How to Play a Hurdy Gurdy: A Step-by-Step Guide

Playing the hurdy gurdy is a unique and rewarding experience that can be enjoyed by musicians of all levels. This medieval instrument has a distinct sound that is created by a hand-crank-turned, rosined wheel rubbing against the strings. The wheel functions much like a violin bow, and single notes played on the instrument sound similar to those of a violin.

In this article, I will guide you through the process of playing the hurdy gurdy. We will start by understanding the instrument and its historical context. I will also discuss tuning and adjusting the hurdy gurdy, as well as learning to play it. Additionally, we will explore famous hurdy gurdy players and songs, modern applications of the hurdy gurdy, and maintenance and care for the instrument. By the end of this article, you will have a solid foundation for playing the hurdy gurdy and exploring its unique sound.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding the history and context of the hurdy gurdy is important for learning to play the instrument.
  • Tuning and adjusting the hurdy gurdy is a crucial step in preparing to play.
  • Learning to play the hurdy gurdy requires patience and practice, but can be a rewarding experience.

Understanding the Hurdy Gurdy

As a hurdy gurdy player, I find it essential to have a deep understanding of the instrument before playing it. A hurdy gurdy is a string instrument that is played by cranking a wheel, which rubs against the strings to produce sound. It is also known as a wheel fiddle or vielle à roue.

The hurdy gurdy has several parts that work together to create its unique sound. The strings are held in place by bridges and are pressed against by tangents, which are attached to keys on the keyboard. The trompette is a small wooden piece that rests against the strings and adds a buzzing sound to the music.

The hurdy gurdy has several drone strings that produce a constant sound, and sympathetic strings that resonate with the melody strings. The chien or dog is a wooden piece that rests against the strings and acts as a bridge.

The hurdy gurdy has a soundboard that amplifies the sound, and a pickup that can be used to amplify the sound further. The mouche or flywheel is a weighted wheel that keeps the wheel spinning smoothly. The petit bourdon and gros bourdon are the two largest drone strings, and the chanterelles are the highest-pitched strings.

Overall, the hurdy gurdy is a complex and fascinating musical instrument that requires a deep understanding of its many parts to play it effectively.

Historical Context of the Hurdy Gurdy

The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed musical instrument that has been around for centuries. Its origins can be traced back to the medieval times, where it was known as the organistrum. It was played by two people, with one person turning a crank to rotate a wheel that rubbed against the strings, while the other person played the keys to produce different notes.

During the Renaissance period, the hurdy-gurdy evolved into a smaller, more portable instrument known as the vielle à roue. This instrument was played solo and became popular among street musicians and folk musicians in France and Eastern Europe. It was also used in courtly music and was particularly fashionable during the reign of Louis XIV.

The hurdy-gurdy was a versatile instrument that could produce a wide range of sounds, from soft and delicate to loud and raucous. It was often used to accompany dancing and singing, and was also used in religious music.

Today, the hurdy-gurdy is still played by musicians around the world, particularly in France, Eastern Europe, and the United States. It has also gained popularity among folk musicians and in the world music scene.

In summary, the hurdy-gurdy has a rich history that spans centuries and has been an important part of music throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods. Its unique sound and versatility continue to make it a popular instrument today.

Tuning and Adjusting the Hurdy Gurdy

As a hurdy gurdy player, I know that tuning and adjusting the instrument can be a bit tricky. However, with some practice and patience, you can achieve the perfect sound for your melodies.

Firstly, let’s talk about tuning. The hurdy gurdy has two standard tunings – G/C and D/G. The first letter refers to the note played by the open string when no keys are pressed, and the second letter is the major scale played on the bottom row of the keyboard. For instance, in G/C tuning, the open string is G, and the major scale played on the bottom row is C.

To adjust the strings, you need to use tangents. These are small wooden pieces that press against the strings to change the pitch. You can adjust the tangents by moving them closer or farther away from the strings to achieve the desired pitch.

The hurdy gurdy has two types of strings – drone strings and chanterelles. The drone strings produce a continuous sound, while the chanterelles are used to play the melody. You can adjust the string pressure by using a chien (a small wooden lever) to press down on the strings.

The bridges are also essential components of the hurdy gurdy. They hold the strings in place and transfer the vibrations to the soundboard. You can adjust the bridges to change the pitch of the strings.

