In this guide you will learn how strings instruments work, the different types as well as a complete list of string instruments.
Stringed instruments are one of the most popular choices for musicians because they can produce sound with great clarity.
The following guide will help you understand some of the different types of string instruments that exist, where they come from and what they sound like.
How String Instruments Work & Produce Sound
String instruments, or chordophones, are musical devices that create sound by exciting the strings.
The sounds, or notes, culminate in a musical composition by their arrangement and artistic execution.
The combination of materials that comprise an instrument is what delivers the sound unique to each.
The Creation of Sound
To play a note of music is the act of exciting vibrations from different strings.
This excitation happens when a person uses a pick, plectrum, bow, their fingers or some other implement to strike a string or to strum several strings.
Each implement creates a different effect on the vibration produced.
Picks, plectrums, fingers and hammer-like objects make a single, brief sound. But, things like bows, allow for a very long and sustained vibration with a beautiful dynamic not easily created with other implements.
A musician can play strings individually, indicating one note succeeded by another, or strum together to produce multiple simultaneous sounds in a chord.
The manipulation, or bending and pressing, or the strings furthers the sound by elongating or shortening the effect.
Upon manipulation of the string, the vibration transfers into the body of the instrument. Here the sound also vibrates and resonates with the air inside. This is the sound we hear.
How Strings & Body Affect Sound
A string’s length, thickness and tension are what produce various tones from the instrument. Tighter, shorter strings create quicker, higher pitched tones while longer, looser strings create lower, drawn-out ones. Thick strings will sound very deep compared to those that are thinner, where the sound is tiny and high.
An instrument’s body size, structure and material also affect the quality, volume and projection of sound. The body is an enclosed or hollowed chamber made of a material that will resonate to produce a unique sound for each individual instrument.
Most Popular Types Of String Instruments
String instruments come in classifications of families, with the most common being the Lute, Violin and Lyre.
They have strings that affix to opposing ends of the instrument across a flat face. For an instrument to play well and according to standard notes, it must undergo tuning.
Tuning is the act of loosening or tightening strings to the proper notes for optimal sound.
A guitar is a stringed instrument from the Lute family shaped like a figure eight. It has frets with six strings.
The plucking or strumming comes from the dominant hand while the opposite hand presses down the frets and strings on its neck.
There are two kinds of guitars that provide sound from their body: an acoustic resonant chamber or amplification by electronic means.
Whether acoustic or electric, the strings are the same length and made of metal or nylon. They have varying thicknesses to produce different sounding notes.
Acoustics are often hollow and wooden where as electric guitars are solid wood. What makes electric guitars different is their application of magnetic pickups that converts vibration into an electric signal that travels through an amplifier.
Another eight-shaped instrument, violins share similar characteristics to but are much smaller than acoustic guitars.
However, violins are part of their own instrument family and are the smallest instrument with the highest pitch.
They require the use of a bow along with finger picking to produce sound.
Sometimes called a fiddle, a violin often comprises wood with a hollowed out chamber for the body. Violins often have four strings tuned in perfect fifths.
Violins rest underneath a person’s chin with support by the shoulder.
An ukulele, pronounced, OOO-ka-lay-lee, is a guitar-like string instrument often associated with music from Polynesia, specifically Hawaii. It’s a member of the Lute family and its name loosely translates to “jumping flea.”
Like a guitar or a violin, ukuleles have a wooden and hollow eight-shaped body. But other materials like plastic, plywood and laminate can compose a ukulele along with varying sizes that include ovals, boat paddles, squares or cutaways.
Some people have even made one out of an old, wooden cigar box.
They can have six or eight strings made of nylon polymer, fluorocarbon or aluminum that produce sound with the fingers, plectrum or a soft pick.
There are several types of ukuleles but the most common are soprano, concert, baritone or tenor.
These offer varying sounds, frequencies and pitches based on individual sizes, shapes and designs.
Hailing from the Violin family, cellos are very large four-stringed instruments that also tune to perfect fifths.
They have a deep, earthy sound that’s delicate yet fortified at the same time. They can provide both treble and some bass in a composition.
They look like giant versions of violins that use a bow and the fingers in an upright position.
Wood is the main material comprising a cello’s construction, but it’s not uncommon to have aluminum or carbon fiber ones as well.
