From mandolins, banjos and resonators to accordions, harmonicas and even didgeridoos, folk instruments span countless cultures and centuries. Today, they continue to be designed and constructed by leading instrument manufacturers around the world. If you're thinking about learning how to play a folk instrument, you're in luck: over the past decade, folk music has seen a huge resurgence in popularity thanks to top-selling acts like The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons.
There are definitely certain factors to consider when you set out to buy a folk instrument, including your budget and which one best suits your personal tastes. By the end of this section, you'll have a stronger knowledge of each of the more common types of folk instruments. So, if playing folk music is something you're interested in, you can be confident that the first instrument you purchase was the right choice for you.
"Folk Music" couldn't be more appropriately named. After all, it's the music of the common folk, it tells stories of the common folk and is passed down through folks over many generations. Depending on the cultures and traditions that are native to the country it originates from, folk music can take on many different forms and instruments. Of course, folk music as we know it in North America generally refers to the musical style that saw a rejuvenation in the 1960s with artists like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot. This folk revival focused on very specific acoustic stringed and woodwind instruments, and the more common ones are what we'll be looking at in this buying guide.
When it comes to American folk instruments, the banjo is the first one that springs to mind for most people. Dating back to the 18th century, the first banjos were developed by African Americans who based its look, sound and feel on instruments from their homeland. Today, it's a quintessential part of Americana that can be heard in genres ranging from country and bluegrass to Dixieland jazz and Irish traditional.
While the standard banjo has five strings and is usually tuned to Open G (G-D-G-B-D), but you can also find models with four and (sometimes) six strings. Four-string banjos are also known as tenor banjos and are usually tuned to D-G-C-E, D-G-C-D or C-G-C-D. It has a lighter weight and shorter neck, which makes it great for younger beginners. They're usually played in a strumming style and can often be heard in Ragtime, Swing, Jazz and Dixieland bands.
As for six-string banjos, these are typically tuned G-G-D-G-B-D and have a guitar neck and a banjo body. Since the mid-90s they've become very popular, but for those who are just starting out, your best bet is to stick with either a four-string of five-string model.
If you're new to the banjo, you might be wondering whether to go with an open back or closed back model. The difference is that a closed back banjo has a backing that's called a "resonator". This gives the instrument more volume; many bluegrass players prefer closed back banjos because of their loud sound.
On the other hand, open back banjos often come with a pickup to amplify their sound. However, it should be noted that one isn't necessarily more expensive than the other. Like any instrument, the materials and craftsmanship used in the banjo's construction will have the biggest impact on its price tag.
Today's music market is loaded with stunning open back and closed back banjos, many of which are affordably priced and made to last a lifetime. Need a couple of suggestions? Try a model from Oscar Schmidt or Deering. Or, go with a starter package from Mastercraft: it has everything you need to kick off your banjo journey.
The easy playability and charming sound of a dulcimer makes it a unique folk stringed instrument in American history. Since it first came to prominence in the early 19th century among Scottish and Irish immigrants who lived in the Appalachian Mountains, the instrument has received a few names, including the Appalachian Dulcimer, Folk Dulcimer, Lap Dulcimer and (most commonly) the Mountain Dulcimer. Although it's commonly associated with older generations, dulcimers have been used by many popular groups and artists over the past century, including The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell and Rory Gallagher.
Since the dulcimer originated, the instrument took on many variations, but the type we'll focus on in this guide is the mountain dulcimer. It has four strings, but it appears to have three since the thinnest string is actually two strings of the same note that are placed closely together. Thus, the standard tunings of a dulcimer are most commonly D-A-D and D-A-A.
Mountain dulcimers come in two shapes: hourglass and teardrop. In the instrument's early years, hourglass-shaped dulcimers were quite commonly found in Kentucky while the older teardrop-shaped dulcimers were a staple among Virginia dulcimer makers. Honestly, the best shape for you will boil down to personal preference, but it's said that hourglass-shaped dulcimers produce a more boisterous tone. With that being said, wood type will definitely have the biggest impact on the tone and playability of your dulcimer. For example, cherry wood is favored for its crisp, bright sound, while walnut is perfect for players who want a tone that's soft and mellow. Inexpensive dulcimers (in the $250-$300 range) are often made of plywood, but you can find plenty of solidly-built dulcimers that have walnut, cherry and maple back and sides in the $500 range.
Here are some things to keep in mind in your search for a dulcimer:
These days you'll find a wide range of dulcimers crafted by respected instrument manufacturers. For a couple of great examples, check out the dulcimers from Apple Creek, Johnson and McNally.
The mandolin is without a doubt one of the most popular folk instruments. A member of the lute family, the sound of a mandolin can be heard in a variety of genres ranging from American and Irish folk to classical and bluegrass. Most mandolins have 4 courses of doubled-up metal strings (8 altogether) and are almost always tuned to G-D-A-E. With that in mind, there are models available with five (10 strings) and six (12 strings) as well.
