(Last Updated - October 21, 2003)

This page has been graciously translated into Belarussian by Bodhan Zograf!

Since originally writing this page, I've gotten a lot of nice feedback, and have done a bit to the actual instrument. I have been quite impressed with the number of people who actually have attempted to create their own instruments, and have been glad to see this page has been useful. People also have informed me that the original dark background with light text was unprintable, so I have dropped the background and switched the text to simple black, so that those who want to print this out may do so more readily.

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I have been playing medieval and renaissance music for several years now, and was seeking to create a sound that was closer to the original than my present performance. Presently I am playing the majority our repetoire of mostly renaissance dance music on violin, which while both period in instrument and application of the instrument (the violin appeared sometime between 1540 and 1560 - but that's another discussion altogether), it was not really appropriate for a substantial portion of the music we played which predated the appearance of the violin. One of the violin's precursors was the rebec (the other probably being the lyra di bracchio via the viola di bracchio, also another point of discussion which I'm not going to go into here), if not in morphology at least in usage as an upper range melody instrument played for dance music, among other applications, so it seemed to me logically that I should try to add that instrument to the pile I lug around. (As a side note, I've now (Nov. 2001) acquired a 4 string vielle from the Early Music Shop in London, made by Marco Salerno, which I've been playing more often as its more period than the violin, and louder than the rebec.) So I made a search for a rebec, and discovered that 1.) they are far from easy to find, and 2.) once found, they are very expensive. Not having the funds to acquire one from a master luthier (who seem to be the only ones who make them) and not able to find a kit of any kind anywhere, I turned to the prospect of making one myself. To do so, I needed to learn a lot more about the instrument, and took the opportunity to learn more of its history and usage in the process. These discoveries, along with the results of the project, I now pass on to all interested parties.


Like all good medieval things, the rebec's origins can be traced to the middle east. Around the middle to the end of the ninth century AD, there are several discussions of an instrument called a rabab (there are many spelling of this word, but I'm using the simpler, more modern spelling) in the Arabic lands. Unfortunately, no physical examples of the instrument have survived to the present, and early Islam forbade depictions of the real world, so the only existing contemporary evidence is literary. Happily, the literary evidence does give us some very detailed descriptions of the form and method of playing the instrument. Ibn Khaldun writes in Muqaddimah ("Introduction to History") a passage describing an instrument called the rabab, which was bowed by a string rubbed with resin attached to a bent shaft, which was drawn across the strings. He describes the left hand as being used to stop the strongs to create different pitches while the right hand manipulates the bow. Al-Farabi gives a full description in his Kitah al-musiqi al-kabir, written around 900 AD. Here he describes the rabab as similar in shape to the tumbur, having a long narrow neck with a pear shaped body. Strings were attached to an end pin and had tunable pegs at the other end. The rabab had no frets, in contrast to the tumbur. It was played upright on the lap, with the instrument facing away from the player, the left hand stopping the strings and the right hand working a bow. It was strung with two strings, sometimes doubled in courses. "Folk" instruments were tuned in thirds or augmented fourths, while "consort" instruments were tuned to an established pattern of fifths. Jerome of Moravia also comments on the rabab and its tuning, and likewise notes that the strings were tuned in fifths. Ibn Sina in his Kitah al-Shifa, written around 1000 AD also discusses the instrument, as does his student Ibn Zaila in a later text. Later evidence tells us that the instruments were made with a dried gourd body, a tightened skin soundboard and a wooden neck. The preferred string material was twisted silk, though dried gut was also used.

By the 11th century, the instrument had found its way into Byzantium and Spain, where its morphology changed but little. The Byzantine instrument that we have illustrated evidence for was held point up, like the Arabic style, though the bow was long and flat, as opposed to curved (though that may simply be an attempt at perspective) [Fig.1] . The Spanish one was more like the Arabic version. Though, as always, we are dealing with pictoral evidence that is always suspect, and artists' details may be only minimally trusted without some other corraberation. The images depicted in these cases are definitely "rabab-like" while the details may be of question. The earliest Spanish example is from the Catalan psalter, ca. 1050 AD. [Fig.2] This instrument is being tuned, in the picture, and shows the characteristic shape and short curved bow that characterize the rabab, but also shows one of the changes that occured as the instrument moved into Europe - a change in the number of the strings. The Byzantine example shows definitively only two strings, but contemporary texts note that this new instrument had anywhere from 2-3, sometimes in courses (upto 6 strings), a note that the Spanish example demonstrates by having clearly three strings.

With the coming of the crusades, the instrument finds itself spreading over Europe - into Spain, France and Germany by the middle of the 11th Century, and into England and the rest of Europe by 1100 or so. The Europeans do not significantly change the form of the instrument. It still retains the pear-shaped body, the long neck, with the strings anchored on an end pin at one end and pegs on the other. Several changes did occur, however. First, the number of strings settled on 3 (or 6) instead of 2 (or 4). The instrument was more regularly made of wood rather than gourd or skin (generally true of all eastern stringed imports), and the method of playing shifted from the vertical lap position to a more horizontal position at the shoulder, much like the modern violin. The Spanish example from the Catalan psalter shows this position already, so it seems to have developed very early on in European usage.

In its early history, the rebec was seen as a court instrument (thus several depictions of Kings playing the instrument, or minstrels playing for the biblical King David). Bowed instruments of any kind were very popular in the 11th-13th centuries in royal society, and whole groups were maintained by the courts in various regions, such as Alfonso the Wise in Castile, and Manfred of Hohenstaufen in Sicily. Having musicians was a sign of status and wealth, a tradition carried into the 14th century by the rising burghars and "middle class" who often employed minstrels as part of their households. During the 13th century, fiddles were invited into the church as part of the musical presentation of the services, as mentioned by John of Salisbury in Honorius Augustodeinensis, St. Francis of Assisi, and Johann Aegidius Zamorensis and others. Its ability to play quick and lively notes made a natural match for the evolving quick melodies of dance. It was played either as a solitary instrument, as accompaniment to singing, or in consort with other instruments (how it is most often depicted). The instrument thrived through the 14th century as a primary stringed instrument until the development of the competing vielles and fiddles, which were fretted bowed instruments, easier to play as the musician did not have to be as accurate with his or her finger placement. By the fifteenth century its appeal in the courtly classes was diminishing, and it was regarded as a rustic instrument, suitable mostly for peasant dances. Bellefoiere and Banquet du boys refer to it as a "rustic" instrument, with a sound too harsh and sharp for gentler ears. Its high, sharp voice contrasted strongly with the low mellow tones of the court favored bowed strings of the time, and it slowly faded from the musical scene. However it was not without proponents. King Charles VIII of France twice pays for its playing - 1483 account mentions him paying 30 sol to a man who played the rebec, and in 1490 money was given to Raymond Monnet - rebec player. Also, see the exceptionally elaborately carved German example below. It saw brief life in the 16th century as a dance instrument. Henry the VIII in 1526 counted three rebecs amongst his "state band" and the King of France kept two "rebec-players to the King" - Lancelot Levasseur in 1523-1535 and Jehan Cavalier in 1559. Agricola in 1528 even mentions that the rebec had (as many instruments of the day) branched out into a full family of soprano, alto, tenor and even bass which he called "kleine Geigen oline Bunde (or little fiddles without frets)". But its fate as a true melody instrument was sealed by mid-century with the appearance of the violin, which slowly supplanted all other bowed stringed instruments. Toward the end of the 16th century, the rebec was wholly regarded as a plebian instrument, fit only for public streets and taverns. "Dry as a rebec" became a popular deragatory comment. By the end of the 17th century, the rebec had fallen from respect. A 1628 Parisian ordinance forbade violins in the public houses, allowing only rebecs. A similar ordinance over a century later from Guignon in 1742 resticts the "amusement of the people in the streets and the public houses" to the "three stringed rebec" and especially forbade the playing of the noble four stringed violin. By that point the rebec is totally gone from recorded music, and for the most part forgotten save as an interesting footnote in Chaucer. It survives briefly into the late 18th and early 19th centuries as the "kit" violin, but it would be difficult to prove that the "kit" or "pocket fiddle" was really a rebec and not but simplified violin, or possibly a hybrid of the two.


