Art UK has updated its cookies policy. By using this website you are agreeing to the use of cookies. To find out more read our updated Use of Cookies policy and our updated Privacy policy.

Resource notes and guidelines

Questions and discussion suggestions in this resource are voiced directly to students, allowing them to be more easily presented to the class. Teachers' guidance notes and contextual information are included throughout the resource.

This is one of three resources that focus on the main families of musical instruments. Explore percussion and wind instruments using the link below.

The three resources can be used together to explore instruments and the sounds they make across a series of lessons. Or use individual components from the resources to integrate into your own scheme of work.


This resource includes interactive elements that encourage students to make sounds and imagine they are playing instruments. It may be a good idea to sit in an informal area without desks or to clear some space in the classroom.

If you have access to string instruments, bring them into the classroom for students to see and have a go at. This will also help to explain their different parts, how they are played, and how the strings vibrate to make notes.

String instruments

Show this painting to your class. Encourage students to look closely at the painting and describe what is happening in the image.

The Guitar Player

The Guitar Player c.1672

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675)

English Heritage, Kenwood

You could ask them:

  • what can you see in this picture?
  • what instrument do you think the woman is playing?
  • does she look happy? (Who do you think she might be playing to?)
  • describe what the instrument looks like.
  • if you could listen to this painting, what do you think it would sound like? Try making the sound!

About the painting

This painting was painted over 300 years ago. It shows a young woman playing the guitar.

There must be a window next to the woman as light is streaming in and lighting up the left-hand side of her face. Perhaps someone has just come into the room and she is looking up at them... What do you think?

Although her clothes and hairstyle look different to what people wear today, someone playing and enjoying music is a familiar scene.

The painting is by a Dutch artist called Johannes Vermeer. He often painted people in their homes chatting, cooking or eating and playing music – the sort of everyday things that we like to do today.

Compare and contrast

Compare Vermeer's guitar player with a modern painting of a guitar player. How are they similar and how are they different?

Girl with a Guitar

Girl with a Guitar

John E. Williams (1902–1986)

Bushey Museum and Art Gallery

  • Do the shape of the guitars look the same?
  • Are the musicians holding and playing their guitars in the same way?
  • How much have guitars changed in 300 years?

Guitars then and now

  • The guitar in Vermeer's painting looks a little smaller and is narrower than a modern guitar.
  • The older guitar is more decorated. It has a pattern around the edge and the sound hole in the body of the guitar is covered with a panel that has a pattern of holes in it. 
  • The musicians are holding and playing the guitars in a similar way.
  • Not much has changed in 300 years.

Teacher notes

It may be useful to point out that although acoustic guitars haven't changed much through the centuries, electric guitars are a whole other thing! Invented in the early 1930s, they have a solid body and use electric pickups (which are magnets wrapped in wire) to change the vibration from the strings into an electric current. This is then sent to an amplifier that converts the current into sound.

How is the sound made?

Musicians play the guitar by plucking or strumming the strings with the fingers of one hand. They change the notes with the fingers of their other hand by pressing them down on the strings.

  • Pretend you are holding a guitar. 
  • How would you stand or sit?
  • What would you do with your fingers on each hand?

This diagram of a guitar shows its different parts. All these parts help to make the sound of a guitar.

Parts of a guitar

Parts of a guitar

  • Look at the diagram and discuss with your class what you think each part is for.
  • How does each part contribute to the sound?

Teacher notes

If possible, bring a guitar into the classroom so students can see what it looks like and have a go at holding it and plucking or strumming the strings. Otherwise, use a photograph of a guitar or the diagram above to explain how it works.

Encourage students to think about the different parts and reason what they might be for. The reference notes below may be helpful.

You could start by explaining that guitars have a neck, a hollow body and strings.


  • Most guitars have six strings, (though bass guitars only have four strings).
  • The strings are attached to the bridge on the body of the guitar and stretch up the neck to the tuning pegs at the top.
  • The sound is made by plucking or strumming the strings, which makes them vibrate.
  • The strings are of different thicknesses and produce different notes when plucked. Most guitars are tuned to E, A, D, G, B, and E. The thinnest string is the first string (tuned to high E) and the thickest string is the sixth string (tuned to low E).
  • The tuning pegs are turned to tighten or loosen the strings and tune the guitar.


  • The body of an acoustic guitar is hollow which amplifies the sound and makes it richer and louder.
  • The sound hole allows the sound from the strings' vibration to travel into the guitar body.


  • The long neck of the guitar means that the strings can be stretched a long way and have plenty of room to vibrate and make a sound.
  • On the neck of the guitar is the fretboard, a thin piece of wood with frets (thin metal bars) embedded into it. Musicians press their fingers on the strings against the fretboard to change the pitch of the notes.
  • Pressing down onto the strings shortens or lengthens the vibrations and changes the pitch of the note.

