A Pseduo-Brief Look at Folk Instruments

If you search for “Folk Music” in your preferred music platform, you’ll most likely find a lot of acoustic guitar-driven, singer-songwriter suggestions. Playlists with titles that include descriptions like Roots, Americana & Indie, and Coffeehouse. You’ll probably see artists like John Prine, Brandi Carlile, Mumford & Sons, Jason Isbell, and even Dylan to name a few. While this is a modern interpretation of the genre of Folk, this type of music tradition and the instruments used to make it are much more broad and have a rich history not only among modern recording artists but in the cultures of every part of the world.  

It’s a pretty big undertaking to approach the topic of folk music so I want to just take a brief glance at what characterizes this type of music, what are the types of folk instruments, and how we see (well, hear) it used and played today. 

What is Folk Music?

An easy, fun way to think of folk music is really just the very first version of popular music. Now, yes, this is a very simplistic definition, but I do find it amusing to think of folk songs as the “Top 40” of olden times and yesteryear.

To better explain: folk music harkens back to a time when mostly lower-class, working-type people wanted entertainment of their own. It was the music of the people, for the people. The very term folk music alludes to this. It was the time before music teachers and music schools or universities ruled the landscape and entry points for music and education.

Music that can be characterized as folk is present in communities of people all around the globe. It was a traditional musical art form that was passed down from generation to generation, Often this type of music was simple so that it was accessible to all and wasn’t just composed, played, and enjoyed by the elite of their societies. 

Although folk music might’ve been performed by professionals of the time such as minstrels or troubadours (think of them as the “touring artists” of the time), folk songs could also be enjoyed just among families, friends, and small groups of people. Everyone had something to add, whether a percussion instrument, voice, foot stomp, harmonica, stringed instrument, or the like.

Varied among many different cultures and regions, folk music could change as it was passed down and shared with others, usually not written down or notated, but was most often easy to sing and play on the instruments they had available to them. 


What Are Folk Music Instruments?

Since so many diverse cultures, civilizations, and people-groups have their own forms of musical expressions, folk musical instruments can vary around the world. In their basic form, a folk instrument is characterized as an instrument created by common “folks” usually made of materials such as wood, metal, or other items that can be easily found and accessed. Because these types of musical instruments were not professionally constructed, they can vary in uniformity often making each highly unique, especially compared among modern instruments. 

Folk music instruments are commonly early forms of woodwinds, percussion, and strings. These instruments weren’t built or taught in professional settings like conservatories but passed down through apprenticeships among more rural or isolated people groups who had more limited interaction with the modern world around them and the developing technology. However, this allows for a lot of folk instruments, music, and its players to be quite special. 

homer ledford

For example, the mountain dulcimers built in and around Lexington, KY, in the 1960’s-1980’s were most notably made by a gentleman named Homer Ledford, or someone studying with him. He’s purported to have crafted more than 6,000 instruments in his career, all of them somewhat different from the others. And anyone in the region would have learned from (or influenced) Homer, who likely made his instruments in the fashion of someone who’d come before him and taught him some tricks along the way.  He is also the first person to have termed an instrument known as the “dulcitar” which was a predecessor to the McNally Strumstick.

Many of the most notable traditional instruments used to play folk music are stringed instruments such as different types of acoustic guitars, early versions of the banjo, fiddles, mandolins. Other non-stringed instruments like the accordion, harmonica, differing types of flutes and many percussion and drums were developed. Of the many types of guitars, you find the resonator and different types of dulcimer guitar, like the mountain dulcimer and stick dulcimer, which I am quite fond of – if you hadn’t guessed. 

Folk Music Today

Many of the instruments that can be heard in modern music actually date far back to these first versions of folk musical instruments. Although a lot of folk instruments may seem simple and out of date, they teach us so much of the beautiful simplicity with music. These very ancient art forms have been passed down and continued and evolved into many other types of instruments that we see through the evolution of the dulcimer guitar.

That’s one reason I’ve created the brand new River Dulcimer Model 1 (better name pending). I love the journey the dulcimer has gone on to still be used as an easy to play instrument for all people! Learn more of the river dulcimer "Model 1" now, and go to my YouTube channel for a lot more dulcimer guitar videos.

Would you like to join me on the dulcimer journey? Sign up here to learn more about the Model 1 as it comes into the world!