Unfortunately, there are no existing examples of a complete medieval or renaissance rebec (the one surviving example, the Venus Rebec below, doesn't have any of the setup surviving, so is only minimally useful), so the only evidence we have for its form and appearance comes from textual descriptions and pictures and carvings from the time. As mentioned above, the pictoral evidence is suspect, so it is always to be judged with care. It is mentioned in the period literature that most often the musicians made their own instruments, and not very often from a very set pattern, so there are as many distinct forms of the instrument as their were musicians playing them, but a few specifics can be determined from the texts and from the images. I have here assembled a number of images and will provide both generalizations of the whole and specific comments on each as a means of investigating both the fixed and changing aspects of the instrument.

Several points of the instrument do remain the same over its several century history. The basic pear body shape, with a flat soundboard and rounded back, does not change. The neck is narrow, and blends more or less seamlessly into the body. There are three strings, which are affixed at one end either to a endpin or a fixed bridge, and at the other to tunable pegs, though examples are represented that show only two or as many as four. The instrument is bowed, though the exact shape of that bow changes over time. Over its history, the pegbox changes from a flat, spade or disc shaped solid piece through which the pegs were vertically mounted, to an angled back scrolled box which had the pegs thrust through laterally, as in a modern violin. The instrument also had a tailpiece, a bridge and a fingerboard, though the presence and form of these elements seemed to vary a large degree by individual depiction. The instrument was small (at least as the soprano original form), never more than maybe two feet long, and the bowl of the body was relatively shallow.

Dealing with the variable characteristics, I will examine the individual depictions here presented. These obviously are not EVERY depiction of the instrument in existance, but do serve a fairly comprehensive survey of the different types. They are presented in chronilogical order,

