Gusle: Traditional Slavic Instrument

Serbian gusle

Have you ever heard about gusle? Do you know anything about it? Do you want to know anything at all about it? 

If your answer is yes, then you are in the right place. If your answer is no, and you’ve ended up on this article by chance, you should really consider the way you use the internet (It’s you, it’s not me!).

Gusle is a big part of art and culture in the Balkan region, so knowing just a little bit about it will give you an immense number of points when speaking with someone from that region (translation: they will like you more).

What Is Gusle?

The gusle is a single-stringed instrument traditionally used in the Slavic countries (most commonly in Serbia, Croatia, and Bulgaria). 

Playing of gusle is always accompanied by singing, specifically singing of the epic poetry. 

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What Is Epic Poetry?

Epic poetry is a narrative poem (a really long one) that talks about the heroic exploits of extraordinary men and women. The first record and probably the most famous epic poem (to date) is the Epic of Gilgamesh [1]. 

Gusle: What Is This Single Stringed Instrument Made Of?

Gusle, or specifically the rounded back, is made of wood. With the little help (of my friends) of a rear turning peg, one horsehair string (and rarely two) is secured at the top of the neck.

A deeply curved bow is used to play the gusle. The bow was usually made of horsehair while the body of the gusle was most commonly made from maple wood. 

The gusle is held between the person’s legs (in an upright position) when the time is right to start playing it (If you are a Slav, you’ll know that the time is always right!).

Gusle In Serbian Culture

Gusle was (and still is) a big part of Serbian culture. Made with only one horsehair string, gusle was first introduced to Serbia back in the 13th century (there are records of it being played at the court of a Serbian ruler).

There are also mentions of gusle as early as the 6th century, but at this point, no one can know if it was actually gusle or some other instrument with one string.

Serbian Epic Poetry

Most of the epic poems in Serbia were sung with the accompanying sound of gusle. The oral tradition of sharing stories was prevalent in Serbian culture (during the time they were under the Ottoman rule).

It all changed when a man called Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic, decided to collect (write down) the songs that have been orally shared from one generation to the next. 

Vuk did that in the first part of the 19th century. 

Filip Višnjić – The Most Famous Serbian Guslar

Before talking about the man, I think it’s important to tell you what “guslar” means. Simply put (and only because there is no other way, it’s 100% not complicated), guslar is the one who plays gusle!

The most important, famous and interesting guslar in the whole Balkan region, was Filip Višnjić. Why? 

The first thing that comes to my mind is that he was completely blind since the age of 8. That’s the interesting fact about him. 

The important one is that his most famous poems were about the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire [2]. 

He was not only a storyteller, a poet and a master of his art but also a historical figure that helped the Serbian people keep their national identity and spirit (through his songs). 

He died in the first part of the 19th century (1834 to be precise).

Gusle In Montenegro

Gusle played a big role in the cultural life of the people of Montenegro. Just making this instrument from wood is an art form in itself. 

If you look at the difference between the gusle from this country and any other Slavic country, you will see that the ones that were made in Montenegro are extremely beautiful pieces of art by themselves.

Adorned with motifs from history, poetry or heraldry the heads of these instruments are beautiful to look at and are a master example of the art of wood-carving. 

The Bottom Line

I’ve talked a little about the most famous string instrument from the Balkan region. It influenced the oral tradition and the way stories were shared among the Slavic population. 

Held between the person’s knees, this string instrument had a big influence on the history of art in many Slavic countries. 

It was made of wood (in most cases maple wood). 



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