Updated by Katherine Dvoskin
Written by Katherine Dvoskin, updated on March 4th, 2022
Katherine Dvoskin, co-Founder and piano teacher at K&M Music School in San Diego, is an accomplished pianist with Master's degrees from Moscow State College of Music and Moscow State Academy of Music. Katherine is also a dedicated educator with a performance career spanning Russia, Israel, and the United States. She is renowned for her comprehensive teaching approach encompassing theory, technique, and performance.
The string instrument family is like a vast, colorful tapestry, with each instrument adding its own unique texture and hue. The guitar, with its star-like allure, is a crowd favorite and a chameleon, as it fits easily into almost any musical genre.
In this guide, we're going to take you on a journey through the enchanting world of string instruments.
We’ll be your detectives, uncovering the bonds that tie the guitar to its cousins - the elegant violin, the soulful cello, and the ethereal harp, as well as celebrating their glorious differences.
The guitar is a string instrument that usually has six strings, played by picking or brushing the strings with your fingers or a pick. It's been around for a really long time and has changed over the years. Now, it's a big part of many types of music like rock, pop, jazz, classical, and folk. Because it's easy to get started and can be used in many ways, new learners and expert musicians love it.
The guitar has things in common with other string instruments, but each one also has special features that make it different.
Take the violin, for instance.
It's played using a bow made of horsehair. It's pretty small and can make high-pitched sounds, which is great for playing alone or in an orchestra.
The cello is a different story.
It's bigger than the violin and you play it sitting down. You can use a bow or your fingers to play it. The cello has a deep, rich sound that's really important in small music groups and big orchestras.
With its large size and numerous strings, the harp is a unique instrument played by plucking the strings with the fingers. It has a distinct heavenly sound that is often associated with classical and Celtic music. Its complex structure and technique make it a challenging instrument to master.
In this guide, we're going to take a close look at these instruments. We'll talk about how they're built, how to play them, the kinds of sounds they make, and what kind of music they're used for. We'll dig into what makes them alike and what sets them apart, like how they look, how they're played, and what kind of music they're really good at.
This will be helpful if you're a budding musician trying to figure out which instrument you want to learn.
Whether you are a beginner looking to choose your first string instrument or an experienced player seeking to expand your musical horizons, this guide aims to provide a comprehensive resource to aid you in your journey. So, let us begin our exploration of the similarities and differences between the guitar and other string instruments, and discover the unique qualities that make each instrument a beloved and cherished part of the musical world.
Similarities Between String Instruments
When it comes to string instruments, there are several similarities that can be found across different types. These similarities contribute to the overall understanding and techniques used in playing these instruments. In this section, we will explore some of the key similarities between guitars and other string instruments.
1. Sound Production
One of the fundamental similarities between string instruments, including guitars, is the production of sound through the vibration of strings.
In all string instruments, the sound is created by plucking, strumming, or bowing the strings, which then vibrate and transmit the vibrations to the instrument's body or soundboard.
In the case of guitars, when the strings are plucked or strummed, they create vibrations that resonate through the guitar's body, producing sound. Similarly, other string instruments such as violins, cellos, and ukuleles produce sound through the vibrations of their respective strings.
2. Playing Techniques
String instruments share common playing techniques that allow musicians to create different tones, melodies, and effects.
Techniques such as fingerpicking, strumming, bending, sliding, and vibrato are employed across various string instruments, including guitars.
For example, guitarists use fingerpicking techniques to pluck individual strings in a pattern, creating intricate melodies and harmonies. This technique is also employed by banjo players, who use fingerpicks to pluck the strings. The technique of strumming, where all strings are played simultaneously, is also common among various string instruments.
Furthermore, techniques like bending, sliding, and vibrato are used to add expression and dynamics to the music. These techniques are not limited to guitars alone but are also integral to other string instruments such as the violin or the pedal steel guitar.
3. Ensemble Play
String instruments often play a vital role in ensembles, orchestras, and bands.