Fig 1: Byzantine, ivory casket c.1000 (from Museo Nazionale, Florence, Coll. Carrand, No.26) - earliest depiction of a rebec like instrument. Has pear shaped body blending into long narrow neck. There is a definite anchorpoint at the base, with a kind of fleur tailpiece, though the pegs appear to be missing from the depiction (no other anchorpoint is clearly indicated). There are only two strings, and the bow is very long and narrow (though it may simply be the artist trying the show that the bow is perpendicular to the surface of the strings, thus appearing flat when viewed edge on). No sound holes are shown, the soundboard seems to be a distinct, attached piece (possibly a skin covering much like in rababs). This is the instrument in transition.
Fig 2: Spanish, Catalan Psalter, c.1050. ("King David and musicians tuning their instruments" in Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, MS Lat. 11550, fol. 7v)- Shows a normal pear body shape. Three distinct strings, attached to a triangular tailpiece at the base, and to vertically mounted pegs at the other end. The pegbox is a round disk that appears to be made of the same piece as the neck/body, suggesting that this is a unibody construction. Again a little endpiece or endpeg is indicated. There are two round sound holes set far back on the instrument. The bow is a simple curved bow with end pressure grip (see below). This image is also somewhat suspect from the distortion of the left hand, which has the fingers curling backwards rather than forward as they actually must.
Fig 3: French, Gradual of Nevers c.1060 ("Musician dancing, with legend Consonancia cuncta musica" from Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, MS. lat.9449 Fol.34v). Here we have four strings and four pegs set into a diamond shaped flat pegbox. Again there are two round soundholes, though they appear to have slightly cusped edges almost like rosettes. They are placed farther up the soundboard than on the previous image. There is a definitive triangular tailpiece much like before. There is also a line seeming to indicate that this instrument had a fingerboard that extended the length of the neck. The bow also is quite similar, though it appears to have an ornate endpiece by the grip.
Fig 4: Italian, Fresco in the crypt of San Urbano alla Caffarella, near Rome. Executed in 1011. Shows several variations. First, the soundholes are facing 'S' shaped almost as on a modern violin, though they are most likely incorrectly drawn very far up on the soundboard. The strings appear to be attached to a fixed bridge rather than to a tailpiece/endpeg construction, though there are the customary three strings. The pegbox construction is impossible to make out. The bow is normally shaped, but rather short.
Fig 5: German (Rhineland), bible codex c.1070 ("King David with musicians" in Graflich Schonbornsche Bibliothek, Pommersfelden, Cod. 2777, fol.I). This one has less of seamless line between body and neck. Tailpiece construction seems to be as normal, but there is also a definite bridge present. Three strings (though only two pegs), ending in a circular flat pegbox. The soundholes are centered roughly on the soundboard, semi-circular in shape, with the bridge centered between them. Either this instrument has a fingerboard, or the neck is made of a separate piece added onto the body - it is difficult to determine specifically from the image. The bow appears normal.
Fig 6: Southern English, "Tiberius" Psalter, c.1050 ("Musician from King David's suite" in British Museum, London, Cotton MS.Tib.C.VI, fol. 30v). - This one seems to be a hybrid from the Catalan Psalter and the Gradual of Nevers. There are four strings like the Nevers image, with four corresponding pegs in the flat circular pegbox which appears to be carved from the same piece as the rest of the instrument. The small triangular tailpiece with the small round sound-holes set far back on the soundboard recall the Catalan Psalter image. The bow appears as normal.
Fig 7: English (Canterbury), Passionale of Augustine c.1100 (detail of initial T from British Museum, London, MS Arundel 91, fol.218v). Normal in most aspects. Three strings, pear shaped body merging into the long neck. Pegbox is flat and diamond shaped and appears to be part of same piece as body and neck. Tailpiece is present. Soundholes are semi-circular and centered roughly on the soundboard. No indication of fingerboard or bridge. Bow is normal.
Fig 8: German (Marchiennes) 12th Century ("King David with Musicians" detail from Initial B, in the Bibliotheque municipale, Douai, MS. 250 fol.2v). Singular body construction, pegbox flat and circular, three strings attached to pegs and normal triangular tailpiece. Soundholes are semi-circular and centered roughly on soundboard. No indication of fingerboard or bridge. Bow has extended handle and is incorrectly shown running UNDERNEATH the strings.
Fig 9: English, Psalter, c.1125-1150 (St. John's College Library, Cambridge, MS B.18, fol.I.). Normal singular body construction, flat trefoil shaped pegbox housing the ends of the three strings. Has definite tailpiece (though very long), with noticeable bridge set very close to tailpiece. Soundholes are semi-circular, and while centered on the soundboard, are still set behind the bridge and the end of the tailpiece. Bow is normal.
Fig 10: French, detail from the tympanum above the main church door at the Church of St. Pierre in Moissac c.1120 - This interesting sculpture shows two instruments next to each other of differing design, yet both are readily recognizable as rebecs. The left instrument shows a longish body that tapers to a point at the tail. There is a tailpiece, three strings (or five strings arranged in 3 courses), a flat diamond shaped pegbox with three pegs (actually it appears, as someone noted, that there WERE five pegs two on either side of the pentagon close to the fingerboard, and one in the center apex - three are clearly visible, one is half broken (at the apex) and one is entirely broken off), and two small round soundholes set about mid-way down the soundboard. The other instrument is longer in body shape with a stubbier neck. There are three strings, but the pegbox is cicular rather than angular, and the sound holes are the inward facing "C" shape rather than merely round holes. The only remaining bit of bow in on the face of the left instrument, which shows the standard tip of a bow being drawn across the strings. The king's right hand is properly positioned and set to hold the other end of the bow, but the other parts of it have broken off and are lost to us. NOTE: the instruments here "appear" to be flat, like a guitar or fiddle, but that seems to be more an indication of the bas relief style of the sculpture than a true depiction of the nature of the instrument. Note the flatness in the depiction of the folds of cloth.
Fig 11: French, detail from the tympanum above the main church door at the Church of St. Pierre in Moissac c.1120 - This very nicely detailed sculpture reveals a number of fine points about this version of the instrument - sharing the same sculpture set as the figure above. The three courses of strings (the lower two are doubled) are clearly indicated. The tailpiece is elaborately carved and easily recognizable, as is the loop of chord (gut) that connects it to the endpin in the tail of the body. The pegbox is the familiar diamond shape, with three pegs cleanly indicated, and the remnants of two additionally evident. There is even evidence of a fingerboard, with a slight curve to it, demonstrated just about where the neck meets the body. Also present is a bridge, situated closely to the tail piece. The soundholes are an unusual squiggle shape that might be a reflection of the stonecarver's fancy, or might be an elaborate instrument (the carving on the tailpiece, and the knob accent on the pegbox hint at the latter). They are centered fairly closely on the bridge of the instrument in the center of the soundboard. Again the instrument looks kind of flat backed, but again I think that is more the sculptor's style of representation than a reflection on the nature of the instrument. No bow is depicted.
Fig 11A: French, 12th century, King David on the Capital of a pillar in the Cathedral of Vienne. A good three-dimensional view of the instrument, though positioned in an impossible playing seat. Shows simple pear shape, rounded body with the neck significantly thinner than the body. This sculpture suggests a very shallow body (not a full half-circle depth), though again that could be the constraints of the stonework. Still, the other details are very fine, and I'd be tempted to say this does indeed portray a shallow bodied instrument. The peghead is diamond shaped, the sound holes are the open C shapes turned inward. This instrument has a bridge which the strings literally run over, and a slightly oddly shaped tailpiece - sort of like a butterfly perpendicular to the string. It is placed relatively far from the end of the instrument, and would thus suggest a floating tailpiece. There is a long end-loop running to a peg (not visible from this angle). There appear to be three strings, and apparantly three pegs in the peghead but some wear on the peghead makes it difficult to say with absolute certainty. Still, a nice form of the instrument.
Fig 11B: From the Baptistry in Parma Cathedral, Parma, Italy, sculpted by Bennedeto Antelami, ca.1180. Still retains some of the original coloring! A nice rebec player, showing decent playing position. The instrument is pear shaped, with disk-shaped pegbox. It has a tailpiece, though does not appear to have a separately attached fingerboard. There are four distinct strings (as opposed to the more normal three), and the sound holes are simple half circle C's turned inward. The body is a shallow bowl. Overall a good type model. The bow is a simple arc.
Fig 12: French, 1200-1250 ("King David with musicians" Initial B from Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, MS 76E II (formerly y 421), fol. 2r.). A manuscript illumination that shows several instruments including this rebec. This rebec has the normal pear shaped body, if a little elongated. There are three strings, attached clearly to a decorated tailpiece and to three pegs set into a diamond shaped flat pegbox. The soundholes are "C" shaped, facing inward, and are centered roughly on the soundboard. There appear to be two inlay pieces set into the soundboard toward the neck, a decoration not before seen. No other details are able to be determined regarding fingerboard or bridge (neither appears). The bow is standard.
Fig 13: French, Lambertus Treatise, 13th Century ("King David with Musicians" in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, MS. lat.6755(2), fol. Av). This oblong instrument shows three strings but five pegs in its disc-shaped pegbox. Their is a decorated tailpiece, and a definitive bridge indicated, situated in the center of two semi-circularly soundholes (facing "inward"). A fingerboard is also indicated toward the neck. Odd is the small black triangle appearing across the strings mid-way between the bridge and fingerboard. Not quite sure what this is supposed to be - prehaps a third soundhole, or perhaps a strange representation of the end of a fingerboard (former seems more likely). Bow has a rather elaborate handle, but otherwise is rather standard.
Fig 13A: English, early 12th century. (Details from a miniature from the glossed psalter manuscript in the Bibliotheque Municipale at Lunel, MS.I, fol.6). This is an interesting instrument. I'm not quite sure whether I'd classify it as a rebec or as an oval fiddle. Both at this point were constructed out of a unibody (one piece body and neck), though the lines of the rebec are smoother. This appears to be somewhere inbetween. It does have a marked tailpiece with endloop and endpeg. There is a definite fingerboard that is raised off the neck. There is a broad trefoil peghead. Soundholes are the common half-circle C's turned inward. The reason I think this might be a fiddle rather than a rebec is the number and configuration of the strings. There appear to be five strings. Four progress normally over the fingerboard, with one outlying string (called a bourbon), that is usually played either gathered with the bow as a drone, or plucked with the thumb of the left hand and allowed to resonate as a drone. Bourbons were very common on early fiddles, but rare or non-existant on rebecs. I included this image for two reasons. First to show that the floating tailpiece and raised fingerboard did exist distinctly at this early a period. And second to show an instrument that demonstrates that the lines between rebec and fiddle might be rather blurred. The distinction between the two, especially as early as the start of the 12th century, when bowed instruments were just appearing in much of Europe, might be artificially imposed by our later ages. The other interesting thing in this image is the bow, with its marked three strings, apparantly tensioned by the right hand.

