A Buyer's Guide to Folk Instruments
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.
The Music of the Common Folk
"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.
Common Folk Stringed Instruments
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.
Four-string, Five-string or Six-string?
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.
Open Back or Closed Back?
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.
Speaking of which, some things to look for when buying a banjo are:
- Wood type. Hard maple is usually favored for the neck while mahogany and hard maples are typically used for the head.
- High quality closed, geared tuning pegs. These will keep the banjo in tune and prevent string slippage.
- A slim neck for easy playability. This is especially important for beginners or players with small hands.
- Dual wood bridge (maple on the bottom, ebony on the string side).
- Multi-layer rim construction (3 layers at least).
- Top metal alloys that are strongly secured to eliminate "humming" vibrations.
- Standard heads (12'' in diameter).
- Close geared 5th string (on five-string models). Ensuring it's geared will keep it in tune and avoid string breakage.
- A strong sound that's twangy and sharp when strummed (known as playing "clawhammer" style) or plucked.
- Blemish-free finish with a frosted cover.
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.
Hourglass or tear drop?
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:
- Make sure a high quality wood is used for its top. Spruce, cedar and redwood are all more than acceptable.
- Quality tuners are important. Look for tuning machines that have sealed gears and knobs that go out to the side or are arranged like a classical guitar. Shaller, Grover and Gotoh are all top tuning machine brands.
- Wood type. It's crucial to go with high quality solid woods if you want your dulcimer to vibrate evenly and amplify its strings with plenty of sustain. Cherry, butternut, walnut and sassafras are all top-notch woods, but plywood shouldn't be underestimated either. In fact, if you look hard enough, you can find a dulcimer made of plywood that sounds terrific.
- Finish. Lacquer-type finishes are ideal for those who like a trebly response, while oil finishes tend to give the instrument a warmer tone.
- Make sure the fingerboard is level, since the playability of your dulcimer will strongly depend on its action (how far the strings are from the fingerboard).
- String length is also something to consider. Dulcimers come in a variety of string lengths. Longer strings (28'' to 30'') sound twangier and brighter, while shorter strings (25'' to 27") are easier to play due to there being less tension (ideal for beginners).
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.
The Best Mandolin Type for You?
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:
- Look for a mandolin with a traditional construction. This includes a single action bent truss rod, a dovetail joint fitted neck and varnish that's applied by hand.
- Wood type is important. Most mandolins have spruce tops because of its light weight for easy resonance. Some spruce types include red spruce, Adirondack spruce and Englemann spruce.
- Glue type is also critical. Hide glue is ideal: it's hard yet transparently thin, so it won't interfere with vibration.
- Consider its finish. Avoid thick, sprayed on finishes. Go with a thin, flexible, hand brushed varnish. This will ensure the mandolin's bass and rich tone stays intact.
- Make sure it has quality tuners.
- Body and hole style (as we touched on earlier). Generally, bluegrass mandolins go with Florentine "F" models while Celtic and folk musicians prefer the teardrop "A" type.
- Fingerboard preference. Mandolins have either a radiused or extended fingerboard. One isn't better than the other; both have their advantages and the right one for you will depend on your personal preference.
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.
Square-necked Vs. Round-necked
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.
Single-cone Biscuit-bridge, Single-cone Spider-bridge or Tricone?
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:
- Wooden-bodied or metal-bodied: they both have their upsides. Wooden-bodied resonators are usually made with laminate woods and deliver a warm sound. You might often hear players refer to a resonator as a Dobro: they're most likely referring to a wooden-bodied resonator. On the other hand, metal-bodied resonators are made of either brass or steel and coated with nickel. They have a raw sound that is often favored by Delta blues enthusiasts.
- What style of music are you playing? Bluegrass musicians tend to go with a square neck resonator with a wooden body, while Delta-style blues guitarists are known for playing a round neck with a metal body. Of course, this all comes down to personal taste; there's no right or wrong choice.
- How much are you willing to spend? There are plenty of generously-priced entry-level resonators out there to choose from, but it's definitely recommended to go with something that's at least $300. Like any instrument, the higher you move up in price, the better craftsmanship and the stronger the materials.
Common Folk Wind Instruments
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.
