Monday, May 14, 2012

It's A Gusle

Several weeks ago I traded a guitar for a 'crazy one-string thing' (see previous post).

I didn't know at the time I traded what it was.  I just thought it was cool.  My friend Carlton sent photos, but the only thing he told me was that it need some help.  But, there was really nothing that was too far out of the ordinary.  The skin covering the bowl need to be stretched back to its original position, and the temporary wood pegs holding the skin in place had to be replaced with button-head tacks.  The tuning peg was something from a cello (I think), but I know it wasn't the original.  And the string was a piece of fishing line . . . it worked, but not what I thought should be the real deal.  And, there was no bow with which to play the 'thing'.  It needed a good overhaul and cleaning, so off I went to get my 'thing' in order.

I still think it's cool, and now I know what it is.  A Google search led me around the Internet, and I finally landed on a Wikipedia explanation.  It's a Gusle.

It's a southeastern European, most likely Serbia, primitive single-stringed musical instrument traditionally used in the Dinarides region of the Balkans.

The Gusle consists of a wooden sound box, maple being considered as the best material, covered with an animal skin, and a neck with an intricately carved head.  A wood bow (made of horsetail -- thirty horse hairs) is pulled over the string, creating a dramatic and sharp sound, expressive and difficult to master.  Often, the instruments were constructed by the singers and players themselves, shepherds, or even by specialized Gusle builders from urban areas.

The instrument is always accompanied by singing musical folklore, specifically epic poetry.  The player (Guslar) holds the instrument (Gusle) vertically between his knees, resting the long neck on one thigh, with the left hand fingers on the strings.  The strings are never pressed to the neck, giving a harmonic and unique sound.  Most lyrics center around historical figures who played an important role in history (often folk heroes who died tragic deaths), or significant historical events (mostly battles against invaders or occupying powers).

The finished Gusle   

                                                           I created the bow from a maple board and old violin horsehair.  To add a little distinction, 
I carved a head similar to that on the headstock. 

As you can see in this photo, the button head nails have all been replaced to replicate the original design, and the bridge is a specially created piece following a design I saw in Wikipedia illustrations.  The single string is a 'gut' string from a standup bass . . . a fella cannot just bolt for the corner music store to acquire parts for a Gusle.

Again, following a design from an illustration, I managed to create a tuning peg from a piece of maple and a wood dowel, which replicates the real thing.

This is another view of the nail work that replaced the temporary small wood pegs. 

And the hand carved bowl is really cool.

I doubt like hell that I will ever learn to play this thing, but I couldn't resist the offer to trade.  If for no other reason than to have it for a conversation piece.

And, I made a great new friend in Carlton Gill-Blyth.   Thanks Carl!


  1. It would be cool if you treed to learn how to play it or at least posted a video of you trying!

  2. Possibly. Make a reasonable offer. Thanks.

  3. What a fantastic story. I like the bow you created, it complements the gusle very well.
    Regarding the gusle instrument, it is one of the oldest instruments in Europe. It is the national instrument of the Albanians, Montenegrins, Serbs, and played in parts of Croatia and Hercegovina. In the Balkans they take this form of music so seriously that they hold annual festivals in many parts of former Yugoslavia. And yes, you are correct in your statement that epic songs are sang with the gusle, most of them depicting the centuries-old struggle against the Ottoman Empire.

    There are some very talented craftsmen who make this instrument, with the Montenegrins and Serbs undisputed champions in this field. My opinion is that that the Albanians have played and mastered this instrument much earlier than the Slavs did, purely because of the fact that the Slavs arrived in the Balkan region fairly late and there is no evidence that they brought this instrument with them. Most likely it arrived in the Balkan region through the trading routes of the Byzantine Empire possibly from Syria or Jordan, where it is known as the Rababa. Having said that, in Albania this instrument is played less and less, whereas in the countries I mentioned above it is still very much alive. Some readers will not agree with what I said here, however I speak from personal experience, I am a competent player of the Lahuta (Albanian Name for Gusle) and my father was a master player, possible one of the better players of all time.

    For a very fine composition please visit Youtube and search for: 'Nikolle Nikprelaj Melodi me Lahute', this is a very old, delicate, inspiring and easy to understand melody. As far as the Slavic players, just search Youtube again for: 'Gusle' and you will find pages of very talented players who also sing very enthusiastically.

    Your gusle is a very well carved instrument, possibly from somewhere in Hercegovina and aimed primarily for the tourist market. To make it playable you should put some strings from plastic/polyester sewing machine thread or fishing line, and you must use loads of resin (violin Quality) on both the music box and the bow.

    And finally, I wish you good health whilst playing one of the oldest instruments in the world.

  4. Thanks to the anonymous commentor for the history lesson, which further explains the instrument and the rather interesting purpose it serves. Please stay in touch, and let me know your name and where you live.

  5. I bought one of these off eBay a while back. Really wish someone would make a guide on actually playing it I would like to learn :) Glad to see a fellow gusle owner!

  6. I got one of this instrument from a carboot sale. Unfortunately ,the string is missing. Could anyone help me what kind of string I should look for? Thanks

  7. I bought one of these at a flea market and hadownload no idea what it was either! Mine had fishing line on it too! I haven't gotten the hair for the bow yet.