They provide a wide range of sounds and tonal qualities that blend together to create a harmonious and cohesive musical experience. Whether it's an electric guitar in a rock band, a violin in an orchestra, or a mandolin in a bluegrass group, string instruments contribute to the overall texture and sound of the ensemble.
In ensemble play, string instruments often have specific roles and parts to play.
For instance, guitars in a band may be responsible for providing rhythm and harmony, while violins in an orchestra might carry the melody.
These roles highlight the collaborative nature of string instruments and their importance in creating a well-balanced and dynamic musical performance.
4. Construction and Materials
String instruments share common elements in their construction and the materials used.
The body of many string instruments, including guitars, violins, cellos, harps, and double basses, is typically made from wood. The selection of wood and its quality play a significant role in the instrument's tone and resonance.
Similarly, the strings used in these instruments are typically made from materials such as steel, nylon, or gut. The choice of string material also affects the instrument's sound and playability. Whether it's a guitar or a violin, the combination of wood, strings, and other components contributes to the instrument's overall tonal characteristics.
5. Music Notation
String instruments also share a common music notation system.
The use of staff notation allows musicians to read and interpret musical scores across different string instruments.
Whether it's a guitar tablature, violin sheet music, or notation for other string instruments, the basic principles of music notation remain the same.
This standardization of music notation facilitates communication and collaboration among musicians playing different string instruments. It allows for the seamless exchange of musical ideas and enables players to perform together, even if they are playing different instruments.
While there are numerous differences between various string instruments, there are also several key similarities. These include the production of sound through vibrating strings, shared playing techniques, ensemble play, similar construction and materials, and the use of a common music notation system. Understanding these similarities can pave the way for musicians to explore and appreciate the diverse world of string instruments.
Differences Between String Instruments
There are several key differences between the guitar and other instruments in the same family.
In this section, we will explore these differences in detail, covering aspects such as the number of strings, tuning, playing technique, and size and shape.
Number of Strings
One of the most noticeable differences between the guitar and other string instruments is the number of strings they possess.
While the standard guitar typically has six strings, other string instruments can have a varying number of strings. For example, the violin and cello have four strings, while the mandolin usually has eight strings arranged in pairs. Harp has 46 strings.
The number of strings on a particular instrument affects the range of notes it can produce and the types of music it is best suited for. Guitars with fewer strings may be easier for beginners to learn on, as they provide a simpler layout and require less finger strength to play chords.
Instruments with more strings, on the other hand, offer a broader tonal range and allow for more complex musical arrangements.
- Guitar: E2 (82.41 Hz) to E6 (1318.51 Hz)
- Violin: G3 (196.00 Hz) to E7 (2637.02 Hz)
- Cello: C2 (65.41 Hz) to A6 (1760.00 Hz)
- Harp: C1 (32.70 Hz) to G7 (3135.96 Hz)
Tuning refers to the process of adjusting the tension of the strings on an instrument to produce the desired pitch for each string. Different string instruments have distinct tuning methods, which contribute to their unique sound characteristics.
The standard guitar tuning, often called E-A-D-G-B-E, allows for a wide range of chord voicings and melodic possibilities. Other string instruments, however, may use alternative tuning systems. For example, the violin is typically tuned in fifths (G-D-A-E), while the mandolin is often tuned in fifths as well, but an octave higher than the violin (G-D-A-E).
The cello is typically tuned in perfect fifths. Starting from the top string (closest to the player's face) and moving down, the strings are tuned to A, D, G, and C. The A is the A below the middle C, and the strings descend in pitch from there. This tuning is standard for the cello and is used in most classical and contemporary music.
The tuning of a harp can be more complex because harps come in various sizes with different numbers of strings. For a pedal harp, which is common in orchestras, the strings are usually tuned to all the natural notes (like the white keys on a piano) in a C flat major scale. The harp's pedals can be used to alter the pitch of the strings to play in different keys. Lever harps, on the other hand, use levers to change the pitch of individual strings. The basic tuning for a lever harp is often in the key of C major or E flat major, but this can be adjusted depending on the music being played.
