Unusual British Folk Instruments

Updated April 11, 2017

Folk music in the British Isles--England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland--has a deep and rich history. By definition, folk music is passed between generations as an oral tradition, and is rarely written down. British folk music has survived in some of its oldest forms to the early 21st century--a variety of unusual folk instruments have been used to make this music across the ages. Some of these instruments remain popular today, while others have fallen into obscurity.


The crwth (pronounced to rhyme with "truth") is a bowed instrument with a violin neck attached to a box-shaped body. Originating in Wales, the crwth has six gut strings that are strung across a fretless fingerboard and traditionally tuned in pairs in upper and lower octaves on the notes G, C and D. The crwth was once popular across Europe, but now is relatively rare and only played by folk instrument specialists.


Bones are a folk instrument made of cow ribs that are held and rattled together in the hand. This technique is similar to that used in the U.S. tradition of "playing the spoons" by rattling a pair of spoons together. Bones are traditional in both Britain and Ireland, and may consist of animal bones or an alternative material--such as wood--which emulates the bones' clacking sound. When animal bones are used, large ribs and the bones of the lower leg are considered to produce the best sound.

English Guitar

Also known as a cittern, the English guitar enjoyed popularity in the 18th century as a drawing-room instrument. This small stringed instrument is similar in construction to the lute, although its straight sides and flat back are characteristics shared with the guitar family. The English guitar has a curved fingerboard and metal strings, which are played with the musician's fingertips. Originating in England, the English guitar was popular in other places, such as France and Virginia, and was also made in countries other than England, according to Monticello Explorer. The construction of the Portuguese guitar is almost identical to that of the English guitar.

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About the Author

Jae Allen has been a writer since 1999, with articles published in "The Hub," "Innocent Words" and "Rhythm." She has worked as a medical writer, paralegal, veterinary assistant, stage manager, session musician, ghostwriter and university professor. Allen specializes in travel, health/fitness, animals and other topics.