Sunday, June 10, 2007

i built a hurdy gurdy recently. maybe i should say that i built a real dumbed down version of a hurdy gurdy. they traditionally are hourglass in shape and are sometimes fairly organic looking. my version is more of a big wooden box, not traditional in the least, but does however look sort of neat,... sort of. the "sort of" expression also sums up the way my instrument plays and sounds. it sort of plays, it sort of sounds like the hurdy recordings that i have heard. im learning as i go. as long as i can successfully build and design kitchen and bath cabinets (which i can) , i will be ok. this instrument stuff is strictly an exercise for me to learn about something new that is related to music and woodworking.

the sound reminds me alot like the bagpipes in the respect that it has a constant drone behind the melody. the tone is similar to a cello,... sort of. the box resonates to a sound more like that of a wind up victrola as opposed to that of an acoustic guitar.

the sound is derived from a wheel that is coated in violin rosin. the stings rest on the wheel, which is turned by a crank at the far end of the instrument. you turn the wheel with your right hand and play the keys with your left. the strings vibrate the top and the sides of the wooden box. i have 8 keys on this one. you can reach one octave, plus one note beyond the octave. i have tuned it to either a d drone or to an e drone.

this is the second hurdy gurdy that i have built. four years ago or so, Tim Kerr asked me to build him one. he said he knew of a place online where a fella had put up plans for one and that it could be built for under 20 dollars.

on this sight, the guy who designed this type of hurdy gurdy also says that it can be built within a weekend's worth of time by a person with only basic woodworking skills. it is true that i had about 20 dollars in expenses, but it took me about 40 hours to build. cabinet makers only work to the tight 16th of an inch and in addition to that, you rarely ever deal with wooden pieces that can fit in the palm of your hand. these plans call for small pieces worked to 64rths of an inch. so needless to say that on my first attempt, i was lost and had a lot of trouble. turned out like complete shit, but i gave it to Tim anyway. matter of fact, it turned out so bad that i felt like i should give it another shot in hopes that i can at least give him something that is usable. he says he has ideas to use the instrument as part of the recordings he does for compositions used by the dance department at the university of texas.

the second go around i took the plans from the sight above and worked up a simplified version of the instrument. i also put on an electric pick up in hopes that i could electrify the sound and get some cool feedback. Tim and i had a conversation along time ago about conjuring up spirits into the room by getting electric feedback. i remembered the conversation and thought making it acoustic/electric might be just the thing to make it special, especially because it is so simple and basic.

i used a 60s dimarzio acoustic guitar pickup. its the same thing Cobain had on his guitar in the Nirvana Unplugged show. really a shitty plastic sound, but i think for this sort of amateur instrument building project, its perfectly appropriate. punk rock.

the hurdy gurdy mach 2 is simplified in the respect that it only has two strings right now. one is a drone and the other one is fretted by the keys. most gurdys have two fretted strings and many times several drone strings. im definitely gonna have to put at least one other drone string on there to make the sound more full before i give it to Tim. the sound is fairly thin and not very loud at all, but it is playable. this is a considerable improvement from the mach 1 hurdy gurdy. again, im learning as i go.

i used electric guitar tuners and a bridge from an austin les paul copy. the strings are made of weed whacker twine, the top is made from that old shitty paneling that most lower/middle class families had on the walls of their den when i was a kid, the small key pieces are made from cherry and maple, and the sides are made from real thin spruce planed down to about 3/16ths of an inch.

ive yet to put electric guitar strings on it to see how it would do, but the weed whacker twine is real faint when plugged up through he dimarzio pickup. i dont think the pick up is gonna work unless the strings are metal. duh

i took it to nashville to use on our last dexateens recording which was done at mark never's beech house. we put it on a song that isnt titled yet, but it turned out pretty neat. we are gonna softly lay it in the back of the mix as a droned texture that plays a supporting role to the sound of the song. there are parts where i am bearing down on the strings where they meet the wheel and it gives this john cale squelch sort of thing which worked well, sort of. sounds like shit, but it works.

a few years ago a customer of mine gave me a buffet piece of furniture that is about 6 feet long and has drawers throughout. i have an idea to take all the drawers out and scale up the size of all the hurdy parts to fit the length of the furniture. i am thinking that if i put cello strings on it, then the old piece of furniture will serve as a carcase for a big over sized hurdy gurdy. probably a bit ambitious for the level of my skill at this point, but im going to do it anyway when time permits. the sensible thing for me at this point is probably to keep building more of these things until i have the fundamentals of building this instrument within my reach, then at that point, the 6 foot long hurdy gurdy might be a realistic project.

if you are a woodworker and have any interest, you can go to the link below and access the web sight with the plans for the first hurdy gurdy that i built. from there you can go to this guys home page where he has plans for several other way cool instruments.


Lee E. said...

dude, i saw/heard my first hurdy gurdy in a subway up here in new york a couple months ago. there was a young, thin, curly-headed eastern european woman playing it. it sounded like demons. everybody in the packed train station just turned to watch her. the whole platform was dead silent and everybody was riveted. one of the best moments i've had in a while. it's awesome you made one.

Anonymous said...

Woohoo! so it looks like Im getting another hurdy gurdy! The first one you talk about making for me actually was pretty cool in its own way and sound and I did use it for a dance piece here.I had no idea that it would end up being such a project.That site I sent to you made it look really easy (smile).I guess like everything , there is more to it then whats on the surface.

dado said...

i see some interesting tips here!

Joe Robertson said...

Very cool. I've always been curious to hear what an electric 'gurdy could do. Do you live in Tuscaloosa?

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