What was the first string instrument

Plucked instruments


One of the oldest plucked instruments is the harp, which was developed from a hunting bow. The hunters of the early civilizations apparently noticed that the bowstring produced a sound when it was tensioned. It is conceivable that they first stretched one, then two, later three and more and more strings in order to obtain a larger range.

Since the tones only produced a faint sound, it was finally decided to equip the instrument with a resonance body. We know from images on vases or grave reliefs that the harp was a popular instrument in the first advanced civilizations of the Sumerians and Egyptians.

In ancient Greece, both the harp and the kithara and lyre were in use. Original string instruments from ancient times are no longer preserved today.

One of the most famous harpists of antiquity was King David, who is shown in many pictures with a harp. According to the story, he is said to have soothed the angry King Saul by playing the harp.

With the migration of peoples in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, the Normans and Anglo-Saxons brought the harp to western Europe. The Romanesque harp is the oldest form of harp in Europe. In the Middle Ages, troubadours, bards and minstrels like Walther von der Vogelweide used these harps to travel from place to place and perform their songs.

One country where the harp is still very popular to this day is Ireland. For a long time the instrument was a symbol of resistance against the British occupation of the country. Today the harp is depicted both in the Irish national coat of arms and on the euro coins.

The harp found its sonic perfection through the invention of the pedal system by Jacob Hochbrucker from Donauwörth. By pressing the pedal with the foot it became possible to produce different semitones. The so-called South Tyrolean folk harp was surpassed by the construction of the double-pedal harp, which has seven pedals.

This improvement, which goes back to the French Erard, made it possible to play not just two, but three different notes on one harp string. Together with an improved sound body, this development led to today's concert harp.


Although the zither is mainly associated with alpine music, the most famous piece of music ever written for a zither comes from a famous movie: The theme song from "The Third Man" went around the world in 1949. It was number one on the US charts for eleven weeks and sold 40 million copies as a single.

But the zithers actually belong traditionally in the German-speaking Alpine region: in Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland. Especially in winter the farmers had a lot of time to refine their zither instruments and to make music in good company. This is how they founded the tradition of zither and room music.

A pre-form of today's harp zither and concert zither is the rafelen. It has only three strings and was known as early as the 15th century.

Originally the Rafelen goes back to the "Schaitholt". It is a clapboard on which strings can be stretched to produce a sound. However, a fully chromatic scale could not yet be played on it.

In order to be able to play the melody with the right thumb, zither players put a ring over it and use it to pluck the strings. The other fingers of the right hand play the accompaniment and the strings are pressed with the left hand so that semitones can be heard.

The harp zither and the small concert zither are quite young instruments that were not made until around 1850 and musically create a very similar mood. In the 20th century the zither also gained popularity in Saxony and the Ruhr area, and many zither clubs with numerous members emerged.


Today's dulcimer was only created after the Second World War and is therefore a very young instrument. It is played with two mallets or mallets, which are covered with felt or leather on the front. In Asia, bamboo sticks are also used to play dulcimer.

When you hit it, you can only play two notes at a time. Strictly speaking, the dulcimer belongs less to the plucked than to the stringed instruments and the way it is played is similar to the harpsichord, the strings of which are also struck.

However, due to its historical development, the dulcimer belongs to the group of plucked instruments. Because the forerunner of the chopping board was the psaltery, which was already known in the Middle Ages. Its sound box was trapezoidal or rectangular.

The psaltery was purely a plucked instrument and came to Europe from the Orient. The string tambourine, which was mainly played by jugglers and minstrels in southern France in the Middle Ages, is related to the dulcimer.


The origin of the sounds lies in the Arab world. There the instrument "a loud" - in German: "the wood" - was widespread. And the sound of the Arabic word has remained in the current term "lute".

The lute did not come to Europe via Greece like the harp, but via North Africa. Moors and Saracens brought it to Spain and Sicily in the first half of the 8th century, and from there it spread across Europe in the centuries that followed.

The most striking feature of the lute is its long bridge with the bent neck. Early instrument makers assumed that this construction would improve the statics of the instrument, but this turned out to be a mistake.

The kinked neck also does not have an acoustic effect, i.e. that the tones sound different or better. Today it is considered a typical ornament for the lute.


The first guitar-like instruments had sound boxes - for example turtle shells or pumpkins - that were covered with fur. These stringed instruments, which were used in the first advanced civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, have been known for 5000 years.

The Arabic lute, the Persian setar with three strings and the guitar have developed independently.

From when one can speak of the classical guitar cannot be precisely determined, since guitar-like instruments were still regionally very different in the Renaissance. Often the guitar was only used as an accompanying instrument for vocals.

In Spain in particular, the construction and development of the guitar was promoted. The concert guitar did not get its usual shape until the middle of the 19th century by the Spanish instrument maker Antonio de Torres Jurado.

The guitar began its triumphal march around the world in the 19th century, primarily through folk music and American country music. The acoustic guitar became popular in Germany during the Wandervogel period at the beginning of the 20th century. And today the electric guitar has already achieved cult status as the most important instrument in pop and rock music.

Author: Sabine Kaufmann