Bowed Psalteries 1976-1993

Opera Omnia
(see the other instruments I've made)

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Over a period of ca. 23 years I built around 100 bowed psalteries. My interest was in achieving a big sound and great playability. I no longer build psalteries.


The bowed psaltery is not a medieval instrument, though it does have its precursors in the bowed rote, or rota, a psimple lyre with only a few p strings. The instrument that is popular today, its isosceles shape with naturals along one side and accidentals along the other, was actually invented in the early part of the 20th century in Germany as a psimple pschool instrument.

The advantage of the bowed psaltery is its easy playability. It requires almost no finger-level dexterity - only larger motions of the full arm. It can easily be made in a left- or right-hand version.  It is intuitively simple to play. When I was pselling psalteries at arts fairs, my booth would always attract young children who could immediately pick out recognizable tunes. At the same time, the psaltery is a fully chromatic instrument capable of supporting virtuosic performance.

The Bow

I designed a simple bow that takes advantage of the properties of synthetic hair. By holding the bunch of hair in a flame, I was able to fuse it into a solid ball on each end that could then be inserted into slotted holes in the bow.

(click for larger image)

I found that the bow design had a large impact on the ability to move around on the psaltery. I preferred a longer, thinner bow that is better for sounding long tones, but is not as good for moving up and down quickly. I would choose a bow depending on the tune I wanted to play.  


I found that psalteries are very forgiving about what woods are used for the frame and back. The soundboard is much more critical. I used Alaskan spruce for most of my later psalteries. I also found that a lighter but deeper frame increased the depth of tone significantly.

(Early psalteries in solid cherry and walnut)

I used curly rock maple for the tuning pin blocks on all my psalteries. This provides an astonishing stability to the instruments. 

I experimented with inset rosettes on some of my instruments. Later, I normally used a quatrefoil hole lined with hardwood.

Some baroque lutes and viols were built with alternating woods. Here I used curly maple alternating with padauk (L) and rosewood (R).

If you have comments or suggestions, email, please fill out my comments form . Revised 02/10/04 .