Topic: Music What should a beginner look out for when buying a hurdy gurdy?


9:19pm, Saturday 24 May 2003

Simon Wascher has written a nice text on buying a hurdy gurdy. I helped him proofread it.

What should a beginner look out for when buying a hurdy gurdy?
(this text also can be found at: )

The following represents my personal opinion, as far as it can be
expressed in writing. The topic is quite controversial as it's about
quality in instrument making, about selling instruments - and about

I tried to compile my personal objective criteria. Instruments which
do not fulfil these criteria are not necessarily bad instruments and
can be seen as the ultimate best in individual cases, but I would not
recommend those to a beginner.

The instrument should have:
1-2 melody-strings
1-2 trompettes, or 1 trompette with a capo to raise its pitch a tone
2 drones

More strings cannot be controlled by a beginner. If an instrument with  
more strings is bought the extra drones and trompette strings shouldn't
be used, extra melody strings be slacked off for the first years (just
enough not to influence the playing pressure for the left hand).

A standard keyboard with all chromatic keys and a range of two full
octaves. That is, 14 keys in the diatonic ('lower') row of keys and 10
keys for the chromatic pitches in the 'upper' row of keys. Traditional
French instruments lack one key in the diatonic row (the seventh in the
second octave) so it's 13 on those. The traditional Hungarian tekerö has
a smaller range.

standard measures:

length of melody-string from sliding nut to bridge:
 - 345 mm (+/- 5 mm)
crank length 65 - 70 mm

For best playability, the keys of both rows should be positioned so that
the divisions of neighbouring chromatic keys are positioned in the
middle of the diatonic keys. Where semitones appear in the diatonic row,
the divisions of the diatonic and chromatic keys should be aligned. Some
traditional keyboard setups do not follow these guidelines which means
that some key combinations are harder to play.

All keys must function and sound well, especially at the high pitches.
Because one needs to learn how to play these high keys well, this should
be tested by an experienced player, or let the seller play those keys
for you. Comments like 'these keys are not used anyway' should make you
very sceptical.

Question all statements by the seller deeply: even buying directly from
a maker does not guarantee a functioning instrument since the
philosophies (authenticity, discount) and opinions about quality vary

And the main reason why instruments are sold second hand is that the
owner was not satisfied with what he had.

Ask for the reasons for the sale and for the price, listen carefully to
the answers and keep asking questions. For example, what exactly is the
difference between the cheaper and the more expensive instruments of a

With prices of less than 1000 Euro I would be very sceptical. There will
be some limitations that one will have to take into account. There are
quite recommendable but also very ugly instruments on the market for
1400 to 1600 Euro. And finally a warning: there is also junk for sale
for 3000 Euro.

Hurdy gurdies should always be bought directly from a maker and not from
distributors, since those have usually no info and support at all. Ask
the seller about included support.

Ask the following questions:

What is the wheel made of?
wrong answer: one piece of solid wood, a plank
right answer: plywood, MDF, plastic, ...

How can I remove the wheel?
wrong answer: 'you never need to', 'you have to remove the top'
right answer: description of the method which can be followed by anyone

Sit down with the instrument on your lap and let the seller fit the belt
around your waist to secure the instrument.

The next step is to lift the wheel cover and the strings from the wheel
(the seller can show you how). Now take the wheel at its sides with your
hand (do not touch the rim) and try to move it left and right, back and
forth and up and down. Then take hold of the axle directly where it   
comes out of the instrument and again try to move it. The wheel and the
axle should not move and should make no noises, knocks, or bumps at all.
This is a test to verify the quality of the bearings to see if they are

Now with the strings still off, turn the wheel with the crank and listen
for any sounds. There should be no bumping, scratching, knocking or
similar noises (these noises can come from defects of the axles or the
knob's bearings).

If there are no strings engaged with the wheel, the drag when turning   
should be very low and equal at all positions of the wheel. If the drag
is strong in general or stronger in certain positions of the wheel: this
needs repair.

Have a close look at the rim of the wheel. Turn it so that you see it's
whole surface and edges. The surface and the edges should look sleek end
even and show no scratches, slots or depressions. The wheel surface   
should be in perfect condition when finished by the maker. The condition
declines from use and from time to time the rim has to be reworked. Do
not belive remarks that the wheel 'has to be played some time' to

You can test if the wheel is truly circular the following way:
Let one melody string touch the wheel (the seller can do this for you)
and then turn the wheel and let the string sound. Observe with a tuner
if the pitch keeps the same or if the pitch goes up and down according
to the turns of the wheel. If these changes of the pitch depend on the
position of the wheel (and thus the handle) this is an indicator that
the wheel is not truly circular and needs work.

The knob should turn freely in your hand: there is a bearing inside the
knob which it turns on. If it does not turn freely, it's damaged. The
size of the knob should be such that if you close your hand around it 
with the thumb touching the index finger, there should still be a gap
between the knob and the hand.

Try to turn the tuning pegs. Naturally you cannot tune the instrument,
but you can find out if the pegs turn smoothly and keep position when
you loosen your grip, or if they jam or jump up.

Let the seller tune the instrument for you: observe if the seller can do
this without trouble, if the pegs can be turned easily and whether they 
stay in position when released. In a good instrument, well made,
adjusted and maintained, friction tuning pegs should be turnable without
an extra tool, a 'tourne-a-gauche (tuning wrench)'.

Let the seller or another person play something for you, both without
trompette and with the trompette. It must always sound nice. Have a look
if the instrument is played with one or two melody-strings: ask that it
is played with two melody strings (without and with trompette). That way
even a beginner can hear if the instrument is well adjusted.

Press any chromatic key and open the lid of the key box. The key should
not interfere with the lid. This would be a construction problem which 
is nasty when you try to tune the chromatic keys.

With instruments with two or more melody strings the tangents (like
frets; the part of the key which touches the string and shortens it to
change the pitch) must touch all melody strings simultaneously. Lay the
instrument flat on a table and put all melody strings 'on' (the seller
can show this to you). Now push all keys gently against the strings and
have a very close look if all tangents really touch both strings.     

If the strings do not touch simultaneously with wooden tangents, this   
means some hours to days of simple but exhausting adjustment. It is
still about an hour of adjustment with metal tangents.

If you have a close look at the tangents also look for wear; heavily
used tangents show notches.

In general as a beginner, one should go for the expertise of an
advanced, possibly professional player. Even if it takes some time to
find such a person, it saves a lot of money and prevents needless
trouble and frustration.

It makes sense to participate at hurdy gurdy classes with a borrowed
instrument as part of the purchase process. One can have first
experiences with the instrument and at these meetings there is a chance
to hear and try a number of instruments by different makers and ask
people's opinions about different hurdy gurdies.

Simon Wascher, Vienna 23Mai03

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