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Some Traditional Vietnamese Instruments

Some Traditional Vietnamese Instruments

by Andy DePaule

Originally published in American Lutherie #74, 2003 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Seven, 2015

Most of the traditional Vietnamese instruments are like other instruments found all over Asia. For instance, the dan tran is like a Japanese koto but has sixteen steel strings and is smaller. The dan ty ba is similar to the Chinese pipa. The dan nguyet, or moon lute, looks a bit like a banjo, but has a wood top and sounds like a nylon string guitar. They bend the strings between the high frets. And the dan tam thap luc is their version of a hammered dulcimer.

But the dan bau, my favorite instrument, is unique to Vietnam. Its one steel string is tuned slack and runs from the small bridge at the lower portion of the face to a bell-shaped piece of rosewood (hollow and turned on a lathe) attached to a “whammy bar” made from black buffalo horn. It is played by palming the harmonic points of the string while picking, then bending up or down to achieve desired notes, as well as to get special effects. The best players also use the whammy bar to raise or lower the note to another pitch prior to picking the string. The resulting music is much like the sound of our pedal steel guitar, my favorite American instrument. In the past, the dan bau was an acoustic instrument, but now it is available with an electric pickup, a simple spool over a magnet that has been wound with fine copper wire.

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