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~ The Hurdy Gurdy Explained ~

I: Introduction

Sean Folsom playing his 19th century French hurdy-gurdy

A hurdy-gurdy is a string instrument incorporating a wooden wheel rotated by a simple shaft connected to a hand crank. Sound is produced by the action of the rim of the rotating wheel rubbing across the string(s) as the wheel is turned.

click here to hear a tune in Dxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxclick here to hear a tune in G minor
Click on the crank and on the wheel to hear two traditional French dance tunes played on this hurdy-gurdy by Sean Folsom. Note the differences in the two tunings of this versatile instrument - one tune (left) is in D, while the other is in G minor.

A Note About The Sound Files (16 years on...)

When I wrote these Hurdy-Gurdy pages, 16 years ago, RealAudio was all the rage for audio files. Today few computers are set up to play these files. So we've now converted them to MP3 format. Which in another 16 years will probably be another problem. But meanwhile, apologies to those who have waited rather a long time for us to update these antiques. By the way, the sound quality is not great here, which doesn't much matter for the purpose at hand; we made these recordings very casually, using another now-antique, a "cassette recorder." O.S., Albion, California, February, 2015


Clear your browser cache or reload the page if you still see (and don't hear) the old .ra files!

Tip: Open a sound file in a new tab and you'll still be looking at the principal page as it plays.

This action is exactly the same in principle as that of a violin bow on a violin string. Because of the curve of the wheel, a number of strings arranged to intersect its circumference can be sounded simultaneously. Because the wheel's rotation is continuous, so is the sound produced. Some (usually one or two) strings provide melody, their active length being changed during play to produce different notes, not directly by the player's fingers as on a violin fingerboard but through a simple key mechanism. Further strings (often as many as four) act as drones, sounding individual notes continuously against which the melody plays. (This combination of continuous melody playing against steady harmonious drones is a more or less defining characteristic of bagpipes and is a sort of musical cornerstone of the long and close association between the two classes of instruments.) One drone string is often configured, by means of a special mechanism, to provide a certain percussive effect, the timing of which is controlled by the musician during play. Finally, many hurdy-gurdies are fitted with a battery of sympathetic strings which are not sounded directly by the player but rather resonate with the instrument as it is played.

Just as with a violin, rosin is used to increase the friction between the string and the surface rubbing across it, in this case the wheel-rim rather than a bow. (Rosin is essentially tree-sap - sticky, in other words.) A cake of rosin or rosin powder is applied from time to time to the turning wheel, and the player is careful to keep the wheel clean otherwise - oil from fingers is especially undesirable, as it can cause the wheel surface to simply slip silently across the string, rather than producing sound. A sure way to arouse the ire of a hurdy-gurdy player is to poke a finger too close to the wheel!

In the following pages the details of a beautiful lute-shaped 19th century French hurdy-gurdy are explored. While a general history is not included here, some specifics about the instrument demonstrated and about its present owner, Sean Folsom, are in order:

This Instrument and Its Owner, Sean Folsom
Among the more famous of 19th century French hurdy-gurdy makers was the Pajot family of Janzat, France. It was a maker named Tixier, a pupil of the Pajots, who built the present instrument in the same town. The date of construction is not known, but is likely prior to 1895, that being the most recent known date of a Tixier instrument (a violin). The instrument survived the turmoil of the first half of this century and was purchased from an antique dealer in 1978 by the famous hurdy-gurdy player Pierre Imbert, a member of the groups Grand Rouge and Lo Jai. Imbert had the modern maker Jean Claude Boudet build a new wheel and overhaul the keywork, and later, in 1985 he sold the instrument to Sean Folsom who has been playing it professionally ever since.

Sean, who's bagpipe collection is another feature of this web site, first heard a hurdy-gurdy in 1972. In 1977 he encountered the man who is called by many the father of the hurdy-gurdy in modern America - Arrigo D'Albert (who happens to also be a very old friend of this writer). D'Albert, originally from Switzerland, has now been playing the hurdy-gurdy professionally for decades (he can be heard in two bagpipe & hurdy-gurdy duets on the new CD album Bagpipes of the World, available through this web site).

So, Arrigo inspired Sean to take up playing the hurdy-gurdy, which in those days was not so easy because instruments were hard to find. Fortunately, there were (and are) several instrument makers living near Arrigo's Northen California home. One of them, Stan Kelly, also inspired by Arrigo, built the instrument on which Sean played from 1981 until he acquired the Tixier in 1985.

In 1989, Sean added another type of hurdy-gurdy to his collection and repertoire - a powerful Hungarian instrument of typical Eastern European configuration. That instrument may be the subject of a future dissertation here.

To arrange for a performance on this instrument (and much more) contact Sean Folsom

For the time being, however, the object is to examine the workings of the magnificent Tixier hurdy-gurdy. The explanation is divided into five sections, accompanied by photo-diagrams and sound files: First is this introduction, followed by three pages on the musical mechanics of the instrument - the production of melody, drone and percussion; finally, there is a page covering miscellaneous bits and pieces.

~ Next Page: Melody ~

Beginning of the Hurdy-Gurdy Section

The Universe of Bagpipes Front Page

Text and photographs on this page are original works by Oliver Seeler and are copyright 1999, Oliver Seeler.
Musical performances on this page by Sean Folsom; copyright 1999, Sean Folsom.