A viola is little larger than a violin with a deeper lower sound but higher than a cello. The word “viola” comes from the Italian expression for “of the arm.” It belongs to the Violin family of instruments.
A viola is about 16 inches long and is similar in construction and play to that of a violin.
A bow or the fingers manipulate the strings, but other implements can create a variety of other intricate sounds.
There is a wide variety of small and larger sizes, most of which have a rich sounding upper register.
Double basses are the largest of all string instruments and have the deepest, lowest projection of sound. And, as their name suggests, provide bass.
Their sound comes from using a bow or plucking with the fingers.
It’s not clear about which family they sit in, but many attribute it to the Violin family. It has a similar construction and material as a cello but its tuning is in fourths rather than perfect fifths.
The banjo is a guitar-type instrument sharing the Lute family. A thin membrane of material stretches across the circular rim or cavity.
This frame is from where the sound resonates and looks almost like a drum head. Banjos have a mellow, old-time tone emitted by fast plucking with one finger or several.
Many different materials can comprise the instrument, not least of which is wood or plastic with the membrane made of animal skin.
Often associated with country music, it has four or five strings with some versions having six.
Mandolins are one of the most diverse and versatile members of the Lute family. With their teardrop guitar-like shape, they have four sets of double strings and plucked with a plectrum.
These string sets are unique because each pair has unified tuning but share the same perfect fifths as most other string instruments.
There are a wide variety of types, sizes and styles of Mandolins that all produce different qualities of sound.
Round, bowl-like or flat, the shape determines the instrument’s pitch and tone. Because of its versatility, many different materials can compose it and its strings.
Harps are one of the oldest string instruments known to humankind. They’re very large, stand upright and belong to the Lyre family.
Harps have multiple rows of strings that run at an angle against a soundboard and plucked with fingers. It’s triangular and composed of wood with some having pedals.
This makes Harps different than other strings because they offer a whimsical, mysterious sound that lends itself to fantasy.
This comes from their vast range of high, low, deep and light pitches and tones.
String Instruments In Orchestras
Depending on the composition, string instruments provide the majority of treble for rhythms, harmonies and melodies in an orchestra along with accents, solos and effects.
String Instruments Used In Orchestras
- double bass
Their impact is profound, providing an emotional element and expression to the music. For traditional orchestras, specific strings play a particular, vital role.
Violins supply soprano tones, altos come from the violas, cellos provide the tenors and the double bass gives the bass.
Guitars, banjos and mandolins can serve both solos or as voices of the orchestra while providing a certain layer of texture to the sound. They can play harmony, melody or help maintain the rhythm.
Aside from mandolins, it’s rare to see guitars as part of a traditional orchestra, but not entirely uncommon. Still rarer yet are the use of banjos and ukuleles.
Banjos and ukuleles often accompany their corresponding, common genres. But, Rock, jazz, blues and pop will also incorporate these instruments.
Accents & Effects
In regards to their element of feeling and emotion, strings emphasize or heighten intensity. One example is in Deep Purple’s orchestral masterpiece, “April.”
But they are frequent in compositions, like the light and playful string section in “Four Seasons,” by Vivaldi.
But, different instruments play very effective and specific roles within an orchestra for dramatic impact. Cellos, double basses and harps might have solo sections.
Violins and violas play the inner voices of the orchestra as a whole. A harp can offer a dreamy, otherworldly-like emphasis.
Sections | Where Do They Play?
The String section in an orchestra plays in the first section. Violins and harps to the left, cellos and double bass to the right, with violas playing directly in front of the conductor.
Full Stringed Instrument List:
The following is a complete list of stringed instruments from all around the world:
- Appalachian dulcimer
- bajo quinto/sexto
- bass guitar
- bulbul tarang
- chapman stick
- classical kemancha
- double bass
- guitarra baiana
- guitarra de golpe
- guitarrón chileno
- guitarrón cuyano
- hammered dulcimer
- hatun charango
- hurdy gurdy
- lap steel guitar
- ranka charango
Note: Several of the above instruments have more than one variation. For example, a guitar can be acoustic, electric, or a combination acoustic/electric, and it can have anywhere from four to twelve strings.
In addition, an instrument’s design can make it more suited for certain types of music. A classical guitar, for example, produces a sound that is quite different from that of a folk or jazz guitar.