It’s dawning on me that I have a fascination with smaller plucked string instruments. Ukuleles, guitaleles, u-bass, travel guitars, child size guitars, mini guitars, mandolins, you get the idea.
I’d love to hear from you some thoughts about what it is that makes these instruments special? My hands aren’t especially small, probably about average, but I appreciate the tight spacing of the fretboard, and the lack of bulk in the body. I like the high-mid register that is almost vocal-like, great for melodies. Sometimes I miss the extra strings when I only have 4 (heck, sometimes I wish I had more strings when I have 6). I love that I can find just as sweet, melancholy, rich deep expression on a small instrument as I can on a large one. I love that these instruments are nearly always affordable and don’t take up a lot of space when not in use. I find pickups tend to make recording easier, but there’s something very couch-able about an acoustic instrument that needs no wires.
Do you have an especially favored small size instrument, or one that you’re keeping an eye on for your wish list? What do you love about it? What is it about these instruments that makes them so fascinating?
I’ve been playing electric bass for fifty years or more, and (mostly) electric guitar for almost as long.
I’ve always had fun with a mandolin if one is around, but never owned one. It’s just too small for my short fat fingers
However, as I approach retirement I’ve been thinking about trying my hand at some Celtic music, something I have long loved to listen to but never got around to playing.
I’m attracted to a family of instruments that have different names and slightly different characteristics, but are closely related enough to casually consider them to be the same.
These are the octave mandolin, cittern or bouzouki. I recently started researching them and found this link, among others, which felt quite helpful:
Great topic, thanks for raising it!
I also like smaller plucked instruments, despite having fairly large hands with long fingers. Mandolin is neat, but I find I prefer playing monophonic parts over chords, to to me the UBass is perfect, as is the MÜB Miezo.
So definitely one plus is portability - it is much easier to bring ukulele with yourself than full size classical guitar plus I personally worry much less about anything happening to it as it cost me 50$.
Another nice perk is that there is not a lot of expectiations connected to it so you can just play to your heart content. Although it would be interesting to see etudes for ukulele or something in that vein
Also a fan of small, low cost, plucky & stringed instruments—partly for their portability and accessibility. There’s an appeal in something cheap and unfussy. It’s like there is less expectation and/or gravitas/hype around them, in an almost freeing way.
I’ll often leave them—a cardboard kit dulcimer, ukulele, thumb piano, janky small electric guitar—laying about the house in obvious places. I can easily reach for one, and they’re not so fancy/precious that they need to be carefully stowed away.
One of my favorite guitars was a cheap Yamaha steel string acoustic, small and loud with bright harmonics, bought second hand and rough around the edges. It went everywhere and rarely needed tuning. I preferred it over an objectively nicer guitar that I kept in a case and was more careful with.
The cardboard dulcimer is charming, with really old strings that sound brittle and thin, and easy to tune to chords. It can be struck or strummed, and sounds badly good.
It’s true my ¾/kid size classical guitar is usually the one I pick up because it’s lying around close to hand, but the funny thing I’ve noticed is that while it sounds objectively ‘worse’ than the nice guitars in the house when played together, played solo it always sounds great to me.
I finally got around this holiday to breathing new life into that guitar’s little sibling, my childhood guitar (which I realized is even smaller – coincidentally they’re the same maker, same era):
Really looking forward to putting strings on it.
I’ve been tempted to get a Baritone Ukulele. It is tuned the same as the top four strings of a guitar so I could carry over some knowledge. I’ve tried playing soprano and tenor ukuleles, but they’re too small to be comfortable for me.
I totally understand what you mean, this is part of the reason why I want to try playing one
The thread title made me think of this: Acoustic Laptops with Origami Boe « N.K.
I don’t think a bouzouki can be considered small compared to a mandolin. The neck is way too long.
Also, contrary to what that link says, the long neck of the instrument is a clear indication that its main purpose was melody, and not accompaniment.
Yes! I have a growing obsession with small plucky instuments too, here are mine.
I’ve a lovely Martin 000-15m which is far too nice to leave lying around the house but since having my little boy I’ve been wanting to encourage him to explore instuments more and have got a tongue drum, kalimba, glock and then from left to right a guitarlele, lyre harp and then ukulele.(grid for size reference)
I think I am also drawn to portability and pick up and play aspect of small instuments, it couples well with Norns and Grid for transportability too.
I also like the higher register of smaller instuments like these for pitching down once recorded to tape, gives a really nice sound (to my ears anyways)
I wasn’t suggesting that a bouzouki is as small as a mandolin
However it’s definitely smaller than a guitar or bass, which is my point of comparison.
Anyway, that family of instruments share general characteristics that might be interesting to the mandolin-inclined…
what i like most with plucked instruments is that it is relatively easy to do the physical modelling implementation of it in code.
I definitely agree with this though I wouldn’t have described it the same way. I bought my son a baritone ukulele just because the size was about right but after playing it for a while I realised that it was a perfect sweet spot for size and tuning. It didn’t take anew tuning system to learn but it lends itself to great open chord voicings and a new playing style. I search for an electric so hat I could use it live (after failing to successfully use piezos on his) and came up with this. I have used it live a few times and really enjoy its size for easily bringing along msg as a sound source and not necessarily a guitar based performance. So yeah I guess this is what I love about all plucky instruments - voicings, simplicity, portability and a new approach to something I’m already familiar with.
Edit to add that it’s the “pluck” I love too. Much like pings and lpgs - the attack/decay is always sweet. Having said that I love doing volume swells on guitars hence the large knobs I swapped onto the one pictured above
3 yrs ago a very dear friend made some tiny unplayable guitars that were meant to be decorations, but I couldn’t help myself and took these pics with one of them
…later I hooked a few of them up to a bare conductive touchboard and actually did use the steel strings for contact points to “play” them. below are a few of the others he made