Fig 14: From De Musica de Boethius - 14th century (?) addition to a 10th century manuscript ("Minstrel, with the legend 'Nicolo da la viola fiorentino'" - in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, Italy, Cod.C. 128, Inf., Plate 3a.). This rebec is standardly pear-shaped, with three strings leading to three pegs in the disc-shaped pegbox. There is evidence of a fingerboard (apparantly made of a different wood than the soundboard). The tailpiece is long and "T" shaped, and appears to be fixed directly to the soundboard (no evidence of a endpeg and cord, though this might be an artistic oversite). The "3" shaped soundholes are facing inward, and are set back toward the tail, behind the start of the strings from the long tailpiece. The bow is very interesting. It shows a lack of a hard curve, more a gentle one with a front "hook" much as in a modern bow. The handle end of the bow also shows a frog (the small square under the rod of the bow to which the hairs of the bow are attached), also a quite modern feature.
Fig 15: English, Great Canterbury Psalter, c.1180-1190 (in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, MS Latin 8846, fol.54v. - note: there are at least two other texts referred to as the "Canterbury Psalter" - but this is the only one found in Paris). An English trio of harp, rebec and fiddle. This instrument is pear shaped with a broad face. Three strings end in three pegs set into a disc shaped pegbox. There is a firm tailpiece, and the soundholes are "C" shaped, facing inward and centered on the soundboard ahead of the tailpiece. The bow is slightly more hooked than in other examples, but otherwise appears normal.
Fig 16: Italian, Venice Psalter, c. 1270 (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, MS Latina I.77, fo.115). This image depicts a rebec player accompanying a singer. The rebec has the characteristic pear shape, with three strings leading to a disc pegbox. There is in indication of some edging on the body (either inlay piping, or a suggestion that the soundboard is set notched into the body, rather than laid wholly on top). There is a tailpiece, which is long and extends to the center of the soundboard. There is also a bridge set close to the tailpiece, and a fingerboard indicated. The soundholes are "C" shaped and face inward at the center of the soundboard, about even with the tailpiece but behind the bridge. The bow appears quite modern, with a hooked end, a frog and handle, and a very narrow space between hair and rod.
Fig 17: English, Tickhill Psalter, c.1303-1313 (from the New York Public Library, MS Spencer 26, fol.17). Has a slightly odd perspective, but otherwise shows a pear-shaped rebec with three strings leading to an open disc-like pegbox. This is the first evidence for an open box with the pegs thrust through horizontally (the knobs of the pegs are just visible at the top) There is a fairly elaborate tailpiece oval in shape. A bridge is clearly indicated with a suggestion that it had "feet" like a modern violin bridge. The double lines at the base of the neck suggest also a fingerboard. The soundholes are "C" shaped, facing inward, and situated just off center on the soundboard forward of the bridge. The bow is typical.
Fig 18: Smithfield Decretals, c.1325-1350 (from the British Library, MS Royal 10.E.iv, fol.71). This slightly distorted illustration shows the later form of the pegbox as a decorated "scroll" - here a horse(?)head - set at almost right angles to the neck of the instrument. Otherwise the instrument has three strings, no noticable tail, a bridge set very far back on the soundboard, and two "S" shaped soundholes centered roughly on the soundboard. The illustration also impossibly has the player fingering the instrument in the bent section (fingering the pegbox). Bow is typical.
Fig 19: Lutrell Psalter, c.1325-1340 (from the British Library, Add. MS 42130, fol.149). This grotesque player shows a nice pear-shaped rebec with a fairly broad neck. The tailpiece is elaborately carved, and the endloop to the endpeg is rather visible, though there is no bridge indicated. Three strings end in two pegs, with two strings seeming to impossibly be attached to one peg (artist problem). This instrument shows the open disc-shaped pegbox with the pegs mounted horizontally through the sides of the box (this illustration does not have them continue entirely across the box, but merely passing through one side). The soundholes are semi-circular, but face outward. The bow is typical. Interestingly, this is a left-handed player...
Fig 20: Bury St. Edmunds rondel window, c.1400, currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This also slightly distorted instrument shows again the late form bent scroll pegbox. The pear shape is typical, and a tailpiece is present. The number of strings varies down the length, starting with three, but only two make it past the bow. There are no soundholes and no pegs in the pegbox, and no indication of a fingerboard or a bridge. Bow has an end hook, but otherwise is typical.
Fig 21: From the room of the Church of St. John in Stamford, 15th century. This sculptured figure plays a pear shaped rebec with three strings. The tailpiece is clearly indicated, as there is a hint of a bridge. The soundholes are harder to discern exactly, though there are appear to be four small circular ones centered around the middle of the soundboard (though that could be the sculptor's way of creating the "S" figure ones and the cut between them has faded...hard to say though). The pegbox has broken off, so it cannot be commented on. The bow is fairly typical.
Fig 22: The Venus Rebec - the only physically surviving rebec of which I am aware. From 15th Century Venice, presently housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Very elaborately carved, with floral patterns on the sides, a large figure of nude Venus on the back, and a man's head on the sickle shaped peg-box. The unusual angular body is probably to accomodate the carving. The soundboard and other setup of the top of the instrument have been lost, so cannot comment on the sound-hole shape, presence of tailpiece or the like, however there were three strings as indicated by the existing three holes. Definitely a courtly instrument, showing that even this late there was still noble interest in the instrument. This was carved entirely out of a single block of pearwood, with the soundbox hollowed out. It probably did not have a great sound, as the high relief carving on the back did not allow for the soundbox to be hollowed very deeply. As a side note, my wife was very happy with the discovery of this piece, as she is an ancient historian whose dissertation/first book was on the origin of Aphrodite (Venus), and she sees this as a merging of her and my interests. I thought it was an amusing synchronism.
Fig 23A/23B: These are two details from paintings by Gerard Davis. The left one from "Virgin among Virgins" dated 1509. The right hand is from "Virgin and Child with Angels". Both were happily suggested by Allen Garvin, whom I thank for the information on. This is now showing the renaissance version of the rebec. Unibody carvings were now less common, in favor of much lighter ribbed instruments (and yes, they are MUCH lighter). The rebec could go either way. The instrument portrayed very realistically on the left falls into that vague category. The body here appears to have straighter sides, and not be as rounded as the earlier forms (Goerge's reproduction (found at EMS-see below)follows this kind of pattern, though his is a unibody). This has simple C soundholes, turned in and placed just high of the bridge. The pegbox is a simple sickle, not fully scrolled. There is a floating tailpiece, a simple arched bridge, and a raised fingerboard (though the ebony inlay only goes down half the length). There are three strings, with three pegs laterally struck throught the pegbox. The bow is a simple arch bow, very short. One possible "unique" aspect here is the potential that the disk/rosette on the fingerboard indicates that the instrument is hollow that far down the instrument - the neck not becoming fully solid until it reaches the ebony inlaid fingerboard. This is impossible to know, of course, but in general rosettes are rarely blind, and usually do indicate a hollow space behind. An interesting playing note - the angel appears to be stopping the low string with his thumb - a technique sometimes described, but rarely clearly illustrated. The other (smaller) picture shows more or less similar characteristics (even to the thumb stopped string). The tailpiece on that instrument is more ornate, and the fingerboard appears to go down the full length of the neck (though interestingly not the full width).
Fig 24: St. Mary's Church in Beverly, 16th Century - this late cheruby fellow shows an odd variant of a rebec. The instrument shape is correct, as is the bow, tail and endpeg, but the strings and pegbox are odd. The strings number five (more typical of a fiddle than a rebec), and the bent-back pegbox resembles that of a lute or a gittern more than any bowed instrument of the time. The instrument has a rounded back, and lacks frets, so it could possibly be called a rebec, but it is a strange version.
Fig 25: A detail from the painting "Allegory of Hearing" by Jan Brueghal, 1618 - image kindly pointed out by Allen Garvin. This shows the final phase of the rebec/poquette. The dance masters by the late 16th century had adopted the violin as the primary melody line instrument, but often violins were either prohibited as wholy "court" instruments, or simply too expensive or bulky. So the lines of the rebec and violin merged back together to generate a small, portable violin-like instrument known variously as a pockette, poquette, or simply "kit". They had a rebec like unibody, often with a small rounded soundbox. Otherwise they were set up like a violin, with tapered tailpiece, raised fingerboard, scrolled pegbox, and four strings. The soundholes are usually ornate F's or C's. This is a good baroque example of the instrument, with ornate C holes and pretty inlaid fingerboard and tailpiece (as was often found on baroque viols and violins). They tended to have a thinner, tinnier sound than the violin, so in a sense they are the direct descendent of the rebec. They persisted until the end of the 18th century.
However, the instrument is not entirely dead, even today. Variations of the rebec are still played in Spain. One helpful person Alfonso Garcia-Oliva informed me a tradition still going on in Cantabria in northern Spain, where the rebec survives as a rustic folk instrument. On the island of Crete (off the coast of Greece in the Mediterranean Sea), the Cretan lyra preserves the tradition in an instrument that is more or less a rebec (pictured to the left, with tunings). Here is a nice article on the Cretan Tradition. Also, the Arabic rabab in its various forms is still of course played throughout North Africa and the Near East.


