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Recycled guitar- Hurdy gurdy

Made By Graeme McCormack (TAS)

Recycled guitar- Hurdy gurdy Made By Graeme McCormack (TAS) Many years ago I saw black &

Many years ago I saw black & white Spencer Tracey Film Called “Captains courageous”. Spencer’s character played a bizarre mechanical fiddle called a Hurdy Gurdy. From that point this instrument fascinated me. Finding one to play was not very easy, so it was sometime before I was courageous enough to make one. I had never seen a hurdy gurdy in the flesh before. This made troubleshooting a long and sometimes painful process. My intension was to make a quick and dirty hurdy gurdy by converting an old guitar. In the end I put more work and detail into it and ended up with a very playable instrument that I named George. I play George regularly in the Tasmanian band “Harlequin”. Our music can be heard at (search for La Vielle by Harlequin). To play the Hurdy Gurdy the right hand cranks a rosined wheel that bows all the strings at the same time. Two of the strings (Chanter or melody strings) run through a key box that has sliders as the keys. Little wooded posts (tangents) attached to the key sliders, rest on the strings as the key is pressed. This action shortens the string length thereby changing the note played. The other two to four strings are a set length and therefore play only one note. These are the drone strings. The sound is like a cross between violin and bagpipe. Hurdy gurdies have been around for 1000 years, making them one of the earliest keyboard instruments. They come in many different shapes and sizes, from a simple box shape to the guitar and lute backed styles. The very first hurdy gurdies were 1.5m in length and took two people to play them. This was known as the “organistrum”. This instrument had only one chanter string and two drone strings. No original organistrums survive to this day. The only pictorial references are in iconography of mediaeval manuscripts and cathedral wall carvings. The organistrum evolved into a shorter instrument called a “Symphonie” in the 13 th century. This instrument was similar in string length to the modern hurdy gurdy and could be played by one person. It was box shape with a diatonic keyboard, one or two chanter strings and two drones. The chromatic keyboard came to the hurdy gurdy somewhere between the 14 and 15 th century. In this era, the soundbox was enlarged and many shapes of hurdy gurdies were made. This made it ideally suited to dance music and it was taken up in the courts of Europe as eagerly as on the streets. I had collected a blueprint of a small 18 th century French guitar shaped gurdy. So the first job was to adapt the blueprint to work in a dilapidated old IBANEZ Salvador arch top Guitar, I had obtained.

Rough layout of guitar conversion I started the construction with the wooden laminated wheel. Laminating

Rough layout of guitar conversion

I started the construction with the wooden laminated wheel. Laminating the wheel

helps to keep it stay perfectly round. I used Tasmanian Sassafras, which is easily worked and has a close, smooth end grain that holds rosin very well. It is essential for the wheel to have a very smooth edge. The next step was to get the wheel running in bearers inside the instrument. I used Teflon bushes for the wheel shaft to run in. The shaft has a threaded portion for the wheel to thread onto. A Teflon tube encases the shaft between the crank and the wheel. This works to lock the wheel at the correct place on the shaft. After getting the inner struts and wheel bearers sorted out, I put a new Tasmanian oak back onto the guitar body. Tasmanian Blackwood was used for the key box to contrast with the spruce soundboard. I had the square keyholes in the key box side laser cut. While I was at it I went a little overboard with the laser and cut a poem in the inner key box lid.

with the laser and cut a poem in the inner key box lid. Key box (accidental

Key box (accidental keys), Keys and Peg box (George the jester)

The key sliders need to be made from durable timber. So for the natural keys I used Tasmanian Oak ebonised with a mixture of rust in apple cider vinegar. The ebonising works well with any hardwood containing natural tannins. For the accidental keys, I used European beech that I had lying around. The two-tone effect was pleasing. The tangents are also made from Tasmanian Blackwood and European beech. After two years of constant playing the Blackwood is giving out. The beech is holding up fine. Even so, I plan to make new tangents from brass plate and rod. These will be infinitely more stable and adjustable.

I felt that the hurdy gurdy needed an ornate peg box. Since I had used new technology

to help out with the key box, I decided to try my hand at carving a peg box figurehead. George the jester head was carved out of a block of Cherry. The tailpiece was made from

cherry also. The pegs are rosewood and the crank handle is made from Tasmanian horizontal scrub. Once the Guitar gurdy was all together I strung it with gut strings and away George and I went. It took 6 months to adjust him to a playable state. There are quite a few crucial distances to allow for when setting up. The tangents need 5 mm clearance from the string to stops the string buzzing on any tangent while it is vibrating. The chanter bridge should be no more than 15 mm from the wheel, otherwise the string pressure against the wheel is too hard to control. It is preferable to have a chanter string length of 300 – 350 mm so that standard gut violin and viola strings can then be used. The wheel should be between 12-18 mm in width while the body depth sets the diameter. George’s wheel is 125 mm diameter. A 190 mm diameter wheel would be ideal for 4 drones and two to three chanters. This hurdy gurdy has been a great prototype for me and I’ve learnt a great deal about the instrument. Over the last 2 years I have added sympathetic strings, which are tuned 1 octave above the drones. They add fullness to the sound of the instrument. I have also added automatic string lifters to each string. The drone lifters are made from “pilot” brand retractable ballpoint pens. The ink cartridges are replaced with brass rod tipped with a small wooden pad that presses onto the string. When the pen button is pressed once, it pushes the wooden pad onto the string, lifting it just clear of the wheel. When pressed a second time it retracts the wooden pad and replaces the string against the wheel. The chanter strings are lifted clear of the wheel by turning cams that sit under each string. These make tuning easier by allowing the player to lift all strings off the wheel except the one being tuned. It also allows for dynamics while playing. The chanters are currently tuned an octave apart, which adds a sharp quality to the melody. I can also change between chanters while playing.

melody. I can also change between chanters while playing. Showing bridges, string lifters, wheel & relative

Showing bridges, string lifters, wheel & relative overall size

The Hurdy Gurdy also has a percussive element, a floating bridge called the dog on one of the drones. It rattles against the soundboard when the wheel is accelerated while turning. This lets the player beat out a rhythm. The original dog bridge was Blackwood, which gave in after a few months. I now have a range of bridges that produce different sounds. Some are made from cherry and others from European beech. I can change these bridges to vary the percussive volume. All other bridges are made from European beech and are glued to the soundboard. Unlike the violin family, the bridges are glued so they won’t be lifted off or bumped from underneath by the turning of the wheel.

The finished Hurdy Gurdy Lute back Hurdy Gurdy Plan (extract) I’m in the process of

The finished Hurdy Gurdy

The finished Hurdy Gurdy Lute back Hurdy Gurdy Plan (extract) I’m in the process of making

Lute back Hurdy Gurdy Plan (extract)

I’m in the process of making another Hurdy Gurdy from an old Oud. This version will be a very large lute backed Gurdy. I have a system to play simple chords by adding another row of tangents and keys that move independently to the others. This allows two melody notes to be played at the same time. I have drawn up plans for this lute backed Hurdy Gurdy (See plan extract above) and a Symphonie (mediaeval box shaped Hurdy Gurdy). In the interest of expanding the knowledge base of this beautifully bizarre instrument,

I’m happy to share these plans. Contact me for hurdy gurdy information and/or a free .pdf file at 1056 Halls Track Rd, Pelverata, Tasmania 7150. ph:0362