A wide range of mandolin styles exist, but the archtop mandolin is what springs to mind when most people think of the instrument. Archtop mandolins come in two styles: Florentine "F" and teardrop "A". The Florentine model is heavier and boasts a thicker sound while teardrop models produce a more mid-range tone. Another thing to consider with Archtop mandolins is their hole type. Oval hole mandolins, for example, are favored for their ringing sustain, while F hole mandolins deliver a focused, punchier sound.
Whether you're leaning toward an "F" style or an "A" style mandolin, you'll find that both styles will vary greatly in cost. Like any instrument, you'll definitely want to consider how important playability and sound quality is before going directly for the most inexpensive model. But don't fret: finding a mandolin that looks, plays and sounds amazing doesn't have to cost you an arm and a leg. In fact, there are plenty of fantastic mandolins in the $500 range from trusted string instrument companies like Weber, Collings and Gibson.
To help make your decision easier, here's a checklist to keep on hand during your search for the perfect mandolin:
Before the electric guitar, there was the resonator guitar. The powerful, bright projection of these incredible instruments is the result of string vibrations being carried through the bridge by way of a spun metal cone, which then amplifies the sound level. To this very day, the resonator's distinctive sound can be heard in both blues, roots and bluegrass styles. Below, we'll take a look at the different types of resonator guitars to determine which one is right for you.
Resonator guitars come in two different neck types. Square neck resonators are made to be played with a metal slide and have very high action which is why they're played in a lap steel guitar position (fretboard facing upwards). Rounded neck resonators are played in the regular guitar position. String height can also be set up in a variety of ways on a round-necked resonator, depending on whether you're playing with your fingers or with a bottleneck slide.
The next thing to consider is cone type. The simplest of the three cone types is the single-cone biscuit-bridge design which looks like an inverted single cone. These resonators have a very strong tone with little complexities.
The spider-bridge single-cone resonator is named after its bridge which has a spider-like look. This design allows the guitar's tone to be driven outwards like a typical speaker and its tone has been described as being somewhat "nasal" in nature.
Lastly is the tricone resonator guitar. This is the most expensive of the three resonator guitar types; it has three metal cones that deliver a remarkably smooth and complex tone.
With all this in mind, here are some other factors to weigh in on if you're thinking about purchasing a resonator guitar:
A German instrument that dates back to the 19th century, accordions are well known for their distinctive sound created by compressing and expanding the bellows while pressing buttons and keys. This then causes the valves to open and allows air to flow over its reeds. In this sense, the accordion can be classified as a wind instrument, but in truth they actually belong to the free reed instrument family. Accordions are extremely popular in both European and North American folk acts and they're used often in Cajun and zydeco music.
Accordions are designed in four different styles. Certain characteristics like keyboard functionality and musical range are shared by them all, but they each have their own stylistic differences that make them more suited for certain musical genres than others.
The didgeridoo is a 1500-year old instrument that was developed by Indigenous Australians and is one of the world's oldest instruments to date. It has a hypnotic, drone-like sound that is created by vibrating your lips in a continuous pattern. The resulting sound of a didgeridoo makes an exceptional addition to countless musical genres and a wide variety of lengths and widths are available. In fact, many sound therapists have even incorporated didgeridoos into their sessions with patients.
With that in mind, choosing a didgeridoo that feels natural to play and feels almost like an extension of yourself starts with understanding some of its most important characteristics. Here are some things to look for in a didgeridoo:
While an authentic didgeridoo from an Aboriginal supplier is certainly something special to be in the presence of, you don't have to pay an arm and a leg for a model that's solidly-built and easy to play. Respected companies like Toca Percussion construct terrific didgeridoos, and the Didgeridoo Store even offers beginner packages.
Compact, easy to play and very affordable, the harmonica is an amazingly versatile instrument and has a human-like voice. Since it was first introduced in the 19th century, the mouth harp has played an essential role in countless musical genres, from jazz and blues to country and rock. In this day and age you'll discover a wide range of harmonicas in a variety of keys. Below, we'll touch on some of the more common ones.
Experienced harmonica players are well aware of the number of specialty harmonicas that are available. For novice players, it's best to stick to one of the three following types:
All three of these harmonica types can be found right here at WWBW. If you're a beginner, we'll suggest a model like the Hohner Special 20: a diatonic 10-hold model that boasts easy-bending reeds, making it perfect for aspiring blues artists. Truthfully, any model from Hohner is worth checking out.
While purchasing a new folk instrument is the best way to ensure what you're buying is in tip-top shape and in working order, that doesn't mean you can't find a great deal on a used folk instrument if you look hard enough. However, it's important to exercise proper caution and do your research before buying previously-owned gear. For this reason, it's best to go with an online music retailer who has a repair person on hand that inspects everything before it's sold (after all, you never know if someone is withholding any information on what they're trying to sell you).
We All Have a Story to Tell, So Tell Yours!
Folk music belongs to everyone - it's that simple. And with so many folk instruments to choose from on today's market, there's no reason why anyone who has a story to tell can't find an instrument that perfectly suits their unique tastes and style.
We hope this buying guide has given you enough information to go forth with confidence on your folk instrument journey. If there's anything else you're curious about in regards to the above information, please contact us. We take your musical aspirations seriously at Woodwind & Brasswind, and we'll do everything we can to point you in the right direction.
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