| More in Acoustic Guitars, Folk Instruments, Ukulele
Things with Strings Image

Things With Strings

            Ever since a paleolithic hunter first realized that their bow could be bent to produce different notes, we’ve been using some combination of strings, wood, and occasionally metal to make music. Through the ages, things with strings have changed and evolved into thousands of different acoustic instruments played by just as varied a host of musicians, each rising to meet the needs of the music of its time; the most popular instruments of today are no different.


Acoustic Guitar

            From Dolly Parton to Andrés Segovia, Joni Mitchell to Sungha Jung, Robert Johnson to Billy Strings; few instruments can lay claim to the vast array of styles that the acoustic guitar can. Arguably one of the most versatile weapons in the Western musical arsenal, it has a repertoire that features prominently in nearly every major genre of music.




The acoustic you are likely most familiar with is the steel-string dreadnought. With a loosely rectangular body that’s softly curved near the middle for comfort, six metal strings tuned E-e, and a neck that meets the body at the fourteenth fret, this is today’s most common model.


Orchestra/Auditorium Model

With a narrower waist and more rounded bouts than its younger cousin, the dreadnought, these steel-stringed guitars have a more mid-focused sound that has found favour with more melodic players, and is ideal for accompanying a solo performer.


Parlour Model

            The parlour model is narrower still, and is the most midrange-focused member of the steel stringed family. Lacking the volume of its larger cousins, this body style is most commonly seen playing a melodic role and is particularly popular in traditional blues and folk music.



            If the parlour is on one end of a spectrum, on the other end is the jumbo. Aptly named, this is the largest of the flat-top guitars and was developed to be as loud as possible. Big and bold with booming bass and punch to match its swollen proportions, the jumbo is the metaphorical bumblebee of the guitar family with scaled-up proportions much like that of the auditorium but with an almost circular lower bout. While most often seen on stage with country acts, any guitarist who needs an extra kick to their sound will find it here in spades.



            Often similar in proportions to a jumbo, though ranging in dimensions, is the arch-top. Also known as a jazz box, this guitar’s eponymous arched top and back combine with f-shaped sound holes to give it a loud and very punchy character. When strung up with flatwound strings, this guitar is near-synonymous with jazz, but it does have roots in folk and blues too.



            Following in popularity, though it was created first, is the original guitar format. Called by many names, the classical (or nylon, or Spanish) guitar typically has a much more figure-eight silhouette, a wider neck, and – crucially – nylon strings. Between the more widely spaced strings and the warmer, richer tone, this guitar finds itself most often used for classical music, hence one of its monikers. However, it’s also found a home with jazz musicians.



            Essentially identical in appearance to the classical guitar is the Flamenco guitar. As the name implies, it was modified from the traditional Spanish guitar to better suit the percussive styles and fast single note runs of Flamenco music. With its brighter, drier sound, it has also made itself popular amongst modern jazz and Latin guitarists.


Twelve-String Guitar

            As we see with the twelve-string guitar, changing the shape of a guitar is not the only way to get a different sound. Since humanity started on this road of plucking strings to make music, we’ve experimented with adding strings and doubling them to get a fuller sound, and this tradition carries on in the form of this guitar. As the name implies, this model has double the standard number of strings grouped in pairs. The lowest four (E, A, D, and G) are tuned an octave above their typical-guitar twins, while the remaining two (B and e) are matched to their doubles, creating a sound that isn’t far off a chorus effect you’d hear on an electric guitar, and makes for a very full instrument. Due to the extra set of strings and the rich sound, the twelve-string often finds itself playing the supporting role in a variety of genres and is a great option in the arsenal of any guitarist looking to expand their toolbox.


Tenor Guitar

            In the case of the tenor guitar, a less-known model with its origins all the way back in the 1920s, changing the number of strings goes further than simply a fuller sound. With a shorter neck, a smaller body, and four strings tuned up to C-G-D-A, its higher register was popular among jazz and folk players, particularly in the 1930s. Nowadays it isn’t attached to any one particular genre, as artists as far from each other as Limp Bizkit and Elvis Costello have recorded on them. This leaves this particular guitar refreshingly unattached to any one style of play – anybody looking for an instrument that will help them break out of a rut would be well-advised to try out a tenor.


