The oldest string instruments

By | April 3, 2021

String instruments probably exist before the written word, but historical evidence from ancient Egypt and Sumer shows that they were already common in 3000 BC. Homer, author of ‘Iliad’, mentions lyres and zithers in his writings, and grave artifacts have proved that string instruments are widely used in Egypt by the pharaohs. The first string instrument was probably a form of harp, from which eventually developed such instruments as violin, guitar and piano.


Raised harps with three to 10 strings have been played across Africa, Asia and Europe for at least 5,000 years. It is believed that the very first uses of the harp would follow oral traditions and stories passed on to members of a culture or tribe. The first harps were played vertically, often while kneeling. Harps had advanced in the year 2000 BC. to the point where many models were handheld. Framed instruments such as the Celtic harp began to appear around 1000 AD.

Rebec Fiddle

The Rebec fig, the forerunner of instruments such as the violin and cello, was the first instrument to be played with a bow. Rebec probably evolved from an early Arabic instrument called the rebab. It occurred in Europe during the early Middle Ages, generally had three strings and was carved out of a single block of wood. Chaucer wrote about rebec in his ‘Canterbury Tales’, which refers to the instrument as a ‘ribibel’.


The slope, probably an improvement on the Arabic al-ut that occurred in about 2000 BC. popular until the 18th century. The slope was of great musical importance in that it was used as a solo instrument, with compositions written to specifically complement its sound. Handel and Bach integrated both lutes in their compositions in the 18th century.

Psaltery The Psalter, still used in modern times in Ozark and Appalachian folk music, is a trapezoidal instrument that probably originated in the Middle East. Each string of a psalteri plays only one note, and the strings can be played either with a bow or plucked with the feathers. The Psalter, though hand-held, is considered to be the first forerunner of the harpsichord.