Building a hurdy gurdy: a medieval synthesizer.
As a musicologist, I’ve always found the hurdy gurdy a cool instrument. It is one of the oldest keyboard instruments. It is a mechanical violin, with also a few strings that sound continuously, like a drone or bourdon, and this makes it comparable to bagpipes. It was the medieval synthesizer.

I have no wood-working experience whatsoever, no instructions apart from internet images and some forum advice. I have never even held a hurdy gurdy. I hope my signature naive tenacity will pull me through.

They don’t seem that fiendishly hard to play: the right hand turns a crank to roll a resined wooden wheel along the strings, like a circular fiddle bow. The left hand presses up, through the keybox, one of about 25 wooden sticks, on which tangents are screwed, which in turn press against two of the strings to produce different notes. The drones, also driven by the wheel, simply drone on along the soundboard.

It is one of very few musical instruments that stem originally from Europe. Over a thousand years ago, the first ones were monster-sized, two-man-operated bass boxes called organistrum. Then they became smaller (solo organistrum) and more refined but still box-shaped (symphonia). Troubadours started taking them on tour. In those days, a talented and ambitious wood worker’s apprentice, anxious to prove his mastery, would build a hurdy gurdy – it was the apex of nifty medieval engineering.

I want mine to look old, but be ready for modern use and amplification. A running image update from almost nothing till completion is presented here.

Toruń, 2010
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