Baritone Guitar

            On the other end of the scale, there’s the baritone. The baritone typically resembles a standard guitar, just larger, with thicker strings and a longer neck that enable it to comfortably handle tunings much lower than your average guitar. Most commonly found in B standard, this range opens up new sonic possibilities, and is a particularly useful tool for any performer without a dedicated bass player – or anyone looking for that rich lower register.



            Unlike the other instruments on this list that rely on a wooden soundboard to amplify the volume of the strings, the resophonic guitar uses a metal cone (or three) attached to the bridge to produce its signature metallic sound. Commonly known as a dobro or resonator, this is another model that sprung into being in the 1930s as guitarists tried their best to keep up with the sheer amount of noise produced by the horns sections they played alongside. While the body is usually consistent in dimensions – roughly the same shape and size as an auditorium model – there’s quite a few different classes of resonator.

First, there are the materials, the most common being steel and wood. Second,the resonator itself, a metal cone(s) that lives under the bridge that give a resonator its signature look. Lastly, there’s the play style; whether or not the guitar is played like a traditional guitar or across the lap like a Hawaiian lap steel. Lap style with its sturdy squared off neck and extremely high action is most popular among bluegrass and country players where open tunings reign supreme, while the more traditional guitar style is favoured by delta bluesmen and old-school jazz players.



From pubs in Ireland to Tennessee, the banjo also has both a storied history and a varied present. Brought to life by enslaved people in the Caribbean in the 1600s, it’s derived from traditional West African instruments that used a gourd as the body. Of course, the modern banjo now uses a drum head in lieu of a body to amplify the strings, and, much like the guitar, has evolved and shifted to better fit the genres it has come to dominate.


Five-String Banjo

            Most common in the bluegrass and country circles, this popular model has five strings tuned g-D-G-B-d, but instead of all five being mounted at the headstock, the fifth and highest in pitch is mounted part way up the bass side of the neck, giving it a distinctly asymmetrical shape.


Tenor and Four-String Plectrum Banjo

            While they are distinct instruments, these two members of the banjo family are nearly twins at first glance. Both have the iconic drum style body, both use four strings, and both are instruments that gained popularity in American folk and ragtime jazz. Their differences lie in scale length and tuning - where the tenor ranges from a seventeen inch scale up to twenty-three inches, the four-string sits pretty at twenty-six to twenty-eight inches, and while the tenor is typically tuned C-G-D-A, the four-string is more often found a small step away in C-G-B-D. Being smaller lends the tenor some more slack in the strings and being longer gives the plectrum banjo some extra snap, but due to their similar natures it isn’t uncommon to find a performer simply tuning a tenor to act as the other. Unfortunately going the other way can make it easier to break strings, but it is possible.


Banjo Hybrids

            An often overlooked element of the growth and evolution of musical instruments is the sheer mad-science artistry of luthiers and manufacturers, hybridizing and inventing new instruments to better suit the music of their days. Amongst the many Frankenstein’d failures that have fallen to the wayside, two banjo hybrids that first appeared over a century ago are still going strong.



            The banjo guitar, or banjitar, is exactly what it sounds like. With a banjo-style drum for a body but with a standard guitar scale length and tuning, this is the instrument of choice for the guitarist who wants the banjo sound but doesn’t feel like learning an entirely new instrument – or for someone who just wants the extra acoustic volume that it provides without the weight of a resonator.



            Similarly, the banjolele is essentially the neck of a ukulele on the shrunken body of a banjo.  Unique in its use of nylon ukelele strings rather than the metal ones of a typical banjo, the banjolele has a unique texture to its sound that makes it an appealing prospect for any musician – and it comes in pink. That’s pretty cool.



            The product of Portuguese and Hawaiian cultures coming together in the late 1800s, the ukulele has grown into a very popular instrument. Looking like a guitar that had a bad run-in with a dryer, it quickly became an instrument that comfortably could stand on its own merits with the Hawaiian craze of the early 1900s, and this explosion in popularity caused leading manufacturers at the time to expand the family almost immediately. Unlike the more MacGyvered expansion of early guitars and banjos, this more structured invention means that despite its relatively short history the ukulele has rather well defined differences in models.



