Sunday, October 17, 2010

National Music Museum, Multi-String Courses, Sympathetic Strings

I'm sitting in a room with dozens of stringed instruments dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. They include instruments by Antonio Stradivari (yes, that "Strad," as in "Stradivarius")[1] and other great European luthiers of of previous centuries. I'm typing this on my phone in the Rawlins Gallery of the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.

The whole museum is amazing. From harmonicas to pipe organs and the most complete gamelon outside Indonesia the depth of the collection defies easy description. Among 20th century instruments the evolution of the six-string guitar is especially well documented.

Here in the Rawlins Gallery, and other rooms featuring older stringed instruments, I have seen how musical expectations have changed. For example, many of the older fretted instruments feature multiple-string courses, something that is still done but is non-standard beyond mandolin's and 12 string guitars. Right here in the Rawlins Gallery there are three 17th century guitars, all of them are five course, ten string instruments. There is also a similarly strung 16th century cittern.

Multi-string courses are very inconvenient for luthier and musician alike. For every additional tuner the luthier has to carefully place there is an additional string the musician needs to keep in tune and replace. In the case of adding a string to an existing course the musician doesn't even gain any range, just volume and body.

Another thing that is exceptional, at least in the western hemisphere, is sympathetic strings. With a few notable exceptions like the Linda Manzer's Pikasso Guitar (made for Pat Metheny) and a few other sitar inspired things, sympathetic strings are almost unknown in current mainstream instruments.

Why would perfectly good ideas like multi-string courses and sympathetic strings, ideas that have long histories and work really well, so fall out of favor? I already gave one reason. They are inconvenient. Still, I think they have possibilities. Applied correctly I think they could both add something significant to a custom instrument.

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