The Double-Pluck in history

We have started this discussion as off-topic when discussing the buff stop.
I hope Andrew accepts that I start a new topic, because this is a completely different, and very interesting issue.

We all agree on a basic premise, as rightly written yesterday by Huwsaunders:
“I think that you are right about there not being any evidence of the double pluck having been used historically. However it is a possible registration now and was then,so there is no reason why an 18th century player might not have found it and used it on occasions.”

I intend to demonstrate a stronger statement: that the historical use of the double-pluck, although certainly not impossible, is extremely unlikely.

Since the matter is complex, I will do this in three separate posts, with different arguments.
Put together, they strongly reinforce the thesis.
I will number them, DP1, DP2, DP3, so that answers can refer to my arguments separately.
A first argument I already posted, let me just rephrase it here.

DP1. The double-pluck requires a very accurate action regulation.

This affects the plectra voicing, the jack height and also the dampers position.
While this may not be an issue for two adjacent jack rows, the common discussion is for the English upper manual’s lute 8’ and dogleg 8’: here we have a string being plucked at distant points, with different jack travel and sound amplitude. How difficult it is has already been explained in today’s post by very knowledgeable Carey Beebe.

DP2. Not everything possible was done at all.

In the history of science and technology we have hundreds of incredible examples of ideas that were feasible and useful, yet only accepted in much later times.
Even in the history of the harpsichor we have quite a few!

a. Fortepiano.
First proposed by Arnault de Zwolle c1440, with no followers.
The first fortepianos were built by Cristofori starting in 1701, with an action most similar to the one succesfully used in England almost a century later. Yet Cristofori’s idea was universally rejected. Fortepianos were only successful after G. Silbermann started building them in the 1730s, in another country, with musical tastes having significantly changed throughout Europe.

b. Circular Temperaments on the keyboard
First proposed by Schlick in a successful publication in 1511, yet they were not adopted. The first use of circular temperaments occurred almost two centuries later in German lands in the 1680s, when they are needed in some works by Pachelbel and shortly afterwards are first described by Werckmeister.

c. Passing long fingers over the right thumb.
Doing this for the left hand was first advocated in the 16th century for the left hand, and this in the 17th century becomes the standard fingering for ascending scales, always with the left hand. It would certainly facilitate the “symmetrical” descending scales with the right hand, yet this was not adopted until more than a century later, starting in the 1730s.

d. Stop Pedals.
See Kipnis (ed.) The Harpsichord and Clavichord, an Encyclopedia, entry PEDAL.
First described by Thomas Mace in 1676 (in a harpsichord built by John Haward in London). There is indirect evidence of a few other examples scattered throughout the 17th century. Yet stop pedals only become commonplace after mid 18th century.

e. Buff stop
17th century Flemish harpsichords were exported throughout Europe: every harpsichord player knew about this inexpensive gadget, with no maintenance required, producing an interesting change in the sound. Yet in the celebrated doubles built in the 18th century in France, Germany and England, remarkably, the buff only is fitted after mid 18th century!

Conclusion: not because something is possible, or has been advocated in isolation, it denotes anything like a common historical practice.

DP3. The case of the English Machine

English doubles with their two jack rows for the upper 8’ (lute and dogleg) have been mentioned as good candidates for the double-pluck.
And our Carey Beebe has mentioned an interesting historical source for its use in 1738.
My impression is that this was an isolated case.
Dozens of English doubles are extant, mostly with the “machine” pedal.
Pressing it changes the registration gradually. These are the steps:

a. (Pedal not pressed). Engaged: lower 8’, 4’, dogleg 8’.
Upper manual sound: dogleg 8’.
Lower manual sound: lower 8’+ dogleg 8’ + 4’.

b. (Pedal half way) The 4’ is disengaged.
Upper manual sound: dogleg 8’ (unchanged!)
Lower manual sound: lower 8’+ dogleg 8’.

c. (Pedal down) The dogleg 8’ is disengaged, the lute 8’ is engaged.
Upper manual sound: lute 8’.
Lower manual sound: lower 8.

