Playing Techniques

The art of the playing technique for any instrument should always go hand in hand with learning an instrument. So in this page we will take a look at techniques that can be used for playing the Lyre; but do be aware this is not a "How to Play the Anglo Saxon Lyre" in anyway whatsoever.

There are various ways of creating interesting music from the little you have to work with. You have just 5, 6 or 7 strings and with those you will want to convey everything that you can and one way is by varying the approach to playing. These can be in various ways:

  1. The way you play the strings. e.g. plucked or strummed, the use of harmonics etcetera.
  2. The patterns you use to create the ideas.
  3. The way you hold the instrument.
  4. The ways of playing more than one note at a time.

It can be a very interesting performance if you mix some of these, they only add to the beauty you are creating in your music.

1: Approaching the Strings (the way you play the strings)

How you decide to play your instrument is again totally up to you to decide. Below are a few suggestions of playing techniques that will enhance your performances and your developing techniques. Mix them and the performance really comes alive.

1: Plucking

Plucking the strings is the most common form of performance and is really the very basics of playing the Lyre. You hold your hand very much at 45 degrees to the string and rest your finger tips on each of the strings that start the piece. There is very little pressure required or involved in playing the Lyre so don't over do it. By pulling the string and releasing, the string will vibrate and the pitch sounded. This sounds basic but without your smooth interaction between each note then there is no real music, just stop start sounds.

2: Strumming

Strumming is where you bring either the thumb or forefinger into play. The thumb or finger is drawn over the strings to create a rhythmic pattern very much like that created when playing a guitar. Various strings can be stopped creating a melody if you so desire. Some players like to use a plectrum of some type. Some make a wooden one to be more authentic and there is good evidence that these type of plectrums were commonly used. They were usually attached by a thin length of leather to the bridge so that the plectrum was not lost. Some players use guitar plectrums and I personally use a light gauge one, or sometimes a very soft Baglama/Saz plectrum but these are difficult to get hold of unless you buy them direct from Turkey.

3: Blocking

This is a term that is known to have existed in the Saxon times for a particular type of playing and allows very simple chords to be strummed either with a thumb or better still a simple plectrum. I prefer to use either a light guitar plectrum or one of my Saz/Baglama picks that are soft and very pliable.

Blocking is where you actually stop certain of the strings from sounding by placing a finger/s of the left hand on the string/s and allowing the open strings to resonate. It is limited but can be very effective when using open chords.


How this would be done is as follows. The x indicates a blocked string with fingers of the left hand from behind the playing face. I have used my prefered tuning of G A Bb C D E. Strum with the right hand for the first block then do the same once you have moved the fingers for the second block.

There are other strumming chords that are possible, obviously, and these can be experimented with but should be kept to a slow simple pace for ease of getting the position at first. Chords can be played in this manner and if you watch the Michal J King video below he mentions a couple of chords that are possible on the Lyre.

Also the left hand has to be in a strap to allow the instrument to be held in position while the hand is free to block the strings which can be slightly cumbersome.

One of the nicest rhythms and strums is the following. This is using the blocking technique and strumming from the lowest notes upwards. The second is in reverse.

You can combine blocking and strumming in alternating patterns such as the following:

There is always the good old backwards and forwards strumming like a guitar but this doesn’t really sound effective on the lyre unless it is used as an effect with a text and is used to emphasis aggression or anger etc.

Below are two videos on various points of the Lyre but mainly inserted for the blocking and advanced blocking technique but it still covers the basics as well. Thank you to both these people for making such useful videos.

4: Muting

Muting is where a string or strings are stopped from vibrating thus creating gaps in the harmony of the vibrating strings. It is best used when using the blocking technique (a form of muting in its own way) so that only the strings you want to sound are heard.

5: Harmonics

Harmonics are possible on the Lyre but don’t really sound that effective unless practiced for quite a while and then mastered. If they are used on individual notes in an empty space they do sound much more plausible and can be heard much better, but quick successive harmonics are probably best avoided if at all possible. This is due to the fact that the thumb and forefinger have to be in contact with the string at the same time and also that the playing position is closer towards the tuning pegs than normal. Slow harmonics are great though.

At approximately quaver = 60 the harmonics will stand out much better but they can be played at any pulse just as they can be on a full Harp.

So far I have found the Octave, the Double Octave and the Octave Fifth harmonics on all the strings. You will need to master the technique first and then once that is under your mastery and belt then experiment further up each string until you find the next harmonic and so on up each string. The effects from playing these is quite soothing and almost ghostly at times.

Thumb and forefinger on the string. The Thumb plucks and the finger is lifted at the same time creating the harmonic.
Try this little exercise on harmonics. Slowly at first and then each play through slightly faster until you can play it at a good healthy speed.
6: Rasgueado
I am using here a term borrowed from the world of Classical Guitar, particularly from Spanish Flamenco, to describe a technique that I hav
e employed in playing the Lyre occassionally. I find it adds an emphasis to a strumming to enforce or punctuate a beat or a word if performing to a text. It is a type of dragging of the finger nails one after the other across the strings in very quick succession.