The variation in tuning systems can greatly influence the playing experience and musical possibilities of different string instruments. Guitar players may find it more challenging to play certain melodies or chords on instruments with different tunings due to the need for different fingerings and chord shapes.
String instruments can also differ in terms of their playing technique.
Each instrument requires a unique approach to produce the desired sounds and achieve proper technique.
Playing the guitar means you either pluck or strum the strings using your fingers or a small tool called a pick. There are all sorts of cool ways to play, like fingerpicking, using the side of your hand to mute the strings (called palm muting), or pushing the strings in different ways to change how they sound (that's called bending). The long part of the guitar, called the neck, is designed so you can easily bend notes and play groups of notes (called chords) in different spots.
For other string instruments like the violin or cello, you use a bow instead of plucking with your fingers.
Playing with a bow is a whole different ball game.
You have to learn how to move the bow across the strings just right – controlling how fast you move it, how hard you press, and which way you move it – to get the sound you want. Plus, there are a bunch of special techniques like vibrato (wiggling the string for a cool sound), pizzicato (plucking the string with your fingers), and double stops (playing two notes at once) that you can use to make the music more expressive.
Playing the harp requires mastering a variety of techniques.
First, it's essential to maintain a proper hand position with curved fingers and thumbs pointing upwards for better control.
Plucking the strings is done with the fingertips, and it's important to initiate the movement from the base of the finger to produce a rich sound. When it comes to finger placement, all fingers except the pinky are used, and it's advisable to place them on the strings before plucking to ensure smooth playing.
The glissando technique involves running the fingers rapidly across the strings, creating a sweeping sound. Damping is another technique where you gently touch the strings to stop them from vibrating. Additionally, for those playing pedal harps, using the feet to operate pedals is crucial for changing the pitch.
Physical Shape and Size
String instruments come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, and this can change how they sound, how comfy they are to play, and how easy they are to carry around.
Consider guitars for instance.
They are available in a variety of sizes.
Some are compact, making them ideal for carrying around on journeys, whereas others are quite large, like the dreadnought or jumbo guitars. The dimensions and form of a guitar can alter its sound. Smaller guitars usually produce a crisper and more distinct sound, while the larger ones tend to have a more robust and fuller tone.
Other string instruments, like the violin or cello, have standardized shapes and sizes. The violin, for example, has a distinctive hourglass shape, while the cello has a larger and more elongated body.
These shapes are carefully designed to optimize the instruments' acoustic properties and ensure comfortable playing positions for musicians. The harp has a graceful, triangular shape made up of three main parts:
- Curved soundboard
- Horizontal neck
- Strings that stretch between them
It is worth noting that while the guitar and other string instruments have their unique characteristics, there are often similarities and shared techniques among them. Musicians who learn one string instrument may find it easier to adapt to playing another due to the transferable skills and knowledge they acquire.
The Impact of Learning Multiple String Instruments
Learning to play multiple string instruments can have a profound impact on a musician's skills and musicality. Whether it's expanding one's versatility, broadening their musical understanding, or unlocking new opportunities, the benefits of learning multiple string instruments are numerous and significant.
One of the key advantages of learning multiple string instruments is the ability to become a more versatile musician.
Each string instrument has its unique sound and playing techniques, and by mastering multiple instruments, a musician can adapt to various musical styles and genres with ease.
For example, a guitarist who also learns to play the violin can bring the expressive and emotive qualities of the violin into their guitar playing. They can incorporate techniques such as vibrato, slides, and bowing techniques to add a new dimension to their guitar playing.
Similarly, a mandolin player who picks up the banjo can infuse the rhythmic drive and twang of the banjo into their mandolin playing, creating a unique fusion of sounds. By learning multiple string instruments, musicians can blend different playing styles, techniques, and musical characteristics to create their distinct musical voices.