Strings and bows

Most string instruments have similar parts to a guitar – including a body, a neck and strings – though these may look different on different instruments.

But some string instruments are played with a bow rather than by plucking or strumming them.

  • Do you know what the instrument in this painting is called?

The Recital

The Recital 1965

J. Waterhouse

Watford Museum

  • Like a guitar, it has strings that stretch up its neck.
  • How is the musician holding and playing the instrument?
  • Do you know how the sound is made?
  • What do you think it sounds like? Make some noise!

About cellos

The instrument is a cello. Rather than plucking the strings to make a sound, a bow is moved backwards and forwards across the strings. This vibrates the strings and makes the sound. A bow is a wooden cane with hundreds of straight hairs attached to it. These are usually made from the hairs of a horse's tail.

The musician holds the cello vertically between their knees with the cello standing on the floor. The cello has a spike at its base (called an end pin) which rests on the floor. 

Imagine you are playing the cello.

  • How would you hold it?
  • How would you play it?
  • Let's see your bow action!

Music and mood

Here is another painting showing a cello being played. The artist has used the colours and brush strokes to put across the mood of the music as well as what the cello and cello player look like.

Cello Player

Cello Player

György Gordon (1924–2005)

The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds

  • What colours can you see?
  • What does the painting make you feel?
  • What sort of tune do you think the musician might be playing? (Something happy or sad? Something about a faraway place perhaps or about a memory? What do you think?)

Strings in the orchestra

The cello is just one of a larger family of stringed instruments in an orchestra that are played with a bow. If you go to a concert, you might hear: violins (which are the smallest in the family); violas (the next size up); and double basses too (these are huge and are often taller than the musician playing them!).

  • Can you spot different-sized stringed instruments in this painting of a school orchestra?

School Orchestra

School Orchestra

Tim Cockburn (b.1955)

Fife Council

Teacher notes

The link above is to a BBC Teach resource that includes four videos showing a violin, viola, cello and double bass being played.

You could ask students to describe the sounds each instrument makes. 

Encourage them to think of words to describe the sounds.

  • These could be about the pitch ('high' or 'low').
  • What the sounds make them feel ('happy', 'excited', 'sad').
  • Or what the sounds remind them of – for example, you could ask them to think of an animal or insect that each instrument's sound reminds them of.

More stringed instruments in art

Let's look at more string instruments. Look at the artworks below.

  • Can you see the stringed instruments in these artworks?
  • Describe the shape of the instrument.
  • Do you think it is plucked or played with a bow?
  • Do you know what the instrument is called? What do you think it might sound like?

Teacher notes

These notes may be helpful for reference. (You can see bigger versions of these images by clicking on them to visit the artwork pages.)


The sitar was invented in South Asia in medieval times and is used in Hindustani classical music. It has seven strings and is plucked to make the sound. (The word 'sitar' comes from the Hindi words 'sat' and 'tär' which translate as 'seven strings'.) The sitar is held by the musician while they are sitting on the ground and it runs diagonally across their body. This watercolour painting is by an unknown Indian artist.

A Seated Courtesan Playing a Sitar

A Seated Courtesan Playing a Sitar 19th C (?)

Indian (Kalighat) School

Wellcome Collection

You could play this short video to your students to show them how a sitar is held. 

Ask students to imagine that they are holding and playing a guitar. How would they sit? How would they hold their sitar?


This sculpture shows a Welsh triple harp. It was made to symbolise peace and has three doves of peace flying above it.

The Harp

The Harp 2004

Craig Matthews (active after 1995)

Abbey Road, Llangollen, Denbighshire (Sir Ddinbych)

The harp is usually triangular in shape and has strings running at an angle to its frame against which the strings vibrate when they are plucked. Harps can be played while sitting or standing.

Boy with a Harp

Boy with a Harp 1882

George Frederick Harris (1856–1926)

Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust

Harps date back at least 3000 years BCE and were played across Asia, Africa, and Europe.


This artwork is a mural in Glasgow. It shows Scottish comedian and musician Billy Conolly playing the banjo.

Billy Connolly Mural

Billy Connolly Mural 2011

Andy Scott (b.1964)

Little Street, Glasgow

The banjo has a thin skin stretched across a circular frame. This would originally have been animal skin but today is usually made of plastic. The strings are attached to the frame, travel across it and up the neck of the banjo. The strings are plucked and vibrated against the skin to create the sound.

The modern banjo is derived from instruments used in North America and the Caribbean in the seventeenth century. These were made by enslaved people taken from West and Central Africa who developed them from African instruments. Banjos hold an important place in Black American traditional music and rural folk music.