Body shape: The most common form appears to be pear-shaped, with a rounded body and a narrow neck with a clean merge between the two. Several variants do occur, with the instrument being more oblong, or having a tapered tail or a wider neck, but they appear to be deviations rather than standards.

Pegbox: For the early instruments (up to the 14th century), the standard was to have the "box" as a flat disc or diamond through which the pegs were mounted vertically. Variations on the shape occurs, from pure circles, to angular diamond like forms, to spades or other more elaborate decorative shapes. During the 14th century, the pegbox slab was hollowed out, and the pegs started to be mounted horizontally through the walls of the box. This eventually developed into the bent back scrollbox seen in several of the later versions, often elaborately decorated in a figurative fashion.

Soundholes: The soundholes show a lot of variation, from simple circles cut out of the board to elaborate "S" and squiggle shapes. Most common appears to be semi-circular or "C" shaped, with the open side of the "C" facing inward toward the strings. The position of the soundholes also varied, from close to the tail, to far foward toward the neck, but most often they were fixed fairly close to the center of the soundboard laterally, and spaced more or less evenly between the strings and edge of the soundboard.

Tailpiece: The tailpiece construction consists of a peg thrust through the end of the sound box, to which was attached a cord (gut or similar material) that held a small block of wood to which the strings were anchored. The tailpiece is almost always present, but could serve several functions. In earlier instruments without a bridge, the tailpiece was both anchorpoint for the strings, separating them appropriately, and also served to raise them off the soundboard. This function of setting both the spacing and position of the strings is later served by the bridge. The tailpiece was generally triangular in shape, but could be very elaborately decorated. The length varied from a small endpoint to half of the length of the soundboard, not with any consistancy of time or place, though. Only in very few examples was the tailpiece missing altogether, and that was probably an artist's error.

Bridge: Bridges also appear from almost the beginning, but appear sporadically. Several designs of the tailpiece allowed the tailpiece to function both as tail and bridge, thus eliminating the need for one. Other times the bridge is simply not represented. When the bridge is present, generally it is positioned close to the tail, and appears to be only slightly wider than the width of the strings' spacings. The curvature is impossible to truly comment on based on the images, but several depictions seem to indicate some small curvature present. Some would be necessary in order to play the strings separately, but the depictions are not telling.

Fingerboard: The addition of a fingerboard over the neck also appears fairly early on, but seems to be more often present in later instruments. Generally they seemed to stop at the point of the neck, and not continue over the body as in a modern violin. This supports the notion (in modern commentary) that only first position was used when playing (ie, the hand did not slide up the fingerboard as modern violin players do, but remained in one position during all playing).

Number of strings: Generally three, though a couple of variations go from 2-5 strings. Three is the most common, and seems to be the standard. The illustrations do not suggest that they were doubled, as in some of the later rababs. Note - there is mention in the texts of a "bordunus" or drone string that apparantly existed on some early rebecs (never mentioned past 1300) that was strung off the soundboard. I was unable to locate any pictoral indication of this feature.


As mentioned above, generally the musicians themselves made their own instruments, and thus the number of forms and shapes is about as much as number of individual players. Some texts however did comment on the construction, materials and exact form of the instrument so that a few details can be known.

The main body of the instrument was carved out of a single block of wood. The body, neck, and (earlier on) the pegbox were all fashioned out of a single piece, though when the shape of the pegbox changed to the bent scroll, that was "attached," made from a different piece. The body was hollowed out until it had thin walls, and then a soundboard was affixed over the top to create a resonating chamber. Soundholes were cut through the soundboard, and then the pegs, tail, and, if present, fingerboard and bridge were added onto the instrument. Meister Konrad von Megenberg refers to the construction as always consisting of two parts, the "pauch" and the "poden", or the body and the soundboard. The whole of the body and neck, the pauch, was carved of a single piece of wood to which the soundboard, or poden, was attached. This indicates that the neck and sides were not separate pieces (this was true even of the vielles of the time).

The main block was best made of a hard, non-porous wood to best "hold in the sound." Albertus Magnus in his De Vegetabilis (1206-1280) suggested sycamore or maple, though apricot, walnut, almond and ebony all are mentioned in the various texts. The soundboard needed to be made out of a more porous wood, and be readily able to resonate the sound. The earlier skins of the east were rejected in favor of fir or spruce, as mentioned by Albertus and Konrad von Megenberg's Das Buch der Natur. Konrad also mentions that the instrument has a better and smoother sound if the surfaces of the wood are finished and smooth. Several writers mention varnishes, including a 1440 Turkish treatise suggesting a varnish of powered glass and glue.

The tail and other parts were made of similar hardwoods, often in contrasting colors for appearance's sake. Fingerboards were made of particularly hard woods to resist the constant wear of the rubbing of the strings and fingers on the instrument - one reason for their addition. The bridge could be made of many materials - wood, amber, ivory and bone are all mentioned. Earlier mentions indicate that it was glued to the soundboard - often inserted under the tailpiece as a "lifter." It starts off flatter and ended up more curved, and notches were cut on the upper surface to hold the strings in place.

The strings themselves had a variety of materials. The arabs preferred spun silk strings, as they believed they had a better tone, could endure more tension, and held their tuning well. The Europeans preferred gut strings made from sheep's gut. This enduring argument is made by Amarcius in the 11th Century, Liederhandschrift in the 12th century, the Franciscan Bartholomeus Anglicus in his De Proprietatus Rerum (1230), Hugo con Tromberg in 1280 or so, and John of Trevisa in 1398. The technique for making gut strings is described in great detail in the Secretum Philosophorum (14th century), and I will not repeat it here. A contrasting voice is heard in The Summa Musica of the 13th century noting that metal strings of silver or bronze are superior to gut.

The bow was made of a flexible piece of wood such as yew or birch, and had several strings attached to it. Early on sometimes a single string sufficed. One end of the string was tied to the tip of the bow, with the other end affixed near the other end, leaving a space at the end of the shaft for a handle. Often the player would press on the string to "tighten" the bow to maintain tension. Rosin was rubbed into the string(s) to provide friction between the bow and the strings of the instrument.