When playing the hurdy gurdy, you need to crank the wheel with one hand while using the other hand to play the keys. You can use a violin bow to play grace notes and chords.

In conclusion, tuning and adjusting the hurdy gurdy can be challenging, but with some practice and patience, you can achieve the perfect sound for your melodies. Remember to adjust the tangents, string pressure, and bridges to change the pitch of the strings. And don’t forget to rosin the wheel to get the best sound possible.

Learning to Play the Hurdy Gurdy

Playing the hurdy gurdy requires practice, patience, and a willingness to learn. Like any other musical instrument, it takes time to master the nuances of the hurdy gurdy. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Rosin the Wheel

Before playing, make sure to rosin the wheel. This will help create friction between the wheel and the strings, producing a clear and consistent tone. Use a good quality rosin, and apply it evenly across the surface of the wheel.

Keys and Pitches

The hurdy gurdy has multiple keys, each producing a different pitch. The chanterelles are the highest pitched strings, while the sympathetic strings produce a drone-like effect. The drone strings, also known as the chien or dog, add depth and richness to the sound.

Bridges and Keyboard

The hurdy gurdy has two bridges: the mouche, which holds the drone strings, and the petit bourdon and gros bourdon, which hold the melody strings. The keyboard is used to change the pitch of the melody strings, allowing you to play different notes and chords.

String Pressure and Octaves

To produce a clear and consistent tone, it’s important to apply the right amount of pressure to the strings. Too much pressure can cause the sound to be sharp, while too little can cause it to be flat. The hurdy gurdy can also play multiple octaves, allowing for a wide range of musical expression.

Tuning Up and Grace Notes

Tuning the hurdy gurdy can be a challenge, but it’s important to do so before each practice session. Use a tuning fork or a digital tuner to ensure that each string is in tune. Grace notes can also be used to add variety and interest to your playing.

Lesson Books and Practice

There are many lesson books and online resources available to help you learn the hurdy gurdy. It’s important to practice regularly, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day. With time and dedication, you can become a skilled hurdy gurdy player.

Famous Hurdy Gurdy Players and Songs

When it comes to famous hurdy gurdy players, Donovan and Sergio González are two names that come to mind. Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is perhaps the most well-known song featuring the instrument. The song, released in 1968, features a hypnotic, droning sound that perfectly captures the essence of the hurdy gurdy. The lyrics, which describe a mysterious figure who “sings songs of love,” add to the song’s mystical quality.

Another famous hurdy gurdy player is Sergio González. González is a Mexican musician who has been playing the instrument for over 30 years. He is known for his virtuosic playing style and has released several albums featuring the hurdy gurdy. One of his most popular songs is “El Grito del Hurdy Gurdy,” which showcases his impressive technique and musicianship.

Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” is another notable song featuring the hurdy gurdy. The song, which appears on the band’s fourth album, features a haunting, medieval-inspired melody played on the instrument. Jimmy Page, the band’s guitarist, played the hurdy gurdy on the song and incorporated it into the band’s live performances as well.

In conclusion, the hurdy gurdy has been featured in many famous songs over the years, and its unique sound has captivated listeners for centuries. Whether you’re a fan of Donovan’s psychedelic folk or Led Zeppelin’s hard rock, there’s no denying the power and beauty of the hurdy gurdy.

Modern Applications of the Hurdy Gurdy

As a traditional folk instrument, the hurdy gurdy has been used for centuries to create music with a distinctive sound. However, in recent years, it has found its way into modern music and has been used in a variety of applications.


The hurdy gurdy has been used in modern music by artists such as Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, and Donovan. It has also been used in film scores, such as in the soundtracks for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter films. The unique sound of the hurdy gurdy can add a distinctive flavor to any musical composition.


To amplify the sound of the hurdy gurdy, pickups can be installed. These pickups can be magnetic or piezoelectric, and can be mounted inside or outside of the instrument. This allows the hurdy gurdy to be played at higher volumes and in larger venues.


In addition to traditional playing, there are also apps available that allow users to simulate the sound of a hurdy gurdy. These apps can be used to create music or to practice playing the instrument.


There are also numerous demos available online that showcase the versatility of the hurdy gurdy. These demos can be found on YouTube and other video sharing platforms, and can be a great way to learn about the instrument and its capabilities.

Hurdy Gurdy Man

The hurdy gurdy has also been the subject of numerous songs, including Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” This song, released in 1968, features the distinctive sound of the instrument and has become a classic in its own right.


