Tips & Tricks

The Ultimate String Instruments List for Beginners

Considering taking music classes but don't know which string instrument to pick? If so, you've come to the right place. There are dozens of string instruments you can learn, all with varying styles, sounds, and characteristics. But, as much as you'd like to learn them all, doing so is impossible — unless you're Neil Nayyar, of course. 

So you have to choose an instrument to specialize in. While this may sound easy enough, it can get overwhelming quickly, particularly if you’re a beginner. Lucky for you, Trala is all about adequate preparation. Here, we’ll look at all the string instruments you can choose from and tell you a little about each one. 

What makes a string instrument?

The word "string" is a dead giveaway for what type of instrument a string instrument or chordophone is — it’s a device that produces sound from its strings. Musicians use various mechanisms to produce sound, the most common being bowing, plucking, and striking. Each action has a distinct sound, making this class of instruments extremely versatile. 

The string family is one of the largest groups in music. In fact, a typical full-sized orchestra can have between 36 to 60 chordophones, depending on the composition being played. 

Chordophone categories are based on the strings’ position in relation to the body of the instrument (or on the manner in which they're played, as you'll see later). The categories based on string positioning include:

  • Zithers: Their strings are the same length as their soundboards. They include the autoharp and the Zheng. 
  • Lutes: Their strings are parallel to their soundboards or bellies and flow along a distinct neck. Examples include guitar and banjo.
  • Lyres: They have two arms, a crossbar, and a yoke protruding from the body. Examples include the bowl lyre and kithara.  
  • Harps: Their strings are all located within the instrument's frame. There are many types of harps, including the lap harp, electro harp, and llanera harp.

The role of string instruments in music

As one of the largest musical instrument families, chordophones play significant roles across numerous music genres, ranging from classical to contemporary. 

  • Classical music: Instruments like violins and cellos are integral to the intricate melodies we associate with classical compositions. 
  • Bluegrass: Fiddles and banjos take center stage in bluegrass music, thanks to their lively and ornamented sounds. 
  • Jazz: Chordophones like double bass and violins add depth to jazz compositions. 
  • Contemporary music: Modern musicians use violins, violas, and cellos to create the emotive characteristics often associated with contemporary music. 

Main categories of string instruments

As we mentioned earlier, you can also categorize stringed instruments based on how they're played. There are three playing techniques, meaning these instruments can fall into the following groups:

Bowed string instruments

Musicians play these instruments by rubbing bows on the strings. While they can also pluck the strings when playing pizzicato, bows are the typical playing method. Here's an in-depth look at common examples and the sounds they produce:

  • Violin: This is the smallest member of this list. But don't let its size fool you — what it lacks in physical characteristics, it more than makes up for in sound. The instrument produces the highest pitches thanks to its short, thin strings. It takes center stage in Western classical music because of its melodic range. 
  • Viola: Think of this instrument as the violin's older sibling. Despite their near-similar appearance, there are significant differences between the viola and violin

To start, the viola is roughly one to four inches longer than the violin. It also produces more of a rich, warm tone and mellow sound, while the violin falls in the strident range. It provides a "middle voice" in orchestral classical and contemporary music performances. 

  • Cello: If the viola is the violin's older sibling, the cello is definitely the parent. There are numerous stark differences between the cello and violin, one of them being size — cellos are so big that players must be seated when playing. 

There are also profound differences in sound. The cello is predominantly a baritone instrument with a deep, rich sound. It contributes to the expressive tones in classical music. 

  • Double bass: This is often the largest stringed instrument in orchestral performances — musicians have to sit on high stools or stand to play. Given the size of its strings, it has the lowest notes, contributing to the low registers in music performances. 
  • Erhu: It's also called the "Chinese violin" because it almost sounds like one. But, because it only has two strings, it can't play chords. Further, it doesn't have as high a pitch as the violin. Its sound is more poetic, and musicians and listeners often compare it to weeping. 