The glues used in the construction were "hide" collagen glues, made by bioling down the hides of animals and thinned as necessary. The instruments were sanded smooth, and were apparantly oiled or varnished according to some texts, with these "finishers" being made of anything from glass dust and glue to simple vegetable oils.


The rebec was played up at the chin or chest, with the instrument held horizontally in the left hand, while the right hand drew the bow laterally across the strings. All depictions show this methodology, though one or two reverse the side of the instrument, and this method is described in most of the texts dealing with its playing. The fingers were used to stop the strings, with the players having to master the exact positioning to maintain correct pitch, as the instrument had no frets (note: Mary Remnant, in her article "The Use of Frets on Rebecs and Medieval Fiddles" in Galpin Society Journal argues for the possible existance of tied frets on the rebec based on the representation in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which I mention for completion but don't see as the norm based on all other evidence). Early on it is suggested that the strings be exclusively stopped with the nails to firmly hold the string, though later on the pads of the fingers are also mentioned as a method of stopping the strings (though even 16th Century masters continue to promote usage of the nails).

The sound of the instrument is generally described as high pitched and sharp, sometimes as shrill. Its voice was described like that of a woman's: Aymerie de Payrac speaks of a minstrel who "bowed the rebec as if imitating a female voice." The Archpriest Juan Ruiz de Hita in his Libro de Buen Amor in 1343 comments about the rebec that "con sua alta nota." Tinctoris in De Inventione et Usu Musicae grants the rebec a higher but pleasant tone. Not all agreed with this assessment. In Bellefoiere and the Banquet du boys, the rebec is dismissed as a rustic instrument with a harsh shrill sound. Chaucer's Friar comments that a woman's voice was "shrill lyke a rebekke," and a similar comment in made by John Skelton. Nonetheless, the general sense is that the instrument has a high sounding voice, higher than the contemporary fiddles and viols, which were tuned similarly to modern violas and cellos, and had a soft, mellow sound.

The exact tuning of the strings is more difficult to discern precisely. The rabab is noted consistly in its "classical" form to have its strings tuned to 5ths. Jerome of Moravia notes that these notes are middle C and the G above it. That would give the instrument a fairly high voice, much like the two middle strings of the modern violin (which are D and a). The three stringed variant has two possible tunings mentioned in several sources. Virdung (in 1511) notes the rebec as having three strings tuned in fifths. Agricola's Musica Instrumentalis Deudsch again mentions that the rebec is tuned in 5ths with a bridge allowing the sounding of the strings individually and having no drones. The 1545 edition of Agricola gives these notes as G,D,a - the LOWER three strings of the violin. Gerle's Musica Teusch also describes the instrument as being tuned in 5ths, and that it has no drones, but does not mention any notes. Other sources mention again the notion of 5ths, but provide the notes as D,a,e - the UPPER three strings of the violin. The second tuning set (starting on D) more closely matches the soprano range of other instruments like the recorder and shawm. If the notion that the player did not move out of the first position, the first tuning (starting on G) gives a full note range of G to e, while the second tuning gives a full note range of D to b'. Either is more or less acceptible to the range of period music we have, though the later dance music (Renaissance) would favor the higher tuning to the lower one for the keys that are usually represented. However, it cannot be ruled out that the musicians would simply alter the key of the music to fit the range of the instrument, or simply retuned the instrument.


My attempt at making this instrument will combine authenticity with some practicality regarding available funds and musical needs. I have decided for both historical, aesthetic, and ease of making reasons to use the earlier disc shape of pegbox. I have decided to include both a bridge and a fingerboard, and to use the most common form of soundholes - the "C" shape facing inward. The body will be carved from a block of maple, and the soundboard will be sitka spruce, in fitting with the historically mentioned materials. The tailpiece and fingerboard are to be made from lacewood for its durability and contrast in color (slightly darker and redder than the light maple). I managed to find some instrument makers hide glue in a random hardware store, so that aspect should be rather authentic, and am planning on using only hand tools to make the instrument.

To work out some of the aspects of making the piece, I decided to first make a "test" instrument slightly more than half size, to work out some problems and to try my hand at the carving. I made the body, neck and pegbox out of basswood (quicker to carve). The piece I had was too short to carve the pegbox as one piece, so it had to be added on as an additional piece, something that will NOT occur in the final model (not happy with that joint). The soundboard is made from balsa wood. The "C" holes are turned outwards closer to a violin's structure as an experiment, but I have decided that such leaves the bit the bridge rests on too fragile, so I am going to go back to the idea of using the inward turned "C" shape. The fingerboard, tail, endpeg, and bridge all are carved from black walnut wood to contrast with the body - cheaper for the model than the ebony I would have otherwise used, and definitely easier to find. The body was stained with a wood oil, both for color and sealing the wood, but no varnish was applied. The pegs themselves are from a half-sized violin, and were cheap and easier than carving ones myself, which I will do for the final version. The strings are metal violin strings, unlike the gut strings to be used on the final version. Overall it came out rather well, enough so to encourage me to continue with the "real" version. It produces a rather high, shrill, but pretty loud sound, especially for something made from bass and balsa, though it would require fingers less than half as wide as mine to actually play it as the strings are so short the finger placement is VERY close. Pictures are below:

The Final Version:

I have drawn up the final plans now, modified slightly from the original ones to reflect the knowledge gained from the model. Westwind Woods in Canada is my source of wood, and they have provided me with quite nice pieces, including a rather sweetly resonating soundboard bit of air-dried sitka spruce. Work on that shall presently commence, and I will be taking pictures of the process and the tools, results etc. as I go along to post here. As they get developed, I will share the results with all! These are plans I've drawn up to work from:

Also existing now (in 2001), are drafting plans for the instrument, complete with fine-tuned measurements and the like. This is the smaller version. You may click on it to get a higher-rez printable version, but be warned the file is large - about 900K.

Overal Length 20 5/8 inches
Overall Width 5 1/2 inches
Overall Height 2 3/4 inches
String Length (playable)
Bridge to end of neck
12 3/4 inches
Body Length 9 1/4 inches
Neck Length 8 1/8 inches
Pegbox Length 3 inches
The final size was determined by string length. I already play the violin, and in my laziness did not want to have to relearn my finger positioning, so the string length is exactly the same as that on my violin from the bridge to the pegbox notch, and as such should have similar fingering to the violin. The rest of the body was built around that scale.

First pictures of the final version process are available now:
These are the three pieces of wood from which the instrument shall be made. The top piece is the soundboard chunk, which is air-dried sitka spruce from western Canada. This is the closest approximation I could get to the European spruce that would be the actual wood used on the period instruments. The bridge will probably also be cut from this piece. The large center piece is the nice chunk of maple that will serve as the body and pegbox of the instrument. The lower piece is lacewood (planewood), which will be used for the fingerboard, tail, and pegs.

