Northern folklore instruments

An important part of folklore practice is the instrumental music. In folklore – performer, instrument and melody intertwine together as one. People’s love for folklore instrumental melodies was reiterated many times in old history documents. There were prominent master musicians in every settlement. They were very well respected. There were no celebrations without them performing. They were desired and needed guests at folklore dances, table celebrations, weddings, and folklore gatherings.

Bulgarians used different types of instruments since ancient times. Masters who make the instruments give them their spirit and make them more humanly. Folklore playing is performed mostly by men. Most popular is single performing, but when done in groups a timbre quality is being pursued.

Bulgarian folklore musical instruments are very diverse. They are divided in three main groups – wind instruments, stringed instruments and percussion instruments. In Northern folklore region most popular are: Sheppard’s pipe, wooden pipe (duduk), Sheppard’s whistle, ocarina, bagpipe, and fiddle/rebec.



Sheppard’s pipe is a wind folklore instrument. It roots go way back in history and it is popular among other Slavs. In Bulgaria the Sheppard’s pipe is very popular in settlements along the Danube River. The Sheppard’s pipe is the emblem of the Bulgarian folklore music and traditionally it is being played at weddings, funerals, folklore gatherings, tables, folklore dances, and during sheppard’s trade. People’s poetry describes it as “brazen”, “silver” and “golden” Sheppard’s pipe.

Sheppard’s pipe is a wooden pipe with holes at both ends and it has a cut opening (nozzle). Tone is created when blowing air in the opening of the nozzle. While playing, Sheppard’s pipe must be held in a half way tilted on the side position. Sheppard’s pipes are made of hardwood – cornel tree, cherry tree, maple tree, and plum tree. Sheppard’s pipes are crafted by the musicians themselves or master-craftsmen (the most skilful ones are from Dryanovo and Gabrovo).

Sheppard’s pipes have different lengths which defines their types. In Bulgaria there are two major types – ednostavni (with one part) and tristavni (consists of three three parts, which are inserted one into another) Sheppard’s pipes. Tristavniqt Sheppard’s pipe is composed of three tubes put together. First tube has no finger holes. It has a sharp edge in the upper end which is used as a nozzle. There are eight finger holes in the middle tube – seven holes on the front side and one hole on the back side for the thumb. The last tube I shorter and it has four non-finger holes. They are called “devil’s holes” and they define the heights and the strength of the main tone of the Sheppard’s pipe.

Sheppard’s pipes could be in low, middle and high pitch. The main tones are composed by blocking all holes. Sheppard’s pipe has a soft tone and technically it is quite flexible; it has a variety of expressive powers. Lower and middle registers are the most used ones. In comparison to other folklore wind instruments, Sheppard’s pipe has a broad tone volume – two and a half octaves.

The broad technical capacity of the instrument is expressed in both the fast folklore dance melodies and the slow ones, borrowed from folklore songs, ornamented with smooth melodic line.

Sheppard’s pipe is usually played as a solo instrument, but it could be used as an accompaniment of vocal performance or combined with other folklore instruments.

Prominent Sheppar’s pipe performers are: Dosyo Milkov, Mustafa Saliev, Shtilian Tihov, Dinyo Vasilv, Dinyo Zhekov, Dragan Karapchanski, Todor Prashanov, Dobri Milev, Matiu Dobrev, Lyuben Dosev, Krastyo Dimov, Dancho Radulov, Georgi Kehayov, Stanil Payakov, Nikola Ganchev, Stoyan Velichkov, Dimitar Dinev, Tsvyatko Blagoev, Nikolaj Doktorov, Nedyalko Nedyalkov, Ivan Bogoev, Kostadin Genchev, Teodosiy Spasov.



Sheppard’s whistle (tsafara) is popular only in the Northern region. It is open at both ends cylindrical pipe, made by single-piece of wood. It is ednostavna with sharp edged nozzle and it makes sound the same way as Sheppard’s pipe does. Tone is created when blowing air in the opening of the nozzle. Sheppard’s whistle is twice as short as Sheppard’s pipe (around 24-30 cm). You learn how to play Sheppard’s whistle before you learn how to play Sheppard’s pipe because it is easier.

