the zither, by plucking it or using a bow. The ancient santoor, played with hammers, is still popular in Indian folk music today.

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