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Ok, so, imagine you had a one-stringed violin, except that rather than press your fingers on the string, you used a lever, kinda like a whammy bar. Does anybody know of such an instrument? Otherwise, there's a possibility I'll end up making one.

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    A washtub bass. It does have some limitations.
    – user16935
    Commented Dec 31, 2016 at 21:23
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    Seems like you could use a guitar slide and a regular violin with one string on it ... not sure why though :P
    – user28
    Commented Dec 31, 2016 at 23:09
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    Did you try Hurdy-gurdy?
    – teodozjan
    Commented Jan 1, 2017 at 0:14
  • Something like a pedal steel guitar, with knee levers, and a bowed string?
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 1, 2017 at 13:07
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    Why not rather make something similar to an Erhu? Also a violin-like instrument without fingerboard, but still better controllable in pitch. Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 15:18

6 Answers 6

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As pointed out, a washtub bass is what you are thinking of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washtub_bass

Though the most common way to play it is to pluck the string, I have seen it played with a cello bow. The sound difference is instead of a steady thump, you get a cello like sound, but with a more primitive rattle.

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  • Where do you go to see this instrument performed? Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 22:47
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    It was on PBS 40 years ago. I was a kid so I have no info beyond that. Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 23:18
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Made one!

It's...pretty rough. And I don't have a bow. And it's harder to control than I hoped. And you guys are right; it only has about an octave of feasible range. But! It does kinda work, and science has been done. Thanks for your inputs.

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    Hey, I recognize the melody. That's not that easy. Congrats. Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 11:29
  • You could add a second string, thinner than the first to make higher notes. Physics should tell you how much thinner you need to play an octave higher. Congrats on making your vision. I do similar things with stained glass...I envision the image, then make it. I also do other things, like I am making chainmail designer clothes. (For the prototypes, I am doing butted chain because it is faster, but once I prove the concept, riveted for anything that is available to the public.) Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 22:13
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You seem to be talking about a Brownie Bass: a wooden box with a thick neck, similar in size to an upright bass. The single string is fastened at the butt, passes over a bridge, and the other end is attached to a cam at the top of the neck. The cam is rotated by a short lever. As the cam rotates, the string is stretched, changing the pitch. If you use a regular upright bass string, you can get about an octave and a half out of the string. It can be plucked or bowed. The advantage of a Brownie bass is that the tone is clearer than a washtub bass, but requires lots more work to construct, though nowhere near as much work as building a bass viol, a project better left to a professional luthier. I've seen and heard a Brownie bass, but never personally built or played one. I play a washtub bass.

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Many years ago I built a one-stringed instrument which didn't have a whammy bar, but similar: you pressed the string down in a trough between two glass rods at the top of the neck, thus changing its pitch.

While fun, it had severe limitations: the useable range was only about an octave, it was very difficult to control the intonation (especially at the bottom of its range) and the string had much less tension at the bottom (a fourth that of an octave higher), making it weak. But don't let me discourage you.

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The crychord is a single-stringed instrument used by composer Harry Partch (1901-1974). The website harrypartch.com says the crychord was invented by "a student at the University of Illinois". The instrument has a single string whose pitch is adjusted with a lever, but rather than being played with a bow, the string is hit with a stick (although I don't see why it couldn't be plucked or bowed).

There are photos of crychords here (harrypartch.com) and here (bbc.co.uk).

And a video where you can see one being played here (youtube.com).

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Nyckelharpa, the Norwegian keyed violin, fits the bill (although it does have multiple strings).

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