            The first born of the family, the soprano uke is especially popular for folks of smaller stature and those who need a travelling partner. Tuned g-C-E-A and under two feet in length, the soprano also has the brightest sound of the ukulele family.



            Conveniently, the next size up was also the next invented. Known as the concert ukulele, it was added to the family in the 1920s to fill the growing desire for a fuller sound and more elbow room as it went from a folk instrument to leading a pop culture phenomena almost overnight. While not drastically larger, the longer scale length did increase the ergonomics of play and made for a richer sound, making it a commercial success.



            Following hot on the concert’s heels, the tenor ukulele is also the next in size. While still tuned to the same g-C-E-A as the soprano and concert, the tenor’s larger body and longer neck makes for higher tension strings that works well for finger picking while also making it a good prospect for low G tuning, an option that grants it an almost guitar-like sound. It also is much more comfortable to play for people with larger hands.



            Last and largest among the common traditional ukes is the baritone. Unlike the other members of this family, this ukulele is traditionally tuned D-G-B-E, the same as the four highest tuned strings on an acoustic guitar. This, paired with its longer neck makes it a popular option for both jazz players and guitarists, as the wider fret spacing allows for more complex chords to be played all the way up the neck, and the mechanics of playing a baritone are much more familiar to anyone who plays guitar. The lower tuning and larger size also make for an even deeper and richer sound than its counterparts.



            Of course, you can’t talk about low without talking about the bass. Bass ukuleles seem almost like an oxymoron – typically, as we’ve seen, small instruments and low frequencies don’t usually mix well. However, by using thick rubber strings instead of the typical metal or nylon, the bass ukulele manages the standard E-A-D-G tuning of its much larger fellows. Other than the aforementioned rubber strings, the only notable visual difference between this and your average baritone uke is the size of the tuning machine heads, which are considerably larger to accommodate the much thicker strings. Commonly found at coffee shop gigs, campfires, and anywhere else a compact bass is needed; this bass packs a lot of punch into a very small package and has earned its keep.




            It’s unlikely you’ll see a bass without also seeing a guitar, and the ukulele family is no different. The guitar ukulele, or guitalele, is similar to the bass uke in that it takes the form of a ukulele while retaining the six strings of a full sized acoustic. Unlike the bass, however, it doesn’t have the same tuning as the larger alternative. While keeping the same intervals between notes, the guitalele is most commonly found tuned A-D-G-C-E-a, a tuning that the keen-eyed reader will note retains the same G-C-E-a of standard ukulele tuning on its high strings; this means that the guitalele is a brilliant option not only for the guitarist looking to learn ukulele – or just get the sound of a ukulele without learning the new instrument, or even just a small instrument for travel – but also for the ukulele player searching  for a familiar jumping off point to learn guitar.


Mountain Dulcimer

The mountain dulcimer is an instrument whose sound is – if you’ll pardon the puns – instrumental to the sounds of the Appalachian folk music for which it is named. Easily the simplest instrument on this list, some mountain dulcimers are as simple as a stick with some frets, while others take a more intricate approach. Due to its folk roots, there aren’t really any rules for shape or construction, but most commonly they use four strings tuned to three notes with the highest string doubled, and fall into two camps. On the one hand, a more hourglass shaped body that encompasses the entire fingerboard, and on the other a more guitar-like construction with a neck and body. Both types are notable, however, for the way their frets are spaced. Unlike every other instrument on this list, which spaces the frets to create a chromatic scale, the dulcimer’s frets are placed to create a diatonic scale. In simpler terms, this means that a dulcimer is tuned to a specific key, and so it’s a lot harder to play a wrong note – that is, assuming you’re tuned to the right key.


Mandolin Family


            Standing like something of a bridge between the worlds of classical music and folk is the mandolin family. The distinctive tear-drop body, elongated neck, and eight paired strings of the mandolin family can be found in pubs and stages across continents, and its rhythmic, punchy sounds make for an instrument that’s hard to miss – especially in the hands of a maestro.