These are the tools that I will be using. They include two large wood clamps (mostly for holding the soundboard to the body), three small metal clamps (mostly to hold fingerboard to neck), a coping saw (all sawing), a large metal file (for shaping), a small metal file (for fine shaping), six chisels and gouges for shaping the body and parts, a wooden mallet for doing some of the chisel work on the really hard wood, hide glue (all gluing), and a ruler for measuring and straight edges. The second picture shows the "additional" tools. They include the larger saw (which proved necessary for the cutting out of the body), the long flat file (for shaping fingerboard, etc.), the mini-files (for all the small bits), the bigger file, the large straight chisel (which has left its mark on me) and the large curved chisel (for scooping out the bowl).


STEP ONE of the actual construction is the rough shaping of the body of the instrument. This begins by drawing the plan onto the block of maple, as shown here.

Next I took hand saw to wood and began cutting it out. I started out with the coping saw, but that ended up taking literally forever, so I acquired a bigger saw, which I'll add to tool picture set later. Even with the larger saw, hand cutting the wood went at about the rate of one inch in about an hour, as the wood is very hard and dense. As it was it took a really long time to do this portion, but a rough cut out shape finally emerged, and is pictured to the left. Doing this with a power saw would probably have taken a few minutes. By hand, took about 80 or so hours! Using modern tools, another gentleman working on a similar instrument came up with the neat idea of turning the whole body on a lathe, which produces two instruments at one time! This method efficiently cuts out the body and does the rounding of the bowl all in one step! If I decide to make any more of these things, I'll probably do it that way!

STEP TWO: was to round out the outer shape of the instrument. This was again done by hand, using chisels. Again, I found the small chisel that I started out with to be woefully inadequate for the task, and got myself a larger 3/4 inch straight edge chisel, which I used to carve the majority of the body. If you look closely, you might also notice that I rounded off the end of the instrument a little more from the top view. Once I got it about where I wanted it, I decided to start carving out the bowl.

STEP THREE: Carving out the bowl. I wanted to try to get the walls to about 1/8 - 1/4 of an inch thick by the time I was done. I drew out the bowl on the wood, and began hacking it out, making a really big wooden spoon, more or less. Again, I discovered the small chisels that had worked so nicely on the model were too small for this larger version, so I acquired a larger scoop chisel to do this. While doing this, I reshaped the outside of the instrument again, softening the taper more, and thinning out the neck a bit more.

This is the image of the carved out bowl, with the pegbox fully finished shaping. About halfway through carving out the bowl, I discovered that moving the large chunk of the pegbox was getting tiring, so I decided to carve it down a bit more toward its final shape. It was while doing this at about one in the morning that I slipped with my nice newer straight chisel and carved the top of my left thumb to the bone, cutting the extensor tendon. Oops... Two months later, after surgery to re-attach the tendon and close up the wound, and after a couple of weeks of physical therapy to get use of the thumb back, I went back and finished carving out the bowl. And the thumb is all better now, more or less, with a rather large scar on the first joint (see picture below left). I guess I can honestly say now that I made this thing with tears, sweat and blood! I did however, 'cheat' a bit when finishing the pegbox, given my previous problems, and used the dremel to shape out the last bit around base where it meets the neck. A combination of two problems resulted in a slightly different shape for the pegbox. First, I had gauged out a chunk of the lower right corner by accident while working, and needed to remove that corner for asthetic purposes. The second and more relevant problem involved playability. The slow sloping angle of the original pegbox did not let my hand get into proper position to reach the flat/natural first note. I needed more room to slide up the neck and settle in my hand. Therefore, I notched the peghead a bit into a more spade-like shape. That solved the problem nicely, and even looked pretty good. Also, this image more accurately shows the true, really blonde color of the wood than the previous ones.

STEP FOUR: The Soundboard. As previously mentioned, I have a nice piece of spruce which shall become the sound board. First step is to rough cut it out, and thin it down to the proper thickness (about 3/16 inch or so). Here is the rough cut board on top. Below that was the really tough part. I did not have a belt sander, nor did the original people that made these, so I had to thin the plate mostly with files. This was a slow and rather rough process, but I managed to narrow it to a about 3/16ths of an inch. See original thickness and final thickness to the left. After this, the sound holes are carefully placed onto the soundboard (taking into consideration the bridge position and the length of the vibrating portion of the string), and drawn on the back using a paper template so that they match each other exactly. Then I drilled a hole at each end of the 'C' shape, and using the coping saw, rough cut out the holes. The fine tuning for the edges of the sound holes was done with the small files. The last picture shows the completed soundboard.

STEP FOUR: THE FINGERBOARD. This was shaped out of the lacewood chunk. The lacewood is very hard, but very fibrous. It saws much more easily than the really small grained and hard maple of the body, but it also chips and shreads more easily as well, and was rather difficult to work with in that respect. For other people attempting this, I would probably recommend dark walnut as a better alternative. I drew out the rough design on the block and sawed it out (top images). Then with much action of the files (which proved much easier than the chisels or knife) I angled it down and rounded it over. The shaggy grain proved difficult to sand and smooth, but so far it seemed okay.

STEP FIVE: THE SMALL BITS. This includes all the other little pieces - the tail, the end nut, the end peg, and the actual pegs. Here I got a little lazy. I acquired some very attractive rosewood violin pegs and a matching endpeg from a local music store, and am using them instead of making my own, at least for the moment.

Next I fashioned the tail piece from the lacewood block. The next picture does give you a good idea of the grain of that wood. I cut that out with the coping saw and filed it down (I have come to love my files), then carved out the slope and the little notch at the end where it will rest against the soundboard and be tied to the endpeg. .

The end nut (the raised bit at the end of the fingerboard that the strings rest in) was cut out of the lacewood, split to appropriate narrowness with the straight chisel, and then carved down with knife and more files. Note that the grain of the wood for the end nut should go perpendicular to the strings, so that it better resists being cut into by the strings themselves. The nastiest thing to carve was the bridge - its very delicate, and easy to split. Again, the grain of the wood has to go perpendicular to the strings, otherwise their tension could split it. I used the leftover spruce from the soundboard, and cut out a rough rectangle to use for the bridge. It took three tries to carve it down into shape using the drill (to put in the initial holes), the coping saw (to cut the slits) and the mini-files. The first two tries both split apart while trying to make them (the first when trying to cut out the bottom, the second when trying to cut the slits). VERY delicate work, but at least I had enough wood that it wasn't a problem. The final bridge you see here turned out to be a bit too tall - so I carved a fair amount off the top of it (as you'll see below). It also is potentially more complicated than it needed to be. Others making these bridges in a historical fashion tend to use a simple arch bridge, something like this: . It probably would have been a lot easier to make, and if this bridge ever breaks, I'll probably replace it with the simpler variety.

STEP SIX: PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER. The next part is to put the whole thing together. The first step of this was to drill the holes in the body to allow for the endpeg and string pegs to be put in. The end peg hole was rather large, and I was rather scared that it would split the wood and trash all this effort, but everything turned out fine. Next I used the drill to put in the holes for the string pegs. The hard portion of this is that they had to be reamed carefully to the exact angle of the pegs. I discovered that the handle of the long flat file happened to be the same angle, so I used that to ream the pegholes, and it proved to work very well.

