I’m all about the hurdy gurdy. Part 1 – THE BASICS.

I’m all about the hurdy gurdy. Part 1 – THE BASICS.

What is this instrument you play? How does it work? What is the crank for? How much you have to turn before the monkey pops up? Today we have all these questions gathered in one place and answered. And I’ve got one question to you at the end of this text.

When I chose to play a hurdy gurdy I only knew two things: that it’s badass and cool. Full of enthusiasm and hopes I bought one and started shrieking on a daily basis. Little did I know, that this instrument holds many mysteries.

Picture from Early Music America

History of the hurdy gurdy

Let’s keep the historical education short & sweet:

  • First reported reference to fiddles in Europe – from which the hurdy gurdy originated – was made in 9th century.
  • The most similarly built ancestor of the hurdy gurdy was the organistrum. If you think Weichselbaumer’s gurdies are big, think again: this instrument was so huge, that two people were needed to play it.
  • Organistrum was first used as accompanying instrument for church music.
  • With time the hurdy gurdy got smaller and developed in the matters of shape, number of strings and adding the trompette (chien) string.
  • However, in 17th century it was not enough for growing polyphonic demands. Hurdy gurdy was pushed to the low social classes and got a few new nicknames – “peasant’s/beggar’s lyre” or in Polish lira dziadowska – “your grandpa’s lyre”.
  • In 18th century it got back into court’s good graces, thanks to French Rococo and it’s fondness to rustic music.
  • Now it’s wonderful time to be alive in 21st century, because we witness the revival of the hurdy gurdy in all its greatness.


How is the hurdy gurdy built?

A standard hurdy gurdy consists of:

  • the body (wooden box)
  • keyboard
  • 6 strings – melody, drones and trompette
  • crank and wheel on one side
  • tuning keys on the other side

To make your hurdy more flexible, you can add various extras:

  • capos (for drones and trompettes)
  • adjustable melody strings bridge
  • adjustable trompette strings bridge
  • sympathetic strings
  • pre-amps

Well hello there, beautiful. (I want to see more of this one!)

How does it work all together?

The hurdy gurdy is also called “wheel fiddle”, so let’s imagine it like a super big violin. The tuning keys are already there, the bridge and strings as well. The strings are shortened by keys and their tangents and that’s how different tones are produced. And now the most important thing: the bow = the wheel.

Here we need cotton and rosin to make the sound happen. We put rosin on the wheel and cotton on the strings, by rubbing the wheel against the strings we produce tension. So basically the secret and what makes a hurdy gurdy work is cotton. Despite all it’s glory without lint it’s useless.  

So what about the monkey?

Sorry to break this one for you – there’s no monkey.


Those are the basics of how the hurdy gurdy looks like and how does it works. There’s a lot of videos explaining that question, there’s even a TED talk (and I adore TED). And here, to end this post gracefully, is my request:


If you have any questions about the hurdy gurdy, playing, practicing or maintaining the instrument, feel free to ask it, preferably on my facebook page. I will answer it in a video. Let’s learn together! 🙂

5 Replies to “I’m all about the hurdy gurdy. Part 1 – THE BASICS.”

  1. Mich würde interessieren von welchem Hersteller deine Saiten sind und welche Art sie sind. Nylon oder Natur?

  2. Thank you for indirectly answering a question I’ve had for a few years now; “are there more instruments with a drone than the bagpipes and the sitar?”

  3. How can I stop the wheel acting like a “bridge” thus distorting the melody notes because of the wheel’s position

  4. Michalina you rock! I’ve got mine recently and there is not much information online, you should join PATREON and film useful videos (changing strings, QA, etc) I’d pay for it and I think that I’m not the only one!

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