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Title: Music of the World’s Peoples, Volume 3—Yugoslavia - Epic Song; guslar not identified. Label: Smithsonian Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: F-4506. Track: 17.

Contextual Associations

The gusle is an one-string bowed lute chordophone of the Dinaric Mountains region of Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Hercegovina in the Balkans (southeastern Europe). It is played by male epic singers (guslar) to accompany themselves. Like many gusle, the specimen pictured here is zoomorphic, featuring a horsehead finial (detail #2) and an unidentified animal-head tuning peg (detail #3). Much of the rest of the instrument’s exposed surfaces are covered with fine geometric patterns chip carved into the wood (detail #4 shows the carving on the backside of the resonator). [This gusle is missing its pressure bridge and horsehair bow, and a synthetic string has replaced its original multi-strand horsehair string.] The gusle serves as a symbol of several Balkan national identities.


The spoon-shaped monoxyle string carrier (detail #1), made from a single block of maple, has a hollow resonator covered with a goatskin soundtable (torn and not in playable condition on this instrument) the edge of which has dozens of small holes each of which is stretched over a tiny peg inserted into the outside rim of the resonator (detail #5). Ten small punctures have been made in the middle of the soundtable to serve as soundholes, and four further soundholes are drilled in the middle of the back of the resonator (detail #4). The single string runs from the tuning peg (detail #3) to an integral post at the base of the resonator rim (detail #6). The pressure bridge that would be held in place against the soundboard between the sound holes and the lower edge of the resonator is missing on this instrument. Also missing is the bow, which would be made from bent hardwood and horsehair.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Held vertically but tilted to the left by a seated guslar, the player’s left hand supports the instrument’s neck and the resonator sides are pinched between his knees. The bow is held in the player’s right hand. The string is free-stopped primarily with the left hand index and middle fingers. The guslar is a singer, an instrumentalist, a composer, and a poet who creates in the moment of performance commentary on historical and contemporary issues. The voices of the guslar and the gusle he plays are in heterophonic relationship to one another, producing the same melody in ways particular to each instrument (the voice and the bowed lute). The singer tunes the gusle to the range of his voice, and the songs he creates are generally in a narrow range of a fourth or fifth.


The frequency of horse imagery found on gusle (the specimen pictured here included) suggests it originated with Central Asian nomadic riders who invaded Europe from the 200s through the 800s. (Forry p. 941) Similar instruments and epic singing traditions found throughout the Balkans today, performed in both Muslim and Christian societies, further suggest that the gusle has ancient origins and has proven itself to be adaptable to the expressive needs of the many peoples of the region.

Bibliographic Citations

Bohlman, Philip V., and Nada Petkovic, editors. 2012. Balkan Epic: Song, History, Modernity. in Europa: Ethnomusicologies and Modernities, No. 11. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Forry, Mark. 2000. "Serbia." In Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.8: Europe. ed. Timothy Rice, James Porter, and Chris Goertzen. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 940-956.

Petrovic, Ankica. 2000. "Montenegro." In Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.8: Europe. ed. Timothy Rice, James Porter, and Chris Goertzen. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 957-961.

________. 2000. "Bosnia-Hercegovina." In Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.8: Europe. ed. Timothy Rice, James Porter, and Chris Goertzen. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 962-971.

Rihtman, Cvjetko. 2014. “Gusle.” GDMI v. 2: 515.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Nation: Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Hercegovina

Formation: Serbian, Slav

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.321 chordophone--necked bowl lute: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - integral

Resonator design, chordophone: bowl with membrane soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to tuning peg

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: bowing (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by direct free stopping)


28 in. length of instrument 22 in. length of string (tuning peg to post) 5.8 in. height of tuning peg resonator: 10 in. length 7.9 in. greatest width 2.5 in. depth

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
string - synthetic

Entry Author

Roger Vetter