Those of you, who had seen Skyforger live, have noticed strange wooden box with strings we use on stage: it is called KOKLE!

Kokle (Kankles in Lithuanian) is an ancient Baltic string instrument, which with a time became one of our national symbols here in Latvia! It has specific sound and therefore sometimes is lovely called Zelta kokles (The Golden kokle) or Dieva kokles (Kokle of Dievs). Dievs is main God – Creator, one who made this world.

Our neighboring nations have very similar instrument: Estonians have Kannel, Finnish people have Kantele and Russians have Gusli.

The earliest archaeological testimony of kokle-type instruments in Latvia dates to the 13th century. Below we can see one old example, which had some runic writings on it and is dated to 1282! Though it is hardly believable that this instrument had really survived from such old times.

Kokle is made from a single tree, mostly ​​from birch, pine, willow or oak. It has a hollow trapezoidal hull in length 50-70 cm, covered with a  wooden board – deck. A string pins made of wood is incorporated into the hull parallel to the widest edge. The thin edge consists of a built-in metal rod, around which  the strings are wound. Oldest instruments had only 5 -7 strings, made from animal guts, the newest ones uses metal strings and have 9-11 or even more – up to the 33 strings.

The player generally plays the instrument sitting at a table, strumming with his right hand to create vibrations and hence the volume, while using the left hand to mute unwanted strings. Sometimes you need to pick one or two strings with muting hand to add notes to melody or simply to make nice variation.

The kokle’s sound has generally been mixed, mostly diatonic. The bottom string is usually under the bourdon function, and sounds all the time.

There are two well know types of kokle in Latvia:

Latgallian kokle and Kurzemes or Curlandian kokle. They differ mainly by look and wing: Kurzeme kokle is smaller, but more artistic – with many ornaments and signs and has no wing, while Latgallian kokle is bigger, with the wide wing, where player can rest his hand in time of playing, but less ornamented.

The third type of kokle is modern Concert kokle, which had 33 strings and chromatic tuning. They are used by Kokle ensembles – they play modern arrangement of folk songs and can perform even classical music in their repertoire!Listen how Kokle ensemble “Austriņa” performing Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”:


In Skyforger we mostly use 9 -11 string kokle and tune them by most traditional tuning: (from bottom to up) G (major bourdon) A (minor bourdon) C D E F G A B-flat C D. If needed you can tune F to F# and B-flat to B and so on.

We learned to play by ourselves and it is not that hard at all! I think one can learn to play this instrument in one week good enough to accompany some songs! For our folksongs there are 2-3 chords per song used, so it is not really that complicated. Though to be a master at kokle playing – it requires finger dexterity, time and patience!

Here you can find some more info about Kokle:

How kokle is played and how it sounds:

Laima Jansone – young kokle virtuoso: (we had an honour to play with her!) http://www.laimajansone.com/en/ideja/

Valdis Muktupāvels – ethnomusicolog, kokle player and author of book about kokle and and playing traditions in Latvia.

His homepage: http://www.music.lv/mukti/valdis.htm
His book “The Baltic Psaltery and Playing Traditions in Latvia”: http://goo.gl/g6cMN

Kokle/Kantele course materials: http://vanha.edu.utu.fi/rokl/staff/riikonen/vme/

29 thoughts on “Kokle

  1. I would like to ask something 🙂 How much would you pay for a kokle if you wanted to buy one/have one built? Is it possible to get it in common music shops in Latvia or do people rather have it built by some craftsmen?

    • There was shop in old city of Riga, where you can buy some folk instruments, but i wasn’t there for quite a long time now and don’t know if they still sell that stuff. However here is their site and you can try and check it out :

      About prices I’m not sure too, here is Lithuanian kankle and it costs 385 USA dollars:
      so the price can vary about like 100 -500 EU i guess.

      But of course kokles in such shops are made for tourists, not for serious players, the best way is to find some master and order from him. For example :
      Though sometimes there can be found a good example in shop too.

      The guy, from whom we bought kokle previously, unfortunately left our country, so he isn’t an option anymore.

      By the way, we are about to order new one soon, but we need it half electric, so that we could use it on stage along with drums and guitars. I think we are going to pay for it around 600EU. But that’s because of expensive electronic it had.

  2. If you want one and you’re new to it, I’d recommend that you come to the Romuva camp in Lithuania during the summer. There, for a very small price, you’d be in a Baltic Pagan summer camp that will not only teach you how to play one, but how to BUILD one yourself.

    I plan on being there this summer if I can save up the money

    • There’s also creative workshops “Joikas un dainas” (joikasundainas.lv) in Latvia where under the supervision of an experienced craftsman in the period of 4 days you can make your own kokle, shaman drums and Saami purse among other things, as well as learn to play kokle, bagpipes or yoik (a traditional way of Saami throat singing). The available workshops may vary by the year though. The catering and accommodation is provided and free, so the downside is that the spots fill up fast (especially for the kokle workshop)!

      There’s also a similar summer camp organized by Druvienas cilts (http://www.druviena.lv/), but I can’t tell much about it, as I haven’t gone to it.

  3. From England, Michael J King has a great CD available where he illustrates the construction of a Kantele with 3 different methods. I have used the information from that CD and I built two Kokle already, the second one I build is of the Latgale style and I’m very pleased with the sound quality. I took it to a hospital today to play it for sick people there and they and the doctor and nurses were all very pleased with the sound quality, they had never heard anything like this ever before in Canada here.