This public sculpture, in Manchester, shows four African American musicians from New Orleans. They are playing the banjo, clarinet, trombone and trumpet.

Spirit of New Orleans

Spirit of New Orleans

Colin Spofforth (b.1963)

New Orleans, Trafford Centre, Greater Manchester

String sounds

Use this video to hear a range of stringed instruments being played including the harp (at 1:10), sitar (at 3:25) and banjo (at 2:40). You could ask students how many instruments they recognise (and put their hand up if they recognise an instrument). Ask them to look at the different ways the instruments are played and the different sounds that they make.

Discover more artworks showing string instruments on Art UK. Type the name of an instrument into the search box or try searching for 'string instrument'.

What do you get if you cross a guitar with a washing machine?

We have already looked at some paintings and sculptures of stringed instruments.

Here is another artwork that has a guitar in it. Can you spot it?

Twin-Tub with Guitar

Twin-Tub with Guitar 1981

Bill Woodrow (b.1948)


About the sculpture

This is a sculpture by an artist called Bill Woodrow. He has cut the shape of an electric guitar out of a washing machine!

Bill Woodrow often uses ordinary, everyday objects that he finds in junkyards or on the streets in his art. By cutting shapes into them he makes us look at the objects in a new way.

  • What sort of noise do you think a washing machine and a guitar would make together!?
  • Let's make some noise!

Teacher notes

Encourage students to have fun making some noise with this (and create sound art!). You could split the class into two groups and instruct one group to make a washing machine noise and the other group to make guitar sounds. 

You could also ask students what they think of the sculpture. (Do they like it? Is it clever? Is it confusing? Is it the type of art they might expect to see in an art gallery?)

Activity ideas

Activities: make abstract 2D artworks inspired by the shapes of string instruments

These activities provide ideas for using the shapes of string instruments to create abstract drawings, paintings or collages of a string instrument inspired by artists on Art UK.

Abstracted guitar collage

Abstracted guitar collage

Let's get some inspiration!

This sculpture is by a French artist called Arman. He was best known for using found objects to create sculptures, often putting different objects together or deconstructing them. This sculpture consists of the deconstructed parts of a cello suspended in clear polyester resin. By abstracting the cello in this way, Arman makes us see its different parts and think about it in a new way.

Violoncelle dans l'espace (Cello in Space)

Violoncelle dans l'espace (Cello in Space) 1967–1968

Arman (1928–2005)

National Galleries of Scotland

Show the sculpture to your students. Ask them what they think the sculpture shows: what instrument might this be? What shapes they can see?

  • Can you see the curved body of the instrument?
  • Can you see its neck?
  • Can you see the strings?
  • What does the artwork, with bits of a cello floating, make you think and feel?

Here are two more artworks that include an abstracted string instrument. They are both Cubist artworks by Pablo Picasso

Show this artwork to your students and ask them if they can see any shapes that remind them of a guitar.

Guitare, bec à gaz, flacon (Guitar, Gas-Jet and Bottle)

Guitare, bec à gaz, flacon (Guitar, Gas-Jet and Bottle) 1913

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)

National Galleries of Scotland

The shapes are mixed up with other shapes so aren't immediately obvious, but if you look closely you'll see the curved side of the body of a guitar (drawn in charcoal) towards the centre of the canvas. This curved shape is also repeated, drawn in a blue rectangle on the left of the image. The brown rectangle in the middle looks like the neck of the guitar.

This is another abstracted still-life by Pablo Picasso. This time he has included a violin. But the violin looks as if it has been cut up and re-arranged!

Fruit Dish, Bottle and Violin

Fruit Dish, Bottle and Violin 1914

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)

The National Gallery, London

  • Ask students what their first impressions of the painting are.
  • It might help to think of words to describe the painting. (These could be 'broken', 'confusing' or 'chaotic' for example.)
  • Can they spot the violin?
  • If you could listen to this painting as well as look at it, what might it sound like?

Abstract drawing activity instructions

You will need:

  • string instruments (or pictures of string instruments) for students to draw from
  • pencil and/or crayons
  • 2 large sheets of paper (one should be fairly thick as it will need to support collage)
  • scissors and glue

Step 1: Choose a string instrument to inspire you

If possible, bring a string instrument, or a selection of string instruments into the classroom. Otherwise, gather photographs or pictures of string instruments for students to work from.

Divide the class into small groups, supplying each group with an instrument or picture of an instrument to inspire them. (Image-sharing websites such as Pixaby are useful resources with free images to download and use.)