Sheppard’s whistle has seven finger holes – six at the front side and one at the back side. While playing, Sheppard’s whistle must be held in a half way tilted on the side position, just like Sheppard’s pipe. Tone volume is comparatively broad – two octaves. It has a sharp sounding tone. The high tessitura and the sharper sounding cause the use of Sheppard’s whistle mainly as a solo instrument in home conditions. It is played by sheppards who may craft it themselves.



Wooden pipe is popular mainly in Northwest and Middle West Bulgaria. It is a closed at the bottom end pipe. It produces sounds by blowing it lightly. Little Wooden pipes are ednostavni, usually with six finger holes located in the bottom half of the pipe on the front side. Large Wooden pipes usually are tristavni, with six finger holes on the front side and one hole on the back side in the middle tube. On the last tube there are four sounding board holes. Unlike Sheppard’s pipe, Wooden pipe has three tubes and the upper one has a whistle nozzle and insertion plug limiting the air flow which creates comparatively weak tone. The tone in the low register is weak and light, in the middle register – a bit attainable and bright, and in the high register the tone is sharp and squeaky. Wooden pipes vary in size.

Wooden pipe has a relatively broad tone volume, but smaller than the one of Sheppard’s pipe (two octaves). Wooden pipe could perform fast folklore dance melodies and greatly ornamented slow sheppard’s tunes. Playing could be sometimes accompanied by weaker or stronger snuffle made by the performer which he or she makes with his or her throat. That creates a special kind of two-voiced playing. Wooden pipe is mainly a solo instrument, but it could be used in ensembles as well.



Ocarina is not a typical Bulgarian instrument, but because of its easy crafting it became widely popular in the whole country and especially in Northwest Bulgaria. It is a clay wind instrument with oval form and nozzle division; its length is 12-15 centimeters. It is made in different shapes. The head-of-goose shape is very popular.

On the front side of Ocarina there are eight finger holes and on the back side there are three finger holes. Tone volume is one octave. Ocarina’s tone is pleasant, different than those of other Bulgarian folklore instruments. Timbre in the low register is warm and soft, and in the high register it is squeaky and sharp. It is played mainly as a solo instrument but it is often used in a duo with a whistle, Sheppard’s pipe, fiddle/rebec, or dvoyanka (double flute).



Bagpipe is the most popular folklore instrument in Bulgaria right after Sheppard’s pipe and fiddle/rebec. It is known under different names to many peoples in Asia, Africa, and Europe. It roots could be traced to antiquity. In Bulgaria it is popular in almost all ethnographic regions. The best Bagpipe schools are in South Bulgaria (Thrace and Strandzha) and in Northeast Bulgaria (Ludogorie and Dobrudzha).

Bagpipe is wind instrument which tone is created by the air pressure of the bag on the cane tune called piskun. It is made of mouthpiece, bag, hubs, and drones (ruchilo and gaydunitsa). The drones and the mouthpiece are wooden tubes. The bag is made of kid skin. Gaydunitsa (drone) is ednostavna tube with eight finger holes –seven on the front side and one on the back side for the thumb. Where the upper part connects with the bag is put the piskun – cut along cane tune. The tone depends on the drone (gaydunitsa). Ruchilo (drone) is a woolden tube made of three intertwined tubes. It creates just a single bass chant tone and at the top end it has a piskun (cane tune) too. Ruchilo (drone) is longer than gaydunitsa (drone), but it has no finger holes. The mouthpiece is the shortest tube, a bit cone shaped, and it used to get the air inside the bag. The bag is an air container. While playing it is filled with air through the mouthpiece and the left armpit pressures the air to gaydunitsa andruchilo (the drones). This allows the performer to sing and play simultaneously. The hubs connect gaydunitsa, ruchilo (the drones), and the mouthpiece to the bag. Bagpipe plays two voices: gaydunitsa (drone) plays the melody and ruchilo (drone) delivers constant plain tone - bass chant tone.

Depending on the size, Bagpipes have two main types. The big “kaba” bagpipe in low pitch is popular mainly in the Rhodopes, it has softer timbre and low melodiousness. The small “dzhura” bagpipe in high pitch is popular in the Northern region, it has sharper and squeaky timbre, which makes it unsuitable for accompaniment, but it is often played in accompaniment of drum.