Thus the machine is a very expressive device for the lower manual, but less so for the upper manual.
It would require a minimal change in its design to achieve a better expressivity on the upper manual, running in parallel with the changes for the lower manual, thus:

a. Engaged: lower 8’, 4’, dogleg 8’, lute 8’.
Upper manual sound: dogleg 8’ + lute 8’ (double-pluck).
Lower manual sound: lower 8’+ dogleg 8’ + 4’.

b. The 4’ and the lute 8’ are disengaged.
Upper manual sound: dogleg 8’.
Lower manual sound: lower 8’+ dogleg 8’.

c. The dogleg 8’ is disengaged, the lute 8’ is engaged .
Upper manual sound: lute 8’.
Lower manual sound: lower 8.

Beautiful indeed. Yet, AFAIK, this was never done!

Conclusion: in England they were not interested in the double-pluck, not even when it would have been very useful indeed.

This is a common mistake - I made it myself which is why I had to devise a hybrid machine:
The standard double machine has only 2 positions not 3: UP = everything on except lute, DOWN = front 8 and 4 off, lute on. The back 8 is unaffected by the machine. The metalwork tells us that it must be so: the 2 engaging blades which act on the register extensions are coupled together by the setting bar to which they are riveted, so in order to have an intermediate position the the 4 ft engaging blade would need to continue to move after the register had gone off which would almost certainly lead to the backs of the 4 ft jacks fouling the back 8 strings.
The standard single machine DID have an intermediate position where only the 4 foot had gone off but the front 8 was still on. The bottom position left only the back 8 on. This was achieved by means of a swivelling shoe attached to the registers which allows them to move independently, first one and then the other. The shoe is attached to the main operating lever inside the case which is moved by a cord attached to the pedal.

Here is another case for Claudio of something that could have been done but wasn’t! They could have devised a hybrid machine for doubles which partially decoupled the 2 register engaging blades to allow them to move semi-indepenently on a swivelling shoe: first one and then the other. Instead it was left to a humble 21st century follower of Kirckman to do this.

I have just re-checked the Mahoon instructions as interpreted by Chris Nobbs who has shown that the lute must have been on the same strings as the back 8 plucking left - quite different from the Kirckman (et al) system where the back 8 plucks right and the lute shares its strings with the dog-leg. No double pluck is available with this arrangement and neither is one specified in Mahoon’s (if it was him that wrote them) instructions. Once again I am indebted to Chris Nobbs for information and elucidation. Mahoon’s registers were relieved symmetrically, making it difficult to be sure which of the 2 8 foots plucked in which direction as originally set up. The written instructions inside the lid make the situation clear. Sort of…

Huw Saunders

Mostly agree with Huw, except that I have played at least one double Shudi where the machine had 3 positions: whether this was original or not, I cannot tell.

Regarding double plucking, could someone perhaps explain the perceived or desired sonic consequences of displacing the string at two relatively nearby points along its length, and of releasing it at those two points simultaneously?
Presumably this has an effect on, at least, the initial transients of the note heard.

Best wishes,

Hi Lewis,

From my background in mathematical acoustics, I can say a little. With a normal harpsichord pluck the string is initially effectively displaced in a triangular shape, and you can solve the differential equation from that easily. That aside, we all know the string settles into a sinusoidal oscillating state very quickly indeed. The plucking point can emphasize or suppress various harmonic content. Plucking at two points simultaneously produces a trapezoidal initial condition, and this is also easy to solve. The main thing however is that the regular sinusoidal motion settles in very rapidly due to the tension of the wire compared to its very small diameter. So after a very short time there is very little difference in sustained sound. You can try this on a guitar easily. Of course the initial overtones will be different and you can clearly hear it on double plucked instruments I have heard, but it’s not a big deal in my opinion, and not something I would strive tor as a special extra tonal effect. Other’s may disagree!

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It may be of interest to know that in recent years the English builder, Michael Johnson, has made a couple of instruments with two courses plucking the same string. He is very sold on the concept.


It is possible he likes the extra oomph you get from perhaps a lot more initial plucking force. Not to my taste.

