After the Folk revival in the 50s, many of the instruments that were a staple for Woody Guthrie, Oscar Brand and Cisco Houston have remained a popular part of the neo-folk landscape in 2022.
Folk instrumentals may sound different under the massive production from artists such as Fleet Foxes, The Lumineers, Bonny Light Horseman and Bon Ivor. Yet, even the most contemporary folk artists haven’t strayed too far from the traditional folk instrumental ensemble.
This article will show plenty more instruments in the archaic folk arsenal than the usual suspects, such as banjos, mandolins, acoustic guitars, and fiddles, and outline a diversified snapshot of folk cultures across the world.
Before you start to understand the different folk instruments, it is important to cognitively contend with how folk music differs from every other genre. Folk is more of a part of our traditional social history than a part of the music world, as we know it today. Historically, and sometimes modernistically, folk music acts as the voice of the people, snapshotting pivotal points of history. In short, a form of sonic storytelling.
The folk genre sprung up independently across America, England, Hawaii, Iceland, Romania, Greece, Sweden, Ukraine, and most other continents with cultural history to share through songs played on easily obtainable instruments.
What Instruments are Used in Folk Music?
If you ever want to understand how integral fiddles are to folk music, consider Irish folk. The word fiddle is often used interchangeably with violins; however, all violins are fiddles, but not all fiddles are violins – it’s the same story with the violin’s smaller cousin, the viola and its lower-pitched and larger cousin, the cello.
The comparatively small 4-stringed instrument goes by many names across different cultures, and it is popular for its accuracy on every note and highly evocative timbre.
There is no twang folksier than the notes from a banjo, which takes the shape of a smaller and more classical guitar and plays with 4 – 5 strings.
Banjos also share tunings with classical guitars while the method of playing them tends to differ, with most banjoists preferring the 5-finger picked style.
- Resonator Guitars
Since its inception in the 1930s, the Dobro brand of resonator guitars has been helping to shape the Americana landscape. Resonator guitars carry a similar structure to standard acoustic guitars. Its key characteristic is its inverted-cone resonator in the body which gives the guitar its robust timbre.
Accordions may not be as popular today as they were back in the 20th-century, especially in the US and the UK. Across Europe in the 1800s, they provided the soundtrack to revolutions in Germany, and their upbeat nature made them the perfect instrument for traditional folk-dance music. Of all the folk instruments, accordions are one of the only ones that appeal to all social classes.
If any folk instrument can take you to a front porch in Tennessee in just a few notes, it is the harmonica. The harmonica may never have been one of the most highly respected music instruments from across the ages. Yet, the pocket-sized instrument was utilised by folk and blues singers alike who used them interchangeably with their vocal cords.
- Acoustic Guitars
Adding acoustic guitars to this list of traditional folk instruments almost feels painfully obvious, but they’ve done well to earn their place by becoming the most popular traditional instrument in the folk genre. The first acoustic guitars were brought to the instrument market in the 1830s by Christian Frederick Martin. For over 180 years, Martin Guitars have been leading the way in acoustic guitar quality, but plenty of other brands made their mark, such as Gretsch, Fender & Gibson.
Mandolins are members of the lute family, which has been planting its seed in folklore since 3100 BC. When the folk revival hit America in the 40s, Mandolins saw a resurgence of popularity, and they often accompanied acoustic guitars and banjos on folk records. Its tuneful and melodious nature was celebrated in folk genres across the globe, especially amongst bluegrass and Americana artists.
Despite appearances, ukuleles are also members of the lute family, which originated in Hawaii. They may not carry much clout in the 2022 music market, being the marmite of instruments, but there’s a lot to be said about the 4-stringed instrument that comes in soprano, concert, tenor and baritone form.
If you want to continue your folk education adventure, check out some of our best folk music blogs. We’ve covered folk artists from across the globe, including the Croatian folk-pop luminary J. R. August, Aberdeen’s Colin Clyne and the Istanbul-born, London-based artist, The Guv.