What is this?*


I recently found this strange instrument at a church rummage sale. I was asked by the people selling it what it is, and I had to admit that I had no idea. I bought it so that I could photograph it and ask the www the same question. So here is a description of "it" plus some photographs.


A photo of the instrument is at the left. To see a more detailed version of the photo, just click on the picture. The instrument in consideration resembles a banjo in the sense that it has a skin stretched over a bowl of some kind. However, it resembles a fiddle in the sense that it has a bow. The skin appears to be a piece of suede rather than a piece of rawhide as is normally used for a banjo head. It is pegged onto the bowl using wooden pegs instead of tacks or nails.

The thing has only a single string, which is tied to the tailpiece on one end and to a single peg on the peghead side. The peg goes through the peghead straight up from the bottom. There is no nut.

The bridge is a very strange triangular device which has a single hole through it at the peak. The bridge stands 1 1/4 inches off of the head, and the string itself is one inch up where it goes through the hole. This makes for a very high action overall.

The peghead sports a decorative carving of a horse's head (or perhaps it is a jackass, which may be appropriate for the purchaser of this thing). The neck has incised carvings which appear to be fret position markers, however when trying to play the instrument, the markings are irrelevant to any scale that I can find.

The string appears to be some sort of gut since it has frayed at the tailpiece end and is made of several twisted fibers. It could also be a synthetic as well; I am no expert on strings.

There is a bow with this. The bow also has a single string which is (oddly) tightened with a peg similar to the peg in the peghead. You can see the button end of that peg in the photo.


The entire instrument appears to be carved from a single piece of wood, as you can see in the photo at the right. It has some rather intricate, but not well done, carving all over the back of the bowl. The wood looks a bit like olive wood or pecan, but I really do not know what kind it is.

In this image, you can see the back of the horsehead carving on the peghead and the peg that goes through the peghead for tuning the string.

The bow is also turned over in this photo so you can see the end of the tightening peg where it goes through the handle.

If you look very closely at the enlarged image, you can barely see some of the wooden pegs that hold on the head. This head is really just tacked in place, and it is not stretched tightly as is normal with a banjo. The sound when played is very muted.

I have included some closeup photos of the various parts of the instrument below. Once again, the images on this page are small for a quicker download. Click on any of the images to see a larger version of it.



The back of the bowl.


The front of the bowl.


The peghead.

Just for fun, and to provide a sense of the shape of the bowl, I have created some 3 dimensional images of the instrument. The images below are small to make it easier to view them with the naked eye, so they do not have more detailed counterparts like the others. If you do not know how to view 3-D images with just your eyes, see the instructions on my page, How To View My 3d Images


Top 3D
The top.


The bottom.

That is about all I know of this strange instrument. I am thinking that it is some sort of a home-made attempt done by someone who had a lot of time on his hands and very little knowlege of musical instruments. It may also be one of those wall hangings from the far east... just a decoration that is really musically irrelevant.

If I ever figure out what this is, I will post the answer back on this page.

*I did find out what the instrument is. It is a gusle, also sometimes spelled "gusla". It is an ancient instrument from the Balkan Peninsula which is used to accompany a singer, called a "guslar", who sings epic poems about battles etc. You can read more about it by searching the internet for the term "gusle". Here are a couple of links to start you off.




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Last updated April 19, 2009