Arab musical instruments

This guide is divided into three sections: string instrumentswind instruments and percussion instruments. Readers should bear in mind that construction of instruments varies according to musical tastes and local materials, and that similar instruments often have different names in different areas.

String instruments


Levant and Iraq. A long-necked fretted lute with metal strings and a carved sound-box. Often associated with itinerant players. May be derived from the Turkish saz.

Guenbri, ginbri, hajouje

North Africa. A deep three-stringed wooden bass instrument, sometimes with an added wooden resonator. Fretless, with a long cylindrical neck and a sound box covered with skin. In Morocco, often used by Gnawa musicians.


Iraq. A four-string spike-fiddle. Sound box is part of a coconut shell covered with skin. One of the instruments traditionally used to accompanymaqam singing.

Kaman, kamanjah

Nowadays this is the term for a western-style violin (though tuned to Arab musical requirements). Previously it referred to an Iranian violin, played vertically, which had been adopted by the Arabs. It is also a name sometimes given to the rababah.


A Berber lute, with three or four strings and a round body.

'Ud, Oud

Typically pear-shaped, short-necked and fretless, with five or six strings. It is played by plucking, either solo or in ensemble. The instrument has a warm timbre, low tessatura, and microtonal flexibility - which makes it extremely popular. It is often intricately decorated. "Al-'ud" is the origin of the English word, "lute". 

Farhan Sabbagh and other 'ud masters  
by John Absood


A flat zither-type instrument with 26 strings which are played by plucking. The strings are tuned to the basic notes of a given scale and the pitch is raised or lowered by stopping the strings with a series of metal levers.

Rabab, rababah, rbab

A spike fiddle, traditionally used to accompany poetry. The Bedouin version has a quadrilateral sound box covered with skin and a single horsehair string. It is played with a horsehair bow. The Moroccan variant has a boat-shaped sound box and the string may be positioned to the side of the neck. In Egypt, the sound box is made from a coconut shell. Some versions have two strings. Seekamanjah.


Iraq: a hammer dulcimer with metal strings. One of the instruments traditionally used to accompanymaqam singing.

Wind instruments


Egyptian version of the yarghul.

Ghaytah, raita

Morocco: a wooden double-reed instrument, similar to the Tunisian zukrah.


A metre-long flute with two playing holes at the far end. Thought to be one of the oldest wind instruments, and still played in the Tihama area of Yemen. See article.


North Africa (especially Libya and Tunisia): a single-reed instrument with two horn bells. See alsomizwid.


Lebanon: this instrument has two identical reed tubes (the name means "paired" or "married"). Each tube has five or six holes and a smaller tube inside which vibrates to produce the sound. It is played using a circular breathing technique which produces a continuous sound, unlike a flute. See also mitbiq and yarghul.


Levant and Iraq: a reed flute, open-ended and end-blown. It has a limited range and a breathy sound, which the player sometimes accomanpies by humming. Associated with weddings and dances, but also played by shepherds. See alsoshabbabah.


Iraq: a twin-tube instrument similar to the mijwiz.

Mizmar (mizwij in Palestine)

In Egypt, a double-reed instrument. Normally three are played together, accompanied by a large double-sided drum (tabl).


Libya, Tunisia, Algeria: basically a maqrunah with a bag attached, giving a bagpipe sound.

Nafir, N'far

Morocco: a three-metre long single-note horn made of copper. Used in ceremonial music and to awaken the faithful during Ramadan.


An open-ended reed flute, blown obliquely. With a wide range and breathy tone, it is highly expressive. and capable of producing dynamic and tonal inflections. The development and use of thenay has been attributed to shepherds, but it is, in fact, an urban instrument. In Egypt, it is one of the instruments traditionally used in the ensemble known as a takht, ("platform"). Also associated with Sufism. How to play the nay.


Southern Algeria, Tunisia: an end-blown reed flute used to accompany songs.


See ghaytah


Egypt: an open-ended reed-flute associated with Sufism.


Palestinian version of the minjayrah.


Palestine: similar in principle to the mijwizbut only one of its tubes has holes; the other, which is longer, is used to produce an accompanying drone.

Zamr, zurna

Levant and Iraq: double-reed oboe-type instrument used to accompany dances.


Tunisia: a double-reed instrument similar to the Moroccan ghaytah.


Egyptian version of the mijwiz.

Percussion instruments

Bendir, bandir

Morocco: goatskin-covered wooden drum, with two strings stretched across the underside, producing a distinctive distorted percussive sound. Used by Berbers in the Atlas mountains. Several may be played simultaneously.

Daff, duff

Generally a small tambourine. Also known as ariqq. Often used alongside the tablah. In Lebanon, the daff is used typically by the performers of sung folk-poetry (zajal). In Egypt it is one of the instruments traditionally used in the ensemble known as a takht, ("platform"). In Morocco, the instrument is a wooden-framed drum, entirely covered with stretched skin and played from both sides. How to play the daff/riq

Darbukkah, derbouka

Levant and Iraq: a hand-drum, usually conical or vase-shaped. May be made of pottery or metal. Also called tablah.

Garagab, qarqaba, qaraqib

Morocco: metal clackers resembling double castanets. They are held two in each hand. Commonly used by Gnawa performers, particularly on festive occasions.


Gulf region: a clay pot played with both hands. Along with the mirwas, this is one of the instruments used to accompany pearl fishermen’s songs (fijri).


Egypt: large tambourine with sets of cymbals.


A large wooden coffee-grinder used (and played) by Bedouin. It consists of a decorative mortar, about a foot tall, and a two-foot pestle. Apart from its musical qualities, it is regarded as a symbol of affluence, status and hospitality.


Gulf region: a small double-sided hand drum. Along with the jahlah, this is one of the instruments used to accompany pearl fishermen’s songs (fijri).


Morocco: double kettle drums made of pottery.


Southern Tunisia: a large, shallow, kettle drum.

Qarqaba, qaraqib

See garagab


See daff


Small brass finger-cymbals used by dancers in Egypt.

Tabl, tablah

Typically, a large, cylindrical double-sided drum, played with the hand on one side and with a beater on the other. The name is widely used, though the instrument itself has regional variations.


Egypt: a large frame drum.


Morocco: Smaller version of the derbouka, held in one hand and played with the other.


Morocco: bongo drums.


Morocco: bongo drums made of clay pots covered with goatskin.


Morocco: wooden drum covered with goatskin and played with light wooden sticks. Used in Gnawa ceremonies.