Bagpipe’s tone volume is relatively limited – a bit more than octave. The tone is powerful and it cannot be influenced by dynamic shades. Bagpipe has many quantities in terms of rhythm, ornamenting and speed. Due to its disruptive sharp timbre and powerful sound, the bagpipe is played at squares, weddings, folklore dances, fairs, grape-gatherings, kuker (mummer) games, and fire-dancer games.

In Bulgaria the bagpipe is played as a solo instrument, but they could be used for accompaniment to folklore singers (especially in the Rhodpoes region, sometimes even using two or more bagpipes), it may be played as a part of orchestra composed of folklore instruments such as Sheppard’s pipes, fiddles/rebecs, tambourines, etc. Bagpipe plays slow and folklore dance melodies.



Fiddle/Rebec is the most popular stringed musical instrument in the Northern region. In Middle North Bulgaria it is popular in the Balkan regions – Gabrovo, Sevlievo, and some settlements around Veliko Tarnovo. Fiddle/Rebec is an old Slavic instrument. In the past the bear-trainer use to play fiddle/rebec to bears so they danced.

Fiddle/rebec is a part of the stringed bow-shaped musical instruments. The sound is made byrubbing the hair of the bow on the strings. The body of the fiddle/rebec is hollow resonance box made out of solid pear-shaped tree. The body is covered by resonance board. At the bottom end there are two symmetrical oval resonance holes and the trembling air goes through them. On the resonance board, between the two sound holes, there is an attached “chair” (donkey), which elevates the strings above the resonance board. In the upper end it is supported by a loose stick (dushichka), which goes through the one sound hole and reaches the bottom part of the body. It delivers the vibrations of the strings to the body. Fiddle/rebec’s neck is relatively short and the upper side ends with the shape of a pear leaf or heart, called “head”, which has holes for the keys.

Fillde/rebec’s number of strings is not fixed, but the most popular ones are the three-stringed fiddles/rebecs (in Dobrudzha) and the four-stringed fiddles/rebecs (in Thrace, Balkans and West Bulgaria). The Three-stringed fiddles/rebecs have three pitches, one of which is typical for the northern region. In the northern pitch with strings la-la-mi, the melody is played mainly on the first and the third string, and the second one has a lying tone (a tone that sounds a long time without stopping). Some fiddles/rebecs have additional strings called “glashnitsi” which are situated under the other strings so they can resonate. Fiddle/rebecs strings are made of skin or metal, situated in a step-like fashion. In the one end they are attached to tailpiece and in the other end they are attached to the keys. While playing the fiddle/rebec is in a half standing position. It has no fingerboard. Performer’s fingers do not touch the string itself, like with other instruments, but they touch the neck as finger’s phalanx leans lightly over the string and touches it on the side with the nail. This creates the specific snuffing timbre of the instrument. It is played with a long shaped bow. When switching from one string to another string the surface of bow movement does not change, but the instrument itself moves. The tone volume of fiddle/rebec is relatively wide.

Fiddle/rebec is played as an accompaniment of vocal performances. In these cases its “melody” contains a lying tone which becomes livelier in the end of the vocal melody. It is common that performers sing and play simultaneously. Fiddle/rebec is played as a solo instrument, usually for folklore dances with or without an accompaniment of other instruments. When the performer plays a solo, he or she often plays vocal melodies which lyrics he or she sings to himself or herself. The vocal melody is usually simplified, but its instrumental version often is decorated with different musical ornaments and turns, according to the abilities of the performer. Fiddle/rebec can play fast folklore dance melodies, but the slow melodies are in the spirit of the slow folklore song.

Prominent Bulgarian fiddle/rebec performers are: Mincho Nedyalkov, Yanko Petrov, Atanas Valchev, Mihail Marinov, Neno Ivanov, Hristo Kasiytov, Dimitar Lavchev, Angel Dobrev, Georgi Petrov, Nikolay Petrov, Rosen Genkov, Peycho Peev, Darinka Tsekova.