While the hurdy gurdy is not typically used for singing, it can be used to accompany vocals. The unique sound of the instrument can add a haunting quality to any song, and can be a great addition to any musical performance.

Musical Instrument

Overall, the hurdy gurdy is a versatile and unique musical instrument that can be used in a variety of applications. Whether you are a traditionalist or a modern musician, the hurdy gurdy is a great choice for anyone looking to add a distinctive sound to their music.

Maintenance and Care for the Hurdy Gurdy

As a hurdy-gurdy player, I understand the importance of proper maintenance and care for my instrument. A well-maintained hurdy-gurdy not only sounds better but also lasts longer. Here are some tips on how to keep your hurdy-gurdy in top condition:

Rosin the Wheel

Rosining the wheel is an essential part of maintaining the hurdy-gurdy. Without enough rosin, the wheel will slip, and the instrument will not produce sound. I usually apply rosin to the wheel every time I play. It’s essential to use high-quality rosin that is specifically designed for hurdy-gurdies. Some of my favorite brands include Gustave Bernardel and Kolstein & Sons.

Adjust the Strings

Regularly adjusting the strings on your hurdy-gurdy is crucial to ensure that it produces the correct pitches. I usually check the tuning of my hurdy-gurdy before each practice session. If any of the strings are out of tune, I adjust them accordingly. It’s also essential to ensure that the single chanterelles, drone strings, and sympathetic strings are all in tune with each other.

Maintain String Pressure

String pressure is another critical aspect of the hurdy-gurdy’s sound. I usually adjust the string pressure by adding or removing cotton from the chien. It’s essential to use high-quality cotton that is specifically designed for the hurdy-gurdy. Some of my favorite brands include Cotton and Liquid Rosin and Folkskelet.

Clean the Instrument

Keeping your hurdy-gurdy clean is essential to ensure that it lasts a long time. I usually wipe down the instrument with a soft cloth after each practice session. It’s also essential to clean the soundboard and bridges regularly to prevent dust and debris from building up.

Store the Instrument Properly

Properly storing your hurdy-gurdy is essential to ensure that it lasts a long time. I usually store my instrument in a dry place away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures. It’s also essential to loosen the strings before storing the instrument for an extended period.

By following these maintenance and care tips, you can ensure that your hurdy-gurdy stays in top condition and produces the best possible sound.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the basics of playing a hurdy-gurdy?

Playing a hurdy-gurdy involves cranking a wheel with one hand while pressing keys or buttons with the other hand to create a melody. The melody is produced by the strings being pressed against a rotating wheel, which creates a buzzing sound. The sound is then amplified by a resonator, which is usually a wooden box.

What are some common techniques for playing a hurdy-gurdy?

One common technique for playing a hurdy-gurdy is to use a drone string, which is a string that is always played open, creating a continuous sound. Another technique is to use vibrato, which involves rapidly varying the pitch of a note. Additionally, players can use various ornamentations such as trills, mordents, and turns to add interest and complexity to their playing.

What is the range of a hurdy-gurdy?

The range of a hurdy-gurdy varies depending on the instrument, but typically it spans from the lowest note of the cello to the highest note of the violin. The range of a hurdy-gurdy can be expanded by adding additional strings or by using a capo.

How do you tune a hurdy-gurdy?

Tuning a hurdy-gurdy can be a complex process, but generally, the strings are tuned to a diatonic scale. The most common tuning is G-D-G, but other tunings are used as well. It’s important to note that the tuning of a hurdy-gurdy can vary depending on the instrument and the player’s preferences.

What are some popular songs to play on a hurdy-gurdy?

There are many traditional songs that are commonly played on the hurdy-gurdy, such as “Greensleeves,” “Scarborough Fair,” and “Amazing Grace.” Additionally, many contemporary musicians have incorporated the hurdy-gurdy into their music, such as the band Omnia and the artist Nigel Eaton.

Where can I find hurdy-gurdy lessons or tutorials?

There are many resources available for learning how to play the hurdy-gurdy, including online tutorials, instructional books, and in-person lessons. Some popular online resources include GurdyWorld, Altarwind, and YouTube tutorials such as “How To Play A Hurdy-Gurdy.” It’s important to find a resource that matches your skill level and learning style to ensure that you get the most out of your learning experience.

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