All the pieces were now done. I'd added the small drilled holes in the tailpiece and the pegs, and positioned the soundboard and the fingerboard and checked the fit and position. The fingerboard required a small notch be cut into it where it overlapped the fingerboard by about an inch or so, which I filed down. The bridge (as mentioned earlier) and endnut also both proved to be too tall, and I ended up filing them down considerably lower. These are all the pieces laid together roughly as they would go.

Next I glued on the soundboard and the fingerboard. As the back of the instrument is totally rounded off, it presented the problem of how to clamp the pieces onto the body. I chose the solution of placing it on a flat surface and weighting it down lots! It proved effective enough. First I glued on the soundboard, let it dry, then sanded the edges down. Then I glued on the fingerboard (see picture), let that dry, and sanded its edges down and smooth with the body. Then I added the end nut (the little raised bit at the peg end of the fingerboard) and glued and braced it down. The whole thing was then smoothed and sanded down into its final form (see lower picture). The rest of the pieces are held on by the pressure of the strings, so they are not glued on.

STEP SEVEN: Finishing and varnishing. The next part was to add the finishing to the body and parts. The lacewood parts (fingerboard and tail) were simply oiled using a wood sealing oil from the hardware store. As tends to happen, the wood significantly changes color when its oiled. Here the lacewood darkened and reddened, so it is an almost mahogany color. I think its pretty. The body was then treated with a sanding sealer and a spray lacquer obtained from Musicmaker Kits Inc., a very nice group of folks who also provided me with kits for my wooden music stand and mandolin (both of which came out very nicely). The spruce darkened a little bit, but the maple regained its striped sheen, which had kind of dissappeared from the time I started carving it. I think it looks really neat! Once all the oils and lacquers had dried, I then finished off the instrument!


This is the finally finished instrument with the strings put on. The stringing process was done as follows. First, the tail peg was inserted into its hole. Then a thick string of gut was looped around it and threaded through the holes in the narrow end of the tailpiece, and tied off. That was stretched over the end of the soundboard. Next the middle string 'A' was tied into the center hole at the wide end of the tailpiece, and run down the instrument to the small notch cut into the endnut. The end was threaded around the peg, and gently tightened. The same process was repeated for the 'E' and 'D' strings to its right and left respectively. Then I placed the bridge underneath them, centered between the soundholes, and pushed the strings into their notches on the bridge. The strings were then slowly brought up to tension, which much creaking and groaning of the wood (mostly the bridge) that made me very nervous. But in the end, the whole instrument came together, none of the strings snapped (yeah!), none of the wood snapped (bigger yeah!), and the instrument works! Sound files to come soon... The strings are made of gut (sheeps), obtained from a company called Purr'll Gut Strings, to give the instrument a more authentic sound. They are tuned like the three upper strings of the violin, D,a,e. Diameters of the strings are 0.975mm, 0.750mm, and 0.475mm respectively. They produce a softer sound than the standard metal strings on my violin. Other views of the final instrument:

These images were taken very recently. Note how the color in the lacewood has significantly "mellowed" away from the brighter red it used to be into a kind of golden brown. I did encounter one problem almost immediately, however. As the gut stretched, the end loop of gut loosened a lot and the tail started slipping too far forward. Retightening it, the gut string started to carve into the soft wood of the spruce soundboard, and the anchor point of the tail was tauntly buzzing against the soundboard. I did not want to have the soundboard cut in too deeply or cracked by the tail. Also the tail was now positioned at an awkward angle, and the little corner of wood supporting the tension was cracking. So I decided to rework the tail end of the instrument. I carved off the end support (the lifter) at the end of the tail, and decided to have it just "floating" above the soundboard. I then inserted a small tailpiece at the very edge of the instrument to take the tension of the endloop and not have it carve into the soundboard. It also served to lift the now floating tail away from the soundboard. Of course, my first attempt to attach it forgot to take into account the fact that you cannot glue a piece to another varnished piece (duh!), and it immediately broke off. I had to sand off the varnish, so that the wood would be glued to wood, and that worked very well! So this is now how the tail end is set up.

THE BOW: having finished the instrument, I tried to play it with my violin bow. This proved unusally difficult, as even my fairly decent violin bow proved too heavy to use on the instrument without a lot of scratchy noises. I did a fair amount of research into the bow itself, but determined that I didn't feel like making a bow - the materials cost would have approximated the finished cost almost exactly. So I acquired a very nice fixed arch bow from Bernard Ellis (see below for info on Ellis) for a very reasonable price, and it worked very well on the instrument and produced a very nice sound.

SO here is what the true final instrument looks like, with its bow:

And for comparison's sake, here is the rebec next to my violin. This is a 150 year old German 4/4 fiddle modeled after the Stradivarius dimensions. Note the body size of the rebec is much smaller, but the useful string length (from bridge to nut) is almost exactly the same (easier to see on the side view). Also note the difference in the length and shape of the bows.

Here is a sound sample in MP3 format of me playing the rebec. The piece is called Mit Gantzem Willem by Konrad Paumann, dating from the 15th century. In the SCA, this is music used for the basse dance Turin. The file is over 800K, so give it a little time to load. Sound sample: REBEC IN MP3 FORMAT.

And as a final shot of this, this is me (with my wife in her gypsy persona in the background) playing the little rebec at an SCA event last winter.

The next rebec experiment involved the rebec kit now being offered by EMS - this was one of the prototypes. You can see the experience with it here.


A fair number of people have asked me this, so I figured I'd include a brief section on where to get finished instruments, in the event you like the notion of the instrument, but don't feel like venturing into the luthier business yourself! First off, at present I do not plan on making any more of these in the immediate future, so I'm not a viable source of finished instruments :). However, there are several places where you can find them:

To my knowledge at this point, nobody makes a "kit" variety of the rebec. If I ever do get space in my house for a real wood shop, I might eventually do so, but at this point that isn't happening.


Bachmann, Werner. The Origins of Bowing. trans Norma Deane. Oxford University Press: London, 1969. This is the root source for most modern research, and practically everybody cites him. A very good comprehensive study of early string and bowed string instruments.

Remnant, Mary. English Bowed Instruments from Anglo-Saxon to Tudor Times. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1986. Also a very good book for stringed instruments.

Hayes, Gerald. The Viols and other Bowed Instruments. Broude Brothers Ltd: New York, 1969.

Boyden, David. The History of Violin Playing from its Origins to 1761. Oxford University Press: London, 1965.

Bachmann, Alberto. The Encyclopedia of the Violin. De Capo Press: New York, 1966.- don't know if any relation to Werner..

Crane, Frederick. Extant Medieval Musical Instruments. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City, 1972. Obviously nothing on the rebec directly, but mentioned because it does give useful information on what existing instruments we do have in collections around the world.

Two Older and somewhat out of date texts:

Bessaraboff, Nicholas. Ancient Musical Instruments, Boston 1941.

Panum, H. Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages. London, 1939.

And since some people asked, a short list of primary texts describing the instrument:

Johannes de Grocheo. De Musica. circa 1300.

Johannes Tinctoris. De Inventione et Usu Musicae from about 1487.

Sebastian Virdung. Musica getetscht. 1511.

Martin Agricola. Musica instrumentalis deudtsch. 1528.

Michael Praetorius Syntagma Musicum - esp. vol 2: De Organographia and vol 3: Harmonie Universelle. 1618.

There are others, but that should get anybody interested a good start...

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