Plucked string instruments

As you’ve probably already guessed, musicians play these instruments by plucking their strings. They include the:

  • Guitar: The guitar is a versatile instrument that seamlessly transitions between genres. The acoustic guitar's gentle strumming brings soul to the blues, the electric guitar's chords highlight the spirit of rock music, and the classical guitar amplifies the expressive nature of classical music. 
  • Harp: Like many plucked chordophones, the harp is a versatile instrument, with its ethereal tones spanning a diverse musical landscape. You can find it in classical orchestras, adding to the depth of the music, and folk songs, producing enchanting melodies. 
  • Sitar: While its roots are in India, this instrument has graced the global music stage because of its rhythmic capabilities. It adds an expressive layer to classical music and contains a distinct twang that's hard to miss. 
  • Lute: This is an ancestor of the guitar, with its roots in ancient civilizations. It's a central figure in the evolution of Western classical music, particularly in Baroque and Renaissance compositions. 
  • Oud: The oud is a lute-type chordophone with roots in Syria and Iran. It's common in Middle Eastern music because of its expressive qualities. 
  • Mandolin: A member of the lute family, the mandolin has a percussive sound that enriches numerous genres, including rock, bluegrass, and pop. 
  • Ukulele: Originating in Portugal but commonly associated with Hawaii this instrument is highly adaptable and has earned a permanent place in Hawaiian folk music and contemporary pop. 

Struck string instruments

These instruments produce sound through string vibration. They have a profound impact on music as they provide a wide dynamic range. Common struck instruments include:

  • Piano: The piano falls into this category because it produces sound when its strings are struck with hammers — typically when you press down on the keys. It adds an expressive quality to numerous genres, including classical music and jazz. 
  • Hammered dulcimer: This is an early instrument with strings stretched across its sound box. To produce sound, musicians hit it with small mallets, also known as hammers. Depending on the force and location of the strikes, the instrument can produce high or low pitches, making it adaptable to various music genres. 
  • Santoor: This is a trapezoid-shaped dulcimer, also played with small wooden mallets. It produces rich melodic sounds that often enhance the emotive qualities of Middle Eastern music. 

Other string instruments you may not know

The lists of instruments we discussed above are in no way exhaustive. There are dozens of string instruments, many of which are lesser-known, such as the:

  • Kora: Hailing from West Africa, the kora is a plucked instrument that combines the features of the harp and lute. 
  • Balalaika: This is a Russian plucked stringed instrument.
  • Nyckelharpa: Also known as the "keyed fiddle," this is a bowed string instrument originating from Sweden. 
  • Veena: This is an Indian plucked instrument common in Hindustani classical music. 
  • Charango: It's a plucked instrument in the lute family, found predominantly in South America. 
  • Hardanger Fiddle: This is the folk fiddle of Norway, played through bowing
  • Gayageum: It's a traditional Korean plucked musical instrument.
  • Sarangi: It's a bowed instrument often played in folk music from South Asia.  
  • Zheng: This is a Chinese plucked instrument. 
  • Kithara: This is a plucked instrument of the lyre family, originating from ancient Greece. 
  • Viol: This is a bowed instrument in the violin family with European origins. The key difference between this instrument and the violin is that the musician holds it between their legs or on their lap, as opposed to under their chin. 
  • Koto: It's a plucked string instrument with roots in Japan. 

How to choose your string instrument

Now that you know your options, how do you choose the right one? Read on for some tips that'll make the decision easier.

Consider the type of music you enjoy

As you've read, different string instruments lend themselves better to specific types of music, so consider your preferred genre when making your choice. For example, if you particularly enjoy classical music, bowed instruments like the violin or cello might be more suitable. For bluegrass or folk music, you might want to consider the banjo or mandolin. 

Assess the physical compatibility

To increase the likelihood that you'll stick with the instrument, consider its size, weight, and physical demands. Instruments like cellos and double basses are significantly larger than options like violins and guitars, so keep in mind that you'll need to hold the instrument for significant periods of time and possibly transport it to concerts or lessons. 

Think about sound and tone

Each instrument has a unique sound and tone quality. For example, the violin has a higher pitch range than the viola. Similarly, the viola has a higher pitch than the cello or double bass. Listen to different instruments' sounds and tones to determine the one that resonates best with your preferences. 

Start exploring the brilliance of string instruments today

Chordophones are great instruments for beginners because they come in numerous types, accommodating different preferences. They also have a diverse melodic range, allowing musicians to play both simple and complex compositions from the same instrument. 

Trala helps beginners gain music skills from anywhere, anytime by connecting them with expert instructors specializing in multiple genres. When you choose our program, we'll help you explore everything that stringed instruments have to offer, allowing you to truly enjoy the musical experience. 

Ready to start on your stringed-instrument learning journey? Sign up for Trala today!

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