A hurdy-what?

EVART — More often than not, when Michael Opp plays one of his favorite instruments, he is met with looks of confusion, bewilderment and a barrage of questions.

Opp, of Fargo, N.D., plays the hurdy-gurdy, an instrument with strings like a guitar, keys like a piano, tuning pegs like a cello, a wooden wheel that functions like a violin bow and a crank like a Ford model T. It produces a sound similar to a violin and bagpipe duet.

“People stare and ask a bunch of questions about the instrument,” Opp laughed. “Usually it gets pretty awkward.”

Opp was at the Dulcimer Funfest last weekend in Evart, meeting up with his friend, Mel Dorries.

Dorries, of Metamora, has been coming to the festival for 11 years. His business, Hurdy-Gurdy Crafters, has had a vendor’s booth at the festival for the last eight years.

“Originally we were vending mountain dulcimers and then one day at the booth we heard an instrument I’ve never heard before and I thought ‘That’s pretty cool,’” Doories said. “My wife Ann and I closed up the booth and went and found this thing.”

What they found turned out to be a Wolfgang Weichselbaumer hurdy-gurdy made in Vienna, Austria.

Doories was fascinated by the instrument and thought he could build one. He ordered plans from a company and once they arrived, Doories was not satisfied with what he called “poor design.”

“I knew I could design one better, so we started building them and selling parts,” Doories said. “That was eight years ago and now we’re one of the best builders in the United States and I can say that and boast because that is how it is.”

With the instrument being so complex, Doories estimates it takes about 200 hours of work to finish building a hurdy-gurdy.

Opp said the hurdy-gurdy is the only indigenous European instrument without other influences. It’s also one of only instruments that has been in constant use for a thousand years, unlike some instruments that get lost and then re-emerge.

It took Opp about two years to fully learn the hurdy-gurdy. His background playing other musical instruments, including guitar, bass and trumpet, helped him.

Musicians who have left and right hand independence, such as playing the piano, usually pick up the instrument quicker, Doories said. The hardest part is to get the buzzing of the bridge and to be able to accelerate and decelerate for the revolutions.

“It plays like a regular instrument,” Opp said. “My favorite part is just playing it. It sounds really neat and there’s this feeling you get when you play it. It reverberates through your whole body.”

Although the instrument still gets curious stares when Opp plays it, he is finding people who have some knowledge of the hurdy-gurdy.

“I meet more people every day who know what it is,” Opp said. “More people than I’d expect want to buy one. I think they are getting more popular. I hope they are.”