Jón Sigurðsson is one of the most traditional names in Iceland. Sort of what John Smith is for the United States or Jose Garcia for Spain. It should then not come as a surprise that Jón specialises in building traditional folk instruments. Born in the viking town of Thingeyri, Jón has been playing music since he was 13 years old. However, it wasn’t until 2003 when an Estonian music teacher asked him to build a langspil that he started building his own instruments.
“I wasn’t sure if I could build instruments, but I looked at it as a challenge and gave it a try. The first langspil was a basic one, just a straight box with 4 strings. Then I just started making other folk instruments that I was curious about. I couldn’t afford to buy those instruments so I just made them myself. If I could make a simple type of Langspil I could make something else too. That’s how it started.”
Langspil is a traditional Icelandic drone zither. The oldest written sources describing the langspil are from the 18th century. In those times langspils are described as a long thin box, wider at the bottom end and with one to six strings. In the early 19th century a version with a curved soundbox emerged which has improved sound qualities. By the middle of the 20th century the instrument had become rare and few played it any more. However, in recent years old folk music has been gaining more popularity and more and more people are showing interest in this instrument. And since it only has 1 melody string with 1 to 5 drone strings (usually 2) it is easy to learn to play it compared with more complicated instruments.
“I have experimented with different kind of wood. First I used Icelandic pine, it looked great but the wood isn’t good for instruments. Now I use maple and mahogany. I put my stamp inside, so you can read which number and the year of the making.”
Jón is hesitant to call himself a luthier. “Making instruments is still just a hobby. But the instruments are getting better, and each one is better and better”.
Together with his wife Rakel they are active in the viking community of Thingeyri, performing at various local events. It’s worth making an effort to see them perform. Or simply pay them a visit at Jón’s open workshop.
Video made by Vaida at Skóbúðin - museum mundane.