2. Broader Musical Understanding
Learning multiple string instruments deepens a musician's understanding of music as a whole.
Each instrument has its own unique characteristics, playing techniques, and tonal qualities. By immersing themselves in the intricacies of different string instruments, musicians gain a broader perspective on music theory, composition, and performance.
For instance, a guitarist who learns to play the cello will gain a deeper understanding of harmony, as well as the role of basslines in music. They will also develop a better sense of the instrument's expressive capabilities and dynamics. This knowledge can be applied to their guitar playing, enhancing their overall musicality.
Furthermore, exploring different string instruments exposes musicians to various musical traditions and genres. For example, learning the ukulele can introduce a guitarist to the world of Hawaiian music, or exploring the sitar can open doors to Indian classical music. This exposure to diverse musical styles expands a musician's musical vocabulary and fosters creativity in their compositions and improvisations.
3. Increased Opportunities
Learning multiple string instruments can open up new opportunities for musicians, both in terms of personal growth and professional avenues. Musicians who can play multiple instruments are in high demand as session players, band members, and collaborators.
They can seamlessly switch between instruments in live performances or studio recordings, adding depth and variety to the music they create.
Moreover, musicians who master multiple string instruments can explore different genres and styles, allowing for a more versatile career. They can perform in various ensembles, participate in different musical projects, and even pursue teaching opportunities across multiple instruments.
Additionally, learning multiple string instruments can also enhance a musician's compositional skills. By understanding the unique characteristics of each instrument, musicians can create compositions that leverage the strengths of different string instruments. This versatility in composition can lead to exciting opportunities, such as soundtrack scoring, arranging for string ensembles, or even writing for orchestras.
In-depth Look at Each Instrument
In this section, we will delve into the history, types, and famous players of each stringed instrument, including the guitar, violin, cello, and harp. By examining each instrument individually, we can better understand its unique characteristics and appreciate the similarities and differences between them.
This timeline provides an overview of the historical evolution of string instruments.
- 2700 BCE: The earliest string instruments are believed to have been developed in ancient Mesopotamia.
- 1500 BCE: The lyre, a string instrument similar to a small harp, was used in ancient Greece.
- 9th Century: The bowed lyre, an early ancestor of the violin, was developed in Europe.
- 15th Century: The early form of the guitar, known as the vihuela, was developed in Spain.
- 16th Century: The violin family, including the violin, viola, and cello, was developed in Italy.
- 17th Century: The modern harp, with pedals for changing pitch, was developed.
- 19th Century: The modern classical guitar takes shape, with six strings and a larger body.
- The 1930s: The electric guitar was invented, revolutionizing popular music.
- The 1960s: The solid-body electric guitar became popular in rock music.
- 21st Century: Digital and electric innovations continue, with MIDI guitars and electric violins.
The guitar is a multifaceted stringed instrument with a deep heritage and enjoys immense popularity in a plethora of musical styles. Its roots reach back to ancient times, with instruments resembling the guitar being known to exist more than 4,000 years ago. As time progressed, the guitar underwent transformations and branched into different forms, each with its unique tone and manner of playing.
History of the Guitar: The guitar as we know it today has its roots in Spain, where the modern classical guitar originated in the 19th century. The instrument gained popularity throughout Europe and eventually made its way to the Americas, influencing various music styles, such as flamenco, blues, jazz, and rock.
Types of Guitars
There are several types of guitars, each with its unique design and sound. The most common types include:
- Acoustic Guitar: This is the traditional guitar that uses the resonance of its hollow body to produce sound. Acoustic guitars can be further categorized into various subtypes, such as classical, steel-string, and archtop guitars.
- Electric Guitar: With the invention of amplified sound in the early 20th century, electric guitars emerged, revolutionizing the music industry. Electric guitars use magnetic pickups and amplifiers to produce a louder and more distorted sound.
- Bass Guitar: Similar in appearance to the electric guitar, the bass guitar is larger and typically has four strings. Its primary role is to provide the low-end foundation in a band or ensemble.
