In addition to the violin and the harp, I play a number of different instruments, butsSince 2007, I have been spending a lot of time in my performances playing the Swedish nyckelharpa and it has become one of my principal instruments. Unusual in the US, it is surprisingly popular in Europe and of course, especially in Sweden. I almost always get a lot of the questions about this unusual instrument and here is a typical Q&A I get when a person encounters the nyckelharpa for the first time:
Q: What is that strange bowed instrument you are playing called?
A: It is called a Nyckelharpa (pronounced somewhere between Nickel-harpa and Newkel-harpa)
The word translates to “keyed fiddle.”
Q: I have never seen anything like it before! Where in the world does it come from? Is it old?
A: It is from Sweden. It’s origins date back to about the 1400s.
Q: Wow - it’s sooo cool! How do you play it?
A: Like a violin, it is bowed. There are 3 rows of keys which are tapped to hit 3 of the strings in different places, thus creating different tones. In other words, each key corresponds to one note. It has 3 chromatic octaves and about the same range as a viola.
Q: But I see more than just 3 strings. What are all those other strings doing?
A: The instrument has a total of 16 strings of which only 4 are played. 3 have keys assigned ot them, but the lowest one is a “drone’ string - i.e., I can play it but itonly has one tone. The other 12, which run underneath the played strings, are “sympathetic strings” and are not played. Rather, they vibrate “sympathetically” creating the nyckelharpa’s distinctive ethereal and otherworldly sound.
Q: Where do you get it? Did you build it? Is it custom made?
Do people still play it in Sweden? How much does it cost? Where can I get one?
A: Please ... one question at a time! No, I did not make and no it is not custom made.
I bought mine in Sweden where it is still played and even somewhat popular nowadays. You can also get yours in Sweden for about $2500-$6000.00 or so (depending the exhange rates, the maker etc ,,.).
Q: How long have you been playing? Where did you learn? Is it hard to play?
A: I have been playing it since the summer of 2007. I taught myself to play, but my prior violin skills made learning a little easier for me. Yes it is hard, but it gets easier with time and practice.
Q: Do you have an album which has you playing the Nyckelharpa on it?
A: Yes. I currently have 3 albums which feature the nyckelharpa: “Two Worlds One” “The Twisting of the Rope” and “The Enchanted Way - The Nyckelharpa Edition”
You can also hear a little of the nyckelharpa on my two Christams albums, “The Sounds of the Season” and “In the Moon of Wintertime.”
If you begin to peruse the internet for the nyckelharpa you will come across a lot more information, websites and youtube videos than you would first imagine; However, here are a few websites to get you started:
The American Nyckelharpa Association
By far the best resource on the internet, you can find just about everything you need to know about this instrument from this website: www.nyckelharpa.org
Leif Alpsjö: Leif is one of the most popular retailers of the nyckelharpa. Although he lives in Sweden, his English is excellent and he always has a nyckelharpa available for sale: www.nyckelharpa.com
Väsen: Is a band/trio of Swedish musicians and Olav Johannson is considered one of the best nyckelharpa players. Some of have called Våsen the “best band in the world.” and whether or not you agree, their music is absolutely great.