  4. I’ve been experimenting with kokle building here in Michigan. What you’ve put online is great and far more than the entire web had just a few years ago. So far I’ve only done Kurzemes style kokles. I’ve developed a small nylon strung one meant for the preschoolers my wife teaches at the local Latvian center.

    I plan on putting all my designs of full sized Kokles into google’s 3d warehouse as I get them finished and am willing to help whomever asks. I have a lot going on with my family so I’m slow and often times distracted for spells of time, but I think that putting all resources for Kokle design and playing out into the google cloud and elsewhere will be a great service to the survival of this very ancient instrument. Here in the US most builders are either passed on, old or not online so this page acting as a hub would be great for all interested to trade ideas and information. I look forward to sharing and seeing others work online here or elsewhere if there is better option (picture sharing) out there.

    Thanks Skyforger, you’re helping to preserve something very important to a lot of people.


    • Hey Jim & Dace! Great to hear that even on the other side of the world someone is making kokle! I saw some TV reportage here in Latvia, where young children in schools are taught how to build and play kokle! I mean it is really good to see that this thing is not going in waste.
      Maybe if you have some instruments ready, share a link here too?

      • Facebook doesn’t seem to let me share links. If you search maza kokle on there you get to my stuff. I’m also learning guitar building and I post that there.
        I do have a question about the Latgallian Kokle, does your tone wood extend under the tail block and all the way up the wing? I’ve tried building them (Kurzeme style) both ways with the spruce stopping at a beveled edge and continuing under the the pegs and block and I think when you put the block and pegs in direct contact with the tone wood it amplifies the tone a great deal, but I’m the only one who seems to be wondering about this.

        • Hmm I’m not the right person to ask, as I am not carpenter myself. But mostly deck or as you call it tone wood is always made separate and inserted upon that hole in body, leaving wing with pegs and tail with string attachment rod as main body. One of my friends made kokle with deck all over the body including wing, but it not sounded that good. Look here, where 2 is that deck/tone wood

          • All right, I have a grandma here this week so I’ve had time to play. This is a plain 3d rendering of a Latgallian style Kokle as Peteris has in both his profile pic and above. I did all my art carving in another software package that is too secure to share here, if someone actually owns vcarve pro send me an email and I’ll get you the files.

            This is done on google sketchup 8 which is a free cad package full of brilliant work. I’ll be carving and shaping this over the next few days and will share pics when I have them. I bought a piece of basswood/linden for the body and chose 1/4 inch poplar for the tone wood. I plan on making the pegs from red oak I have stacked up around here all ready. By hand you’re looking at about $50-75 in materials and 80-100 hrs labor (mostly in hollowing and carving). I have my own cnc router so I can knock this out in around 20-30 hrs fully carved. None of these times include the process of lathe carving the tuning pegs which completely sucks to do 🙂 Have fun with the 3d.

  5. I carved the top of my Latgalian Kokle tonight. My super awesome sis in law is here, She just finished her MA in ceramics at the RCA in London (Royal College of the Arts) I hope I got that right. Google Larisa Daiga and see her balls 🙂 It’s cool having a real artist looking at my stuff and giving feedback based on artistic merit and not DP mentality cultural defensiveness. (those Latvian Americans know what I’m talking about when any detail is changed it is instantly challenged as not Latvian enough).

    The wing carving came out great and I’m really happy, unfortunately the sound hole was cutting when my clamp slipped and disaster happened. One suggestion was to do a 4 1/2 inch (about 12 CM) sound hole and then do a fill piece in either a darker hardwood or maybe metal. Has anyone ever equipped a kokle with a resonator piece like on old lap steel guitars. It would make it crisper tonally and even give the player the ability to get a slight distortion sound when chording. I’m trying to decide to start over or go forward with this idea. I’ll post pics to my face book asap of the mistake and some examples of what I’m considering to fix. Give me feedback if you have any opinions.

  6. I used to be suggested this web site by means of my cousin.
    I’m now not sure whether or not this submit is written by way of him as nobody else realize such particular about my trouble. You’re incredible!
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  7. Its my dream to create a true polytheistic tradition out of the Dainas and Latvian folklore. With that I mean non-monotheist, non-pantheist. So there would not be a supreme god, or “creator” or something like universal being. I beleive thats all influece of christianity.

    So I am living here in Latvia and would like to create a community here on the farm, to learn and practice the Dainas, and create a tradition that is fully respecting all the gods. We would try to restore the harmony with nature and save the Earth. We live here very simple with almost no money and buying land that we reforest and save from the hands of the industry.

    I hope to find others mostly Latvians with knowledge of the Dainas and interested in creating this polytheistic tradition and live in community here in harmony with nature. Feel free to contact me, so we can chat 🙂 Email is hubahuba@1email.eu. Uz redzēšanos

  8. Hello, I have bought a 9 string kokle in Riga but have lost the paper explaining the tuning and how to do the chords. I can’t seem to find a 9-string tuning. Could anyone help me? Thank you!

  9. Hi Peters, greetings from Rome, Italy. I wanna know if the name Kokles, Kankles it may by assimilated to the Finno-Ugric one called Kantele. 