Last modified:
Sun, 17 Mar 2019 12:16:04 +1300

Steeleye Span, the instruments

If you check through the list of instruments played by the members of the band, you may come across some with which you are unfamiliar. Alongside electric guitar and drums are such oddities as morrisette, psaltery and dulcimer.

Coming from the folk tradition, Steeleye Span use some folk instruments. Not to establish their folk credentials, nor to preserve 'authenticity' (as Tim Hart has pointed out, most English folk music is traditionally sung unaccompanied, so once you've deviated from tradition by employing instruments, it doesn't really matter what you use). They use them because they fit the music.

Some of the instruments are a little obscure, and such obvious sources of information as dictionaries are surprisingly unhelpful!

Unusual Instruments


Played by Tim Hart.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, has this to say about the dulcimer:

dulcimer 'd(revv)lsIm<e>(r). Also 6 douci-, dousse-, dowcemer, (7 dulcimel).

Etymology: a. OFr. doulcemer (Roquefort), doulcemele, doulz de mer (Godef.) = obs. Sp. dulcemele, Ital. dolcemelle (Florio); supposed to represent L. dulce melos sweet song, tune, or air. (The L. in this application is not known.)

1 A musical instrument, in which strings of graduated lengths are stretched over a trapezoidal sounding board or box and struck with two hammers held in the hands. [ Considered to be the earliest prototype of the pianoforte. ]

Which is all very interesting, but of no help whatsoever in identifying the instrument played by Tim Hart.

The O.E.D. entry describes the rather rare instrument more usually referred to as the Hammer Dulcimer, as opposed to the Appalachian Dulcimer, which is what Tim Hart plays. The O.E.D. doesn't know about Appalachian Dulcimers, although they are considerably more common.

The Appalachian Dulcimer is a three string instrument used as an accompanying instrument to provide a high drone. It's not a particularly glamorous instrument, but in Tim's hands it contributed strongly to the overall sound of the band. It's the lead instrument on Bonny Moorhen and can be heard to good effect on Long Lankin, Elf Call, etc. etc. (in fact, all over the place once you start to listen for it.)


Played by Gay Woods.

The O.E.D. II doesn't have anything to say about the Bodhrán (spelled Bodhran on the albums), which is a pity.

The bodhrán is an Irish drum, traditionally made from goatskin. It's sort of like a large tambourine with the drum head but without the jingles.

Josh Mittleman has a page with lots more information on the bodhrán


Played by Terry Woods.

The mandola is to the mandolin, as the viola is to the violin. The O.E.D. does know about this one.

mandola mæn'd<e>Ul<e>, mandora mæn'dO<e>r<e>. Also 9 (rare) mandura.

Etymology: a. Ital. mandola, mandora. Cf. Fr. mandore, mandole, and see bandore, pandora[2], mandore.

A larger variety of the mandolin.


Played by John Kirkpatrick

The melodeon is of the same family as the more familar accordion (also played by John Kirkpatrick) and concertina (played by John Kirkpatrick, Gay Woods and Terry Woods) To quote from the notes to "Three In A Row---the English Melodeon" by John Kirkpatrick (1984, Topic/Squeezer SQZ123)

The MELODEON, or DIATONIC BUTTON ACCORDION, shares the same suck-blow principle as the mouth organ. Each button produces two notes, one when you push the bellows in and another when you pull them out. On the melody side each row of buttons plays in one key only. The oom-pa buttons on the other side are grouped in pairs, each pair giving a bass note and a chord.

Octave violin

Played by Peter Knight

This is a violin tuned an octave below conventional violin tuning (G-D-A-E), that is, the same as a cello. This can be done by stringing a standard violin with heavy gauge strings, or with a specially manufactured instrument.

This is not the same as an oversize instrument tuned to this range, which is known as a tenor violin.

By way of comparison, a viola is tuned a fifth below a normal violin, to (C-G-D-A).

The instrument that Pete plays is specifically manufactured as an octave instrument, and is an electric, as opposed to acoustic, violin (specifically, it uses a piezo pickup rather than the magnetic pickup of an electric guitar).


