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also: rebeck, rebecke, rebekke, rebeca

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Contextual Associations

The rebec is a bowed bowl-lute chordophone of Medieval and Renaissance Europe. The replica instrument pictured here was constructed in the 20th century by American luthier L. Higgins for use by early music performers. Any contemporary maker uses iconographic sources for inspiration in designing their replicas, and these sources are often lacking in details and in their accuracy of proportion. In addition to there being few extant instruments to copy, there exists almost no music that was composed specifically for this instrument (a few Renaissance works were written for a consort of rebecs). Yet scholars are confident in saying that the rebec was widely used in all strata of Medieval society and in particular for religious events, dance accompaniment, singing accompaniment (such as for epic songs), and in combination with other instruments of the time. In its current resurrection, which started in the mid-20th century with the advent of the early music movement, the rebec is worked into arrangements of Medieval and early Renaissance music at the discretion of the performers.


The design of this instrument, especially its resonator, differs from what is known about period instruments in that its teardrop-shaped bowl resonator is constructed from several slats of thinly-shaven burled maple joined together to form an arched back (see detail image) rather than being carved out, along with the neck and pegbox, from a single block of wood. The technique used in constructing the vaulted back from eight ribs of wood is typical of other Renaissance lutes such as the lute and guitar, but not the rebec. The resonator is enclosed with a thin, flat board of spruce into which are cut two C-shaped soundholes. The short neck (5 inches) of the instrument includes a much longer (9.8 inches) and flat fretless fingerboard which extends partially over the soundboard. A nut made of a separate piece of wood is glued into a groove cut into the neck at the top end of the fingerboard. At the end of the neck is a scroll-shaped pegbox that includes laterally-mounted tuning pegs for the instrument's three gut strings. An end of each string is knotted around a hole at one end of a tailpiece, the other end of which is tied with a thick gut string to the bottom end of the resonator. The strings then pass over and make contact with a high and slightly arched bridge the base of which rests on the soundboard. The strings then pass over the fingerboard and make contact with the nut before being connected to and wound around the tuning pegs. All the strings have the same active vibrating length of 12.9 inches, the distance between their contact points with the bridge and the nut. A wooden out-curved bow with horsehair is used to set the strings into vibration. The energy of the vibrating strings is transmitted to the resonator by the bridge on the soundboard. Inside the resonator and located directly below one of the feet of the bridge is a wooden rod functioning as a sound post (helps channel energy of vibrating strings to the resonator body).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Iconographic sources show the rebec being played in two distinct ways: held vertically with the base of the resonator resting on the player’s lap or thigh, the neck pointing up, the soundboard facing out, and the bow gripped from below; and held nearly vertically with the back of the resonator near the shoulder, the neck pointing down, the soundboard facing out, and the bow gripped from above. In both positions the instrument is bowed with the right hand and the strings are stopped against the fingerboard with the fingers of the left hand. Based on a manuscript date 1529, one author (Jones 2000, p. 321) gives as a practical tuning for the rebec: G3 - D4 - A4 or C4 - G4 - D5 (both with a P5 - P5 interval sequence). Either one or two strings can be bowed simultaneously, making it possible to produce both a melody and a drone.


Bowing was not present in Europe until probably the 10th century when it was introduced from the Middle East, and European rebecs strongly resemble and possibly derive from bowed lutes such as the Arab rebāb or the Balkan lyra. Instruments very similar to the rebec are still in use in some European folk music traditions (see kemençe). The rebec appears in iconographic sources in many subtly varying designs, but there are no Medieval and only a very few Renaissance rebecs that survive. In art music practice, the violin started to eclipse other Renaissance bowed lutes during the 16th century. However, the rebec did not simply disappear but continued to be used by people of all social strata well into the 17th century, by which time it was often referred to as a kit or, in France, a poche.

Bibliographic Citations

Gillespie, Wendy. 1994. "Bowed Instruments," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 109-124.

Jones, Sterling. 2000. “Rebec,” in Ross W. Duffin, ed., The Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 317-324.

Polk, Keith. 1992. German Instrumental Music of the Late Middle Ages: Players, patrons and Performance Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Remnant, Mary. 1984. "Kit [kytte]," NGDMI v.2: 437-440.

________. 1984. "Rebec [rebeck, rebecke, rebekke]," NGDMI v.3: 201-205.