            The most common of this family by far is the mandolin. The soprano member of the family,  it comes in two main flavours: the ‘F’ style and the ‘A’ style. Both tuned G-D-A-E like the violin it shares its naming convention with, the A-style mandolin sports an ovular body that is typically quite plain, with f-shaped sound holes on either side of centre and a neck that joins the body at the twelfth fret. The F-style is typically much more ornate, keeping the same basic structure but adding a scroll on the bass side of the body and two angular protrusions on the treble side. While these additions don’t affect the sound, the scroll provides an easy attachment point for a strap while the lower protrusions make for a comfortable leg rest, and they also typically denote a higher grade of craftsmanship. Most commonly seen today in bluegrass, country, and other American genres, the mandolin is an  instrument with a rich history and great potential.



            Less common in today’s music is the mandola. The alto member of the family, it occupies something of an awkward position – lacking the upper range of the mandolin, but without the depth in its bass register that could separate it properly from its smaller sibling, it’s most common among those who already play the tenor banjo as it shares the same C-G-D-A tuning. Otherwise, it looks much the same as a mandolin – if larger --  but notably most examples lose the arched top and back of the mandolin.


Octave Mandolin

            The octave mandolin is what many mandolin players go to when looking for that lower register. Often confused with the Irish bouzouki, with both instruments having the same typical teardrop body with a flat top and longer neck – and both filling the role of tenor in this choir – they do have two key differences. Tuned to the same G-D-A-E but, as the name implies, a full octave lower, the octave mandolin does also typically have a shorter neck than the bouzouki, which is more commonly found in G-D-A-d. The similarities often mean that the two instruments find themselves each playing the role of the other, and both are most common in Irish trad, but any instrumentalist seeking a new tool for their craft will find plenty of inspiration here.



            The mandocello is the baritone of this crew. While it retains the eight paired strings, it’s more often than not shaped much like an archtop guitar, the large body needing a more hourglass shape to be comfortably played in the lap. Commonly tuned C-G-D-A, it has a rich sound that is well suited to accompaniment in a variety of genres, though it’s most often seen in traditional folk.



            The hybrid between the mandolin and the guitar – creatively named the manditar – is essentially a guitar on helium. Ditching the doubled strings, otherwise this instrument looks much like a mandolin, but tuned like a guitar - just an octave higher - and as such is a popular option for the guitarist looking for that punchy, bright mandolin sound.



The oud is an instrument with a history unlike any other on this list. Dating back millennia, it spread throughout the Arabian peninsula and the Mediterranean long before any of the instruments on this list were conceived of and is old enough that the ‘modern’ iteration still predates the Modern era and is, technically, an invention of the middle ages. While it’s had plenty of time to settle into a specific identity by now, it seems hell-bent on proving you’re never too old to change. While the basic structure – bowl-backed and pear-shaped, with a headstock that tilts back dramatically and violin-like friction pegs (the oud predates the violin, so more accurately it’s the violin that has oud-like pegs) -- remains largely unaltered, the scale length, tuning, and number of strings vary wildly depending on the musical tradition, region, and culture the particular instrument hails from.


Interested in trying an instrument featured in this article? Check in with your local L&M to see where stock’s available!



Isaiah Hardy is a Sales and Rental Associate at Long & McQuade White Rock in British Columbia. 

Keywords: steel stringsteel string acousticsteel string acoustic guitarorchestra guitarorchestra acousticorchestra acoustic guitarauditorium guitarauditorium acousticauditorium acoustic guitardreadnought guitardreadnought acousticdreadnought acoustic guitarparlour guitarparlour acousticparlour acoustic guitarjumbo guitarjumbo acousticjumbo acoustic guitarjumbo size guitarjumbo size acousticjumbo size acoustic guitararchtop guitararchtop acousticarchtop acoustic guitarnylon guitarnylon acousticnylon acoustic guitarnylon string guitarnylon string acousticnylon string acoustic guitar12 string guitar12 string acoustic12 string acoustic guitartenor guitartenor acoustictenor acoustic guitarbaritone guitarbaritone acousticbaritone acoustic guitarresonator guitarresonator acousticresonator acoustic guitarbanjo5-string banjotenor banjobanjitarbanjoleleukulelesoprano ukuleleconcert ukuleletenor ukulelebaritone ukulelebass ukuleleguitaleledulcimermountain dulcimermandolinmandolamanditaroctave mandolinmandocellooud

Add a Comment