Step 2: Draw the instrument

Task students with drawing the instrument, using observational skills. The drawing should be on a large scale (at least A3). They should look closely at the shapes that they can see. Look at the outline shape and the shapes inside the outline. Can they see circles? Can they see curves? Can they see rectangles? Can they see scrolls? Can they see straight lines?

Crayon drawing of a guitar

Crayon drawing of a guitar

Step 3: Cut it out (and cut it up!)

The next step is to cut around their drawing so that they have a cut-out of the instrument.

Cut-out guitar drawing

Cut-out guitar drawing

They should then cut up their drawing into four or five pieces. The cuts can be random. They could end up with some big bits of their drawing and some small.

Step 4: Go abstract!

Now instruct them to put their drawing back together again but in a different order - so that they end up with an abstracted version of their instrument. Once they are happy with your new abstracted instrument, they can glue the pieces down.

Abstracted guitar drawing

Abstracted guitar drawing


Make an abstract collage or painting inspired by string instruments

You will need:

  • string instruments or pictures of string instruments as source material
  • pencil
  • 2 large sheets of paper (one should be fairly thick as it will need to support collage or paint)
  • cardboard (recycled cereal boxes or packaging)
  • a mix of papers for collage (e.g. coloured papers, newspapers, magazines, textured paper, etc.)
  • string or wool
  • scissors and glue

Step 1: Choose a string instrument to inspire you

If possible, bring a string instrument, or a selection of string instruments into the classroom. Otherwise, gather photographs or pictures of string instruments for students to work from.

Divide the class into small groups, supplying each group with an instrument or picture of an instrument to inspire them. (Image-sharing websites such as Pixaby are useful resources with free images to download and use.)

Step 2: Draw the instrument

Students should draw the instrument using a pencil or crayon, using observational skills. Encourage them to look closely at the shapes that they can see. Look at the outline shape and the shapes inside the outline. Can they see circles? Can they see curves? Can they see rectangles? Can they see scrolls? Can they see straight lines?

Pencil drawing of a guitar, three-quarter view

Pencil drawing of a guitar, three-quarter view

Step 3: Deconstruct the drawing

Students should now abstract the string instrument by breaking it down into its main parts or shapes. For example, a guitar might be broken down into its body, its neck, its sound hole, and its strings. If the students have drawn a three-quarter or side view of the instrument, there may also be the shape of its side.

They should draw these shapes onto cardboard and cut them out to create templates. The bigger the shapes the better! (It will be easier to paint or colour the shapes if they are bigger.)

(They could also cut up some of the bigger shapes, such as the guitar body, to create more shapes to use.)

Cardboard template shapes, guitar

Cardboard template shapes, guitar

Step 4: Draw around the templates

They should then draw around the templates onto the thicker paper, arranging the templates to form an abstracted drawing. 

The shapes could overlap or be placed next to each other in a random pattern.

Abstracted guitar from cardboard templates

Abstracted guitar from cardboard templates

Step 5: Add colour

In his Cubist still lifes, Picasso used a mix of flat-coloured shapes and patterns.

Students could fill the shapes of their abstracted instruments with different colours and textures. Encourage them to be experimental with colours and marks!

Abstracted guitar crayon drawing

Abstracted guitar crayon drawing

Abstracted guitar painting

Abstracted guitar painting

They can always add instrument details back in afterwards with a crayon or pen.

Collage variation

To create an abstracted string instrument using collage, follow steps 1 to 3 above, but draw around the cardboard shape templates onto a mix of papers.

Then cut the shapes out, arrange them on the thicker paper and glue them down. Add wool or string to suggest the strings.

Abstracted guitar collage

Abstracted guitar collage

Abstracted guitar collage

Abstracted guitar collage



Younger or less able students could make a simple abstracted artwork by cutting up a photograph of an instrument, rearranging this and sticking it down. Print out photographs or simple template drawings of instruments for students to use.

What does your abstracted instrument sound like?

Once students have finished their 2D artworks, look at them as a class. Ask them to imagine what their drawing might sound like. Does it sound like a broken guitar or a re-arranged violin?


Activity: make your own boxy string instrument

Have a go at making string instruments. Use these links to find ideas for making a simple guitar from recycled materials including a cereal box or tissue box, cardboard tube and string or elastic bands.

CBeebies Makes: Cereal box guitar

Musical Toolbox: Recycled box guitar

Top tip! Adapt these instructions to make other stringed instruments explored in the resource. How might you make a sitar or a banjo from recycled objects and materials?

Make some noise!

What do your recycled instruments sound like?

This BBC resource provides some ideas for making more simple instruments from old containers and rubber bands. It also provides tunes so that you can try your instruments out.

BBC Teach: Twang those strings

Do you know someone who would love this resource?
Tell them about it...

More Art UK resources

See all