Hurdy-Gurdy Gets Modernized with MIDI Upgrades

If you’ve never heard a hurdy-gurdy before, you’re in for a treat. Not many people have, since they’re instruments which are uncommon outside of some eastern European communities. Think of a violin that replaces the bow with a hand-cranked wheel, and adds some extra strings that function similar to drones on a bagpipe. The instrument has been around for hundreds of years, but now it’s been given an upgrade via the magic of MIDI.

All of these new features come from [Barnaby Walters] who builds hurdy-gurdys by hand but has recently been focusing on his MIDI interface. The interface can do pitch-shifting polyphony, which allows the instrument to make its own chords and harmonies. It also has a hybrid poly synthesizer, which plays completely different sounds, and can layer them on top of one another. It can also split the keyboard into two instruments, where the top half plays one sound and the bottom half another. It’s an interesting take on an interesting instrument, and the video is definitely worth a look.

The hurdy-gurdy isn’t a commonly used instrument for hacking compared to something like drums or the violin, of course. In fact we had to go back over ten years to find any other articles featuring the hurdy-gurdy, the Furby Gurdy. It was an appropriately named instrument.

Thanks to [baldpower] for the tip!

17 thoughts on “Hurdy-Gurdy Gets Modernized with MIDI Upgrades

  1. I saw a man who played, made, and sold Hurdy Gurdys at a Renaissance Fair in Colorado (~25 years ago).
    I was going to write something to the effect that adding MIDI to a Medieval instrument bordered on blasphemy, and then…
    MIDI Medi…
    apropos!

  2. Actually … the “Drehleier” (German name) wasn’t only used in “some eastern European communities” (cough-cough), but quite famous all around the central European area, starting as early as the 10th century (some say even before that).
    I have built a few of them in my days and the only blasphemous addition I made to one was a “mercury switch” connected to the “snarring bit” (no idea what the correct English expression for that is) that could trigger a drum sound from a built-in sample-player …

    1. The most important changes to the originally Arabic/Spanish Hurdy Gurdy were made in the 18th century in France, where it is still popular (the most famous Hurdy-Gurdy festival is held in Saint-Chartier). From there it then spread through Central Europe. No idea where the alleged connection to Eastern Europe comes from, the Hurdy-Gurdy doesn’t play a role in their Folklore. If you hear someone playing the Hurdy Gurdy today, it’s most likely something going back to German, French, Italian or Spanish origin.

      The Hurdy-Gurdy is far from unknown in Europe. Germany alone has at least four popular Folk Rock/Folk Metal bands which make extensive use of the Hurdy Gurdy: In Extremo, Faun, Schandmaul and Saltatio Mortis. Switzerland’s most popular Metal band, Eluveitie, has had world-class Hurdy-Gurdy players since the beginning. All of these bands easily fill large convert venues. In the US at least Sting, Meallica and Led Zeppelin have also used this instrument.

    2. I’d really like to get a hurdy gurdy, I play fiddle at the moment, and a bit of keyboard. I play around on uke and banjo too sometimes. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get past the cost barrier to entry to hurdy gurdy.
      I enjoy watching Patty Gurdy’s videos on youtube. I think the “snarring bit” is called the “dog” or “buzzing bit” in English.

      1. Would make sense, since the German word actually is “Hund” (=dog) :-)

        If you have access to tools and wood (getting GOOD instrument wood has become a big issue – it was way easier when I built my instruments about 35 years ago!) building these things isn’t TOO difficult. My first simple one took my the better part of a week (8 hours a day) …

        1. Ah hah, yes that does make sense. By the way I don’t think of it as blasphemous at all to modify an instrument with more modern technology. I really wish the violin community would learn to accept machine heads for tuning!
          Do you have any resources for information on building gurdies? Websites, books, anything?
          I have no skill in woodworking, nor much in the way of tools. I’d be willing to give it a go though. Perhaps with some of that rubbish wood first so that I don’t just ruin something valuable.

          1. Thanks, Chris.
            That looks like a very nice introductory hurdy gurdy.
            On the topic of woodworking experience: are there certain easier projects that would cover the necessary skills? I assume there are certain tools and techniques that are particularly useful. If only life were like computer games I’d make a thousand shelves to level up ‘woodworking’ then I’d be able to make the most ornate musical instrument ever conceived.

          2. I cannot respond to your latest comment, so here we go:
            From my perspective, a (simple!) hurdy-gurdy or leier actually *is* one of the easier projects, especially if you go for a rectangular body instead of a rounded one (for the latter you need a rounding iron, patience, experience …)
            In Germany, you can find “build your own musical instruments” for kids starting at the age of 5-6 years. It’s usually about finger-pianos, mini-fiddles, simplified guitars etc. Since most of those books are 90% pictures, you could have a look at something like abe-books. But I guess you can find English/American books just as well.

            The things I would get used to are:
            – cutting wood
            – glueing wood
            – fine grinding
            – bending wood (if so desired)
            – some basics about wood types (soft, light-weight, heavy, hard) and how they sound (this can be done with one of the simple instruments mentioned above)

            Building musical instruments is a HUGE hobby. Prepare to not visit your computer that often any more :)

  3. Blast or not anything that has a crank begs to have a dead drill motor hooked up to generate power to run the electronics and power the speaker. This gives me an idea. I have a cheap child’s keyboard which runs on penlight batteries and many old Ni-Cd cordless drills. No super cap, it would just drop out or start quickly if cranking stopped.

    A friend in our shop made a table-top version years ago. No curved sides or tricky cuts historically based, a good place to start. Don’t forget to hit a music store for a rosin block.

    These instruments are the equivalent of a classic Moog, there was a fully polyphonic version of the hurdy gurdy, the Geigenwerk. Keyboard strings. centuries ago. It wasn’t that loud, someone had to crank it too, but it had a visceral sound up close.

    1. The way you “crank” a leier plays an important role for the sound. The “Hund” (dog, see discussion above) is driven by your rhythmic turning of the wheel. You can have the bass strings attached and keep them quiet versus “drone-like” just by turning faster or slower.
      The probable reason for the polyphonic leier not being loud enough is that the strings may have been split up. Usually you have something like 4-8 strings in unisono mode all played by one keyboard.

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