The guitar has been played by countless influential musicians throughout history. Here are a few notable guitarists who have left a significant impact on music:
- Jimi Hendrix: Renowned for his groundbreaking playing methods and mastery of effects, Hendrix holds a place in history as one of the all-time guitar greats.
- Eric Clapton: A pivotal personality in the realms of blues and rock, Clapton's emotive guitar playing and legendary solos have been a source of inspiration for countless aspiring guitarists.
- Andrés Segovia: Often hailed as the pioneer of the contemporary classical guitar, Segovia played a crucial role in popularizing the instrument and securing its position on the concert stage.
The guitar's versatility and widespread popularity make it an excellent starting point for exploring the world of string instruments. From classical compositions to rock anthems, the guitar's presence can be felt in nearly every musical genre. Understanding its history, types, and notable players will deepen your appreciation for this iconic instrument.
The violin is one of the most well-known and beloved string instruments, known for its beautiful sound and expressive capabilities. Its history spans centuries, and it has been an integral part of classical music traditions.
History of the Violin
The violin, as we know it today, evolved from earlier bowed string instruments in the 16th century. It gained popularity in Italy and soon spread across Europe, becoming a staple in orchestras and chamber ensembles.
Types of Violins
While the basic design of the violin has remained relatively unchanged throughout history, there are variations in size, shape, and tonal qualities to accommodate different playing styles and musical genres. Some common variants include:
- Classical Violin: This is the standard violin used in classical music performances. It features a curved body, and four strings, and is played with a bow.
- Electric Violin: Electric violins have been on the rise in popularity in the past few years because they can make a bigger variety of sounds and can be made louder through amplification. They're commonly seen in contemporary music styles such as jazz and rock.
- Baroque Violin: The Baroque violin is a replica of the violins used during the Baroque period. It has gut strings and a flatter bridge, resulting in a different tone and playing style.
Throughout history, many virtuoso violinists have captivated audiences with their exceptional skills and performances. Here are a few notable violinists:
- Niccolò Paganini: A legendary violinist from the 19th century, Paganini's technical prowess and showmanship pushed the boundaries of violin playing.
- Itzhak Perlman: Renowned for his beautiful tone and musical interpretations, Perlman is considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century.
- Hilary Hahn: A contemporary violinist known for her technical precision and captivating stage presence, Hahn has made a significant impact on classical music.
The violin's versatility and expressive capabilities have made it a prominent feature in orchestras, chamber music ensembles, and solo performances. Its haunting melodies and soaring solos continue to captivate audiences worldwide.
The cello, also known as the violoncello, is a larger member of the violin family. It has a deep, rich tone and is known for its expressive qualities. The cello has a long history and has been a key component of classical music for centuries.
History of the Cello
The cello developed from earlier bowed string instruments in the 16th century. It gradually gained prominence and became a regular member of orchestras during the Baroque period. Over time, the cello's design and construction techniques evolved, resulting in the instrument we recognize today.
Types of Cellos
Cellos are available in different sizes to fit players of various ages and body sizes. The usual types of cellos are:
- Full-size Cello: This is the regular size for cellos and is good for grown-ups and advanced learners.
- 3/4 Cello: A bit smaller than the full-size cello, this one is often used by kids or people with smaller bodies.
- 1/2 Cello, 1/4 Cello, and 1/8 Cello: These tinier sizes are made for children and people just starting to learn.
The cello has been played by many virtuosos who have left a lasting impact on classical music. Here are a few renowned cellists:
- Yo-Yo Ma: One of the most celebrated cellists of our time, Yo-Yo Ma has mesmerized audiences with his extraordinary talent and versatility.
- Jacqueline du Pré: Known for her passionate performances, du Pré's career was tragically cut short, but her legacy lives on as one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century.
- Mstislav Rostropovich: A prolific cellist and conductor, Rostropovich's contributions to the cello repertoire and his advocacy for human rights have made him an influential figure in the music world.