Played by Tim Hart.

The O.E.D. definition will do here, except of course they mean the other dulcimer:

psaltery 'sO:lt<e>rI, sb. Forms: <alpha>. 3-5 sautre, 4 sawtree, sauteray, 4-5 sawtrie, -ye, 4-6 sautrie, 5 sawtre, sautry, -tri3e, 5-6 sawtrey, 5 (-9) -try, 6 sawtery, saltry; <beta>. 4 psautery, 6 psautry, 6-7 psalterie; 5- psaltery.

Etymology: a. OFr. saltere, sautere, and sauterie, psalterie (12th c. in Godef.), ad. L. psalterium, ad. Gr. yalthrion; a learned form from L. for the name of the instrument, after sautier had become confined to the Psalter; subseq. superseded by sauterion, psalterion. Retained in Eng. as the name of the instrument (rarely in error put for psalter).

1 An ancient and mediæval stringed instrument, more or less resembling the dulcimer, but played by plucking the strings with the fingers or a plectrum; differing from the harp in having the soundboard behind and parallel with the strings. Also, a modern imitation of this. [ Chiefly in biblical translation or reference (after L. psalterium of the Vulgate, usually rendering Heb. nebel), or in vague poetic or rhetorical use; mostly coupled with other instruments. ]


Played by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior.

You take a couple of soup or dessert spoons, hold them in one hand, and hit them together, rather like maracas. Really!


Played by Maddy Prior.

A little ring of bells, typically worn by Morris dancers around their ankles to jingle as they dance. You can hear them on Spotted Cow.


A list of the instruments played by the members—past and present—of Steeleye Span (not counting guest musicians).

5-string banjo
Tim Hart, Maddy Prior and Terry Woods
John Kirkpatrick
Acoustic guitar
Tim Hart, Martin Carthy, Robert Johnson, Rick Kemp, Ken Nicol and Peter Zorn
Acoustic violin
Jessie May Smart
Gay Woods
Backup vocals
Tim Hart, Maddy Prior, Gay Woods, Terry Woods, Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy, Peter Knight, Robert Johnson, Rick Kemp, John Kirkpatrick, Jessie May Smart and Andrew ‘Spud’ Sinclair
Martin Carthy
Peter Knight
Bass guitar
Ashley Hutchings, Rick Kemp and Tim Harries
Gay Woods
Gay Woods, Terry Woods and John Kirkpatrick
Martin Carthy and Rick Kemp
Nigel Pegrum and Liam Genockey
Vince Cross
Electric dulcimer
Tim Hart
Electric guitar
Tim Hart, Terry Woods, Martin Carthy, Robert Johnson, Tim Harries, Ken Nicol, Peter Zorn, Julian Littman and Andrew ‘Spud’ Sinclair
Electric violin
Jessie May Smart
Tim Hart and Peter Knight
Nigel Pegrum and Peter Zorn
Tim Hart and Peter Knight
Peter Knight
Lead vocals
Tim Hart, Maddy Prior, Gay Woods, Martin Carthy, Peter Knight, Robert Johnson, Rick Kemp, John Kirkpatrick, Tim Harries, Ken Nicol, Peter Zorn, Julian Littman and Jessie May Smart
Terry Woods
Tim Hart, Terry Woods, Peter Knight, Robert Johnson and Peter Zorn
John Kirkpatrick
Morris dancing
John Kirkpatrick
Maddy Prior
Nigel Pegrum
Octave violin
Peter Knight
Martin Carthy and Peter Knight
Tim Hart, Peter Knight, Nigel Pegrum, Martin Ditchum and Liam Genockey
Peter Knight, Tim Harries and Julian Littman
Tim Hart
Peter Knight and Nigel Pegrum
Peter Zorn
Tim Hart and Maddy Prior
Step dancing
Maddy Prior and Gay Woods
Robert Johnson and Nigel Pegrum
Tim Hart
Maddy Prior and Nigel Pegrum
Tenor banjo
Peter Knight
Peter Knight
Tin whistle
Peter Zorn
Peter Knight