- Chromatic. Chromatic accordions are the most common type in the world. The keyboards cover all notes including flats and sharps. It's favored for its exceptional octave range and its pitch remains the same when the direction of the bellows change.
- Diatonic. Featuring a melody keyboard that plays one major scale in each row, diatonic accordions are lightweight, affordable and have reeds to change pitch when the bellows shift direction.
- Piano. Using a piano-style keyboard instead of buttons, piano accordions are quite common in North America because keyboardists can learn how to play them quite easily.
- Concertina. Smaller than piano models, concertina accordions have a hexagon shape with buttons on each side. There are versions of the concertina that play diatonic scales, while some even play the full chromatic scale. If you're not sure which accordion is best for you, simply consider your own tastes and preferences. For example, if you plan to play folk music, you don't need as many keys, so the full chromatic range isn't really necessary. Of course, if you plan to play classical or jazz, you'll definitely want to go with something like the Concertina due to the complex nature of the genres.
Other things to remember about your accordion are:
- They can be tuned in two different ways. Wet tuning involves tuning one bank of reeds slightly off from another bank that shares the same octave. Dry tuning matches reed banks to pitch (a favored method in American popular music and jazz). How your accordion is tuned will have a significant effect on its sound, so you might want to consult an experienced player to help you out in the early stages of your playing journey.
- Accordions vary in weight, depending on how many reeds they contain and the size of the keyboard itself. If you're just starting out (or buying for a youngster), weight and dimension should definitely be taken into consideration.
- Many accordions are installed with microphones. If you plan to play your accordion in a band, an installed microphone is a huge bonus.
- Look for a model that comes with a case and strap. The last thing you want to do is drop your accordion while playing it. A strap will ensure your instrument stays in your hands at all times. As for a case, well that goes without saying for any musical instrument!
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:
- Proper Construction. A good didgeridoo should feature a wide conical or cylindrical-shaped bore. Its wall thickness should be even over the entire length of the instrument; not too thick or too thin.
- Weight and length will also have an impact on the resulting sound of a didgeridoo; its length is what determines the key or pitch. The longer the didgeridoo is (with a medium to large bore), the lower and warmer the pitch will be. Shorter didgeridoos with narrow bores, on the other hand, will produce a sharper, high-pitched drone.
- Shape is another factor to weigh in on. Conical-shaped didgeridoos with a small mouthpiece are the easiest to play (making them ideal for beginners). Cylindrical-shaped models can produce stronger roars and can deliver beautiful lows, but only in the hands of an experienced player.
- If you're new to the instrument, stick to a mid-range key like C, D or E. Higher keys require a stronger diaphragm and tighter lip pressure to play, while lower keys take more air and looser lip pressure to play. A mid-range key is just in the right zone for a beginner.
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:
- Chromatic. These harmonicas feature a lever that's button-activated. This lever's job is to direct air to each reed, covering the entire 12-tone western scale. The more well-versed you get with the chromatic harmonica, you can play pretty much any scale by using its "gear shift".
- Diatonic. By far the most common type of harmonica, diatonic harmonicas are designed to play in specific keys, but with practice you can bend notes for the purpose of playing beyond its official key. This technique is called "overblowing". The simplicity of a diatonic harmonica makes it ideal for beginners - in fact, most harmonica instructors suggest a 10-hold diatonic harmonica in the key of C to start out with.
- Tremolo. These harmonicas are also known as "echo" harmonicas. They create a unique "warbling" tone by using two reeds per note: one tuned slightly flat and the other slightly sharp.
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.
Here are some other things to consider when you buy a harmonica:
- Do you want to play your harmonica on stage or with a band? If so, you might to think about grabbing a microphone or amplifier for your harmonica. Companies like Shure and Audix are well known for their high-quality harmonica-friendly microphones, and even Hohner offers an amplifier that will give you a terrific retro distortion reminiscent of the Chicago blues. With that in mind, many guitar amplifiers are great for harmonica players as well, including the Fender 65 Princeton Reverb Combo and the Fender 59 Bassman Combo.
- Stock up on a decent collection of tutorials and lesson guides. Doing so can only make you a more diverse harp player, and WWBW offers plenty of instruction books that are easy to follow and a blast from start to finish. This includes lesson guides from respected publishing companies like Hal Leonard and Mel Bay.
New Vs. Used
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.