The cello's warm and sonorous sound makes it a versatile instrument, capable of conveying a wide range of emotions. Whether as a solo instrument, as part of an ensemble, or in an orchestral setting, the cello adds depth and richness to the musical landscape.
The harp is a unique and enchanting string instrument known for its ethereal sound and graceful appearance. It has a long history and is associated with various cultures and musical traditions.
History of the Harp
The origins of the harp can be traced back thousands of years, with depictions of harp-like instruments found in ancient civilizations like Egypt and Mesopotamia. Throughout history, the harp has evolved and adapted, leading to the diverse range of instruments we see today.
Types of Harps
Harps come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and designs, each with its own distinct characteristics. Some common types of harps include:
- Concert Harp: Also known as the pedal harp, it is the largest and most widely recognized type of harp. It has a range of 46 strings and is played using a complex system of pedals that change the pitch of the strings.
- Celtic Harp: This smaller, more portable harp is often associated with Irish and Scottish music. It typically has fewer strings and lacks the pedal mechanism found in concert harps.
- Electric Harp: In recent years, electric harps have gained popularity, offering a modern twist on the traditional instrument. They can be amplified and have additional features such as built-in effects and MIDI compatibility.
Many talented harpists have made significant contributions to the world of music. Here are a few notable examples:
- Carlos Salzedo: A renowned harpist and composer, Salzedo's innovative playing techniques and compositions have greatly influenced the harp repertoire.
- Nicanor Zabaleta: A virtuoso harpist from Spain, Zabaleta's performances showcased the technical possibilities and expressive capabilities of the instrument.
- Harpo Marx: Known primarily as a comedian in the Marx Brothers comedy team, Harpo Marx was also an accomplished harpist, showcasing the instrument's versatility.
The harp's unique structure and mesmerizing sound make it a captivating instrument to listen to and watch. Its presence in various musical genres, from classical to folk and even contemporary music, demonstrates its adaptability and versatility.
In this comprehensive guide, we have explored the similarities and differences between the guitar and other string instruments. We have examined various aspects, including the construction, playing techniques, sound characteristics, and musical genres associated with each instrument. Through this exploration, we have gained a deeper understanding of the rich and diverse world of stringed instruments.
In summary, the guitar is a flexible instrument that finds its place in many types of music, including classical, jazz, rock, and pop. It has six strings that are either plucked or strummed to make sounds. The guitar is made up of a body, neck, and fretboard, and these parts play a big role in the special sounds it can make.
On the other hand, other string instruments like the violin, cello, and double bass are part of the bowed string family. These instruments are played with a bow that is drawn across the strings to produce sound. The violin and cello have four strings, while the double bass typically has four or five strings. The construction of these instruments differs from the guitar, with a hollow body and a slightly arched shape to facilitate bowing.
Despite these differences, there are also similarities between the guitar and other string instruments. Both require the player to learn proper technique and develop finger dexterity to produce clear and accurate pitches. Additionally, all string instruments share the fundamental principles of pitch, tone, and resonance.
When it comes to sound characteristics, each instrument has its unique timbre. The guitar offers a wide range of tonal possibilities, from the bright and twangy sound of a steel-string acoustic guitar to the warm and mellow tones of a nylon-string classical guitar. Bowed string instruments, on the other hand, have a rich and expressive sound, capable of producing a wide dynamic range and emotional depth.
In terms of musical genres, the guitar has a versatile role and is widely used in various genres, including rock, blues, country, and folk. String instruments like the violin, cello, and double bass are predominant in classical music but can also be found in other genres such as jazz, folk, and world music.
In conclusion, while the guitar and other string instruments share similarities in terms of technique and fundamental principles, they also have distinct characteristics that make them unique. Whether you are drawn to the versatility and expressive nature of the guitar or the rich and nuanced sound of bowed string instruments, exploring the world of stringed instruments can be a rewarding and enriching journey for musicians and enthusiasts alike.