Wikipedia states thus:
"The rasgueado is executed using the fingers of the strumming hand in rhythmically precise, and often rapid, strumming patterns. The important characteristic of this strumming style is the fingernail (outer) side of the finger tips (as opposed to their fleshy inner side) is also used, and in such case, in reverse of the way it is done when the fleshy side of the finger tips is used, namely downward (index, middle, ring and little finger) and upward (thumb)."

Another definition is from the Oxford Living English Dictionary:
The act of sweeping the strings of a guitar with the fingertips; rhythmically complex percussive strumming characteristic of flamenco guitar-playing.


In the Guitar world whole books have been written on the technique and how to master it, but for our purposes it is the technique of dragging each individual finger (nail first) across the string in turn in very quick succession creating an aural delay technique. It is an effextive and useful technique to have at your disposal for certain effects and emphasis. There is no easy way to show this in photographs so here is a guitar video that may just help you understand the technique much better than me blurbing on confusedly.

Yes it is for the guitar but the concept and the basic technique is the same.

2: Patterns:

By patterns I mean the finger patterns that work best on the lyre.

Even though the lyre is quite capable at playing a melody it does actually work best when it is used as an accompanying instrument to the voice or instrument/s and patterns are used to support or emphasise the textual ideas.

It is in a way quite similar to the right hand technique found in guitar playing or any plucked string instrument. The thumb is the dominant digit followed by the rest of the fingers in sequence. Due to this the best patterns begin on the lower strings and rise. It is possible of course to start on the top string with your weaker fingers but this will give a weak beat to the feel of the pattern. The best ones I have come across and use a lot are the following patterns. I will use the tuning that is no.1 for these.

No.3 and 5 work particularly well. Always be aware that mixing these in the same expanse of music can get very confusing so set up the pattern and stick with it until you want to change and then stop leave a short pause and then begin the new pattern. Hand and eye coordination can be a bit confusing otherwise.

Other nice patterns:

The other patterns are like miniature themes or motifs that sound good on the Lyre and can be very effective when played fast like most patterning.


One thing to note is that the patterns are in two distinct sound fields. These are very simple and interplay can be, and is, used between them. The two sound fields are as written in Variant of no.2 above. Tritones rule on the Lyre so be aware of this when writing for it.

Reverse Patterns:

Reverse patterns can be very effective. Have a listen to Benjamin Bagby’s performances of Beowulf and you can see how he uses the reverse patterns as punctuations on the text as much as supportive patterns. These are only weaker as they begin with a weak finger the actual effect can be quite engaging.

There are of course many many more patterns that can be used. These are just a basic few that can be used to create interesting effects.

Pluck and pull patterns:

What is meant by this is that two notes are plucked together and then followed by a single pulled note with the thumb or in reverse by a weaker finger. This can be a rather effective technique. There aren’t many of these as there are not many notes.

These again are just a very few of the possibilities so experiment with your own.

3: Holding the Instrument

How you hold the instrument is entirely up to the individual player. Some players don't use a strap, some hold the far arm of the Lyre to play, some have the instrument bolt upright while others play it at 45-90 degrees to the body and play it almost like a guitar. I personally prefer to use a strap that is wrapped round the wrist and held nearly upright.

The advantage of having a strap is that if it is tight enough and positioned just so you then have the capability to do Block and Strum technique easily and also the Double Handed technique which I shall mention in the next section. Using the strap as the main support item on the instrument can be tricky until you are used to it if playing with both hands from the front and the back but it does allow stability and freedom in your playing technique.

The arm hold.
The strap wrapped around the wrist.
4: The Ways of Playing More than One Note at a Time

This is an advanced technique that is well worth mastering and not only looks impressive but sounds very technical and can add to the sound that you are creating by accompanying yourself on the instrument at the same time. It is tantermount to patting your head and rubbing your stomach and t
akes some practice to get the technique correct. This will be a lot easier to those who play instruments such as guitars or keyboards where the hands are doing different things anyway but for those that play woodwind or other instruments it can be a little confusing at first.

For this to work you do need to strap your left wrist into the instrument and make sure that it is tight enough to hold the instrument without the use of your hands or fingers. Do not make the strap too tightaround your wrist or else you are liable to cut off the circulation of blood and .......well your hand may drop off in the end!!!!!!!
Playing with the left hand fingers to create a melody over a right hand accompaniment.
You then can start to play a simple pattern with your right hand. The usual style of playing for the instrument in other words. Once you have this done let go of the left hand holding the arm of the Lyre and try plucking the sixth string then the fourth and then the fifth so that it is in time with the pattern but on every two or three beats, your choice.

This is the main technique of this, once you have mastered it you can start to vary it and make patterns and melodies up of your own. It can be quite a strange feeling being out of control and yet being in full control of what you are playing as this is what you really have to do to create this technique. By learning the pattern so that it becomes natural and second nature this allows you to concentrate solely on your left hand playing and where you want the piece to go.

You can reverse this and play the pattern at the top of teh range and the melody at the bottom but do be aware that the melody may become lost with this version.

A strange but very useful and skillful technique.
In Conclusion
In brief there is no hard and fast rules when it comes to playing the Lyre and pretty much anything seems to go when it comes to getting what you want from the instrument. There are many more smaller techniques also available that will enhance your playing but these I leave to you to discover.
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