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From the very beginning of civilization, stringed instruments like the lyre have been part of our culture, and people still play them today.
If you picked up lyre, though, what would you use to string it? Can you use guitar strings on a lyre?
While you’re going to be better off with a matched set of strings designed for your instrument, as long as you are careful about matching the string material and tension, there should be no problem using a guitar string on a lyre.
Let’s examine where the lyre came from, how it’s strung, and whether guitar strings are a smart choice for a lyre.
How Do You String A Lyre?
Unless you’re pretty up to speed on historic stringed instruments, you might not be sure what a lyre actually is.
Lyres are stringed instruments of ancient origin that are found around the world. They’re similar to instruments like the harp and the zither.
In general, harps are instruments with the strings perpendicular to the soundboard, while zithers and lyres have strings parallel to their soundboards. Zithers generally have strings anchored to both ends of a soundboard, while lyres stretch the strings across the soundboard to a crossbar that’s supported by a yoke.
Lyres come in a wide range of sizes and styles depending on where they were made. The ancient Greek lyre, one of the most iconic thanks to its appearance on surviving pottery, consisted of a body made from a turtle’s shell with two bars coming out of the shell and acting as a yoke to support a crossbar where the strings are attached.
An animal skin was stretched over the shell to act as the soundboard, making it similar in concept to a modern banjo.
In Europe, wooden lyres were common. They have a similar basic layout to the Greek lyre but use a body either carved from wood or made from bent pieces of wood laminated together to act as the body, which incorporates the yoke arms.
In just about every kind of lyre, though, the strings are attached at the base and at the crossbar, with a bridge near the base to put the strings in the correct position and tuning machines of some kind at the crossbar. Just like in any other stringed instrument, the tuning machines are used to tighten strings to bring them up to pitch.
Lyres come in a wide range of configurations, from seven strings up to 16, with eight strings and 10 strings also common. The number of strings determines both the tuning and the playing style.
In general, lyres are played either like a harp, with individual fingers on both hands plucking strings, or with one hand plucking or strumming and the other muting the strings that aren’t supposed to play.
What Kind Of Strings Do Lyres Use?
Like other stringed instruments, lyres were originally strung with strings made from gut — that is from a material created from the intestines of certain animals. Today, modern lyres can be strung with metal or nylon strings, but there are also genuine gut strings still available and even strings made from sugar cane that are designed to imitate the sound of the ancient unpolished gut strings.
The lyre in this video, which explains how a string is replaced on the instrument, uses those sugar cane based strings.
It’s very important to know which kind of strings the lyre you’re playing is designed to take. Just like in a guitar, the tightened strings put a lot of tension on the instrument.
If you were to put nylon strings on a lyre built for steel strings, you’re not likely to cause a problem, but you might find the sound isn’t what you were expecting. That’s because steel strings put much more tension on the instrument than nylon or gut strings, and so are often more heavily braced.
Nylon strings, with their lower tension, can’t make the soundboard vibrate as much as the higher tension steel strings can, so you won’t get as much volume.
Going in the other direction, that is, putting steel strings on a lyre built to handle gut or nylon strings, could be disastrous. Much like might happen if you put steel strings on a guitar built for gut or nylon strings, you risk serious structural damage.
The damage could happen almost instantly, depending on the condition and construction of the instrument in the first place, or it could happen over time. In either case, though, the end result could be an instrument that needs serious repairs or might even be broken beyond repair.
Can I Use Guitar Strings To Replace A Broken Lyre String?
As I mentioned above, as long as you’re matching material and both string thickness and tension, using a guitar string for a lyre is perfectly fine. That’s because, in general, instrument strings of the same kind of material are basically the same from instrument to instrument.
One difference might be string attachment method. Most guitar strings, for example, use a ball end string, which consists of a metal washer surrounded by a loop made from the end of the string.
Banjo strings and mandolin strings, by contrast, are usually loop end, which, as you might guess, means they only have a loop made from the end of the string. That loop is attached to a hook at the base of the instrument.
Some nylon guitar strings come with a ball end, while others must be tied to the tailpiece.
The way the strings attach to a lyre depends on when it was made, where it was made, and what kind of strings it uses. Many modern lyres designed for steel strings, for example, are designed to take ball end guitar strings.
Modern reproductions of ancient lyres, by contrast, often call for nylon or gut strings and must be tied to the tailpiece.
If you aren’t sure about what you need, it might be worth taking your instrument to a music store and see if an employee can help you choose the right gauge of string.
Just like with many other stringed instruments, the lyre can use a variety of strings, depending on its age, its construction, and where it originated. While that’s common for a lot of instruments similar to the guitar, it’s not always the case (looking at you, bass guitar).
And, just like with most other string instruments, what matters most is the composition of the strings and the tension they’re designed to handle when it comes to choosing strings. Using strings sold as guitar strings is not a problem, as long as they match what the lyre was originally designed to handle.
As we’ve covered before, you can even make your own strings for an instrument, as long as you match both material and tension.
That means it’s never been easier to pick up one of the oldest stringed instruments around and connect with the way music was made in ancient times.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.