Michael Johnson discusses this disposition with Tim Roberts, who demonstrates various combinations, including simultaneous plucking by both 8ft rows of jacks, in this 2015 video:
Michael also speaks about his use of soft pigskin to give a ‘singing’ buff.


Thanks Andrew for the interesting acoustical analysis!

We have discussed the double-pluck in English instruments. I believe we all agree that the double-pluck is impossible in Flemish-type lute stop, and unlikely in English-type lute stop.

It is of course much possible on Italian instruments, where the effect for some reason is excessively percussive.

It is impossible in French instruments, except for the very late post-baroque peau-de-buffle, a gimmick in open competition with the fortepiano.

As for German instruments, the double-pluck makes perfect good sense in the famous single-manual Fleischer 1710, with two alternative (or simultaneous for double-plucking) rows of jacks plucking the same 8’ choir. This instrument was used by Colin Tilney in his historical recording of Handel Great Suites … where he never used the double-pluck!
The Fleischer has been extolled as evidence that the Germans were fond of the double-pluck. Unfortunately, this instrument is an exceptional one: Koster has shown that German instruments in earlier baroque times had odd dispositions where the jack rows were very far away (thus making the double-pluck impossible), and in later times mostly followed either one-manual Flemish 8’+4’ disposition or two-manual French classical disposition, where no double-pluck is possible.

Contrary to Andrew’s taste, I have to say I like the double pluck on the same string very much. Other than in the Michael Johnson’s video, I’ve heard it in real life once.

I agree with Michael Johnson’s distaste for the “little impurity” of the two 8’ on the two different strings. This little impurity has been partly corrected on my personal harpsichord when changed the strings from Rose’s to Birkett’s, (this has been, in my view, the most important improvement caused by the new strings) but some still remains. I find it more acceptable on Italian harpsichords than on French or Flemish.

Maybe I have overlooked, but I think nobody has hinted to the double pluck in some of the Ian Couchet harpsichords, which are 1x8’, 1x4’ with a second rank of jacks plucking the same strings as the first. I don’t remember where is it now, but if interested I can look on the O’Brien or on the Boalch.

As a side, there is a Couchet with 2x8’ (with two choirs of strings) and no 4’, I think it’s the only extant harpsichord of the direct Ruckers tradition with such registration (of course there are the Delins’ but those, though in the Ruckers concept, were made much later in another workshop).


Le 08/02/2022 14:48, Claudio Di Veroli via The Jackrail écrit :

This instrument was used by Colin Tilney in his historical recording of Handel Great Suites … where he never used the double-pluck!

Did he say so, or are you judging by ear? I was told that he did use it
on some tracks.

An 11-minutes video all buff stop, “singing-type”:


I judged by ear, Dennis. Will listen to it again when I can.

Hi Domenico, lovely the recording of Michael Johnson R33! A completely different sound from the buff one gets from a French instrument following the Hubbard-Bedard type. I do not attribute the difference only to different buff pads, but also to a very different basic 8’ sound.

Yes Claudio, I think you are right: high and very soft leather, plus a plucking point near the nut, plus the long string, both of which give a different basic 8’ sound, of course with the cooperation of the soundboard barring and the overall inner framing.
My harpsichord, which you have played, has the buff on the short string (upper manual), a high buff batten and a softish leather but not as soft as the ones we are speaking of. The tone is acceptable but less singing. I’ll post a couple of samples here tomorrow if you don’t mind.

In the video of Michael Johnson posted today, Michael describes the leather being so soft it “molds around the string”. Exactly what I was trying to describe when I talked about the jack dampers in leather of my Guarracino 1x8’ harpsichord (I no longer own it).

The buff leather (elf) sold by Marc Vogel is much stiffer than that, we need another source.


Thanks Domenico. What I find peculiar in Michael Johnson’s buff sound is that it does not damp some of the high harmonics this produces a very peculiar effect, somehow reminding the violin’s mute.
My personal preference is for the usual buffs, which “cut” the high armonics completely, yet they can also be “singing” as long as the buff does not damp and the string keeps sustaining the sound.
But all of this is not only a matter of taste but also what the instrument requires: if you are going to buff a lute stop (something the English AFAIK never did) the effect is going to be different.