A Description of the Hurdy-Gurdy
First of all, lets be clear: we are not referring to the organ grinder's barrel organ, which plays whatever tunes it has been "pre-programmed" to play, like a player piano or a music-box. This point of confusion exists only in English, the only language in the world which has devoted the same name to two quite different instruments. The association, however, is obvious, since both are played with a crank.
Our hurdy-gurdy (or vielle-á-roue in French) is a bowed stringed musical instrument. It usually has one or two melody strings, and two or more drone strings. Hurdy-gurdies come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from traditional period designs almost a thousand years old, to modern "electro-acoustic" machines which challenge many traditional musical and visual aesthetics.
To describe the hurdy-gurdy is a challenge; one might call it a sort of mechanical violin. It is strapped to the midriff of the player, who can be seated or standing. Whereas a fiddler draws a bow across a violin's strings, a hurdy-gurdy player uses the right hand to turn a crank, which is attached via a metal shaft to a wheel (usually of wood) mounted within the instrument. As the wheel turns, its edge, which is coated with rosin, rubs against the strings causing them to vibrate: a continuous circular bow. This steady bowing action, when applied to the drone strings, helps create the hurdy-gurdy's bagpipe-like sound. The player's left hand, like that of the fiddler, produces the melody. Instead of pressing strings against a finger board, however, the fingers press sliding keys which cause the melody string(s) to be shortened and therefore to increase in pitch.
Many hurdy-gurdies have a drone string which rests on a "loose-footed" bridge called a chien (in French), or "dog." Collectively called the trompette (or buzz-o-matic if you're RT), this arrangement can,when skillfully adjusted and played, create a buzzing rhythmic accompaniment unique to the hurdy-gurdy (now might be a good time to check out the sound samples).
The diagram below is based on one from Susann Palmer's book, The Hurdy-Gurdy. It shows the basic components; compare it to the photos on the other pages. Remember that there are many styles of hurdy-gurdies set up in many configurations. This image is merely a typical sample of a popular traditional 18th century-through-present French design. Below the image is a numbered list describing each item (Click on the numbers in the image to jump directly to the corresponding list entry). I use some French terminology where it's appropriate (or where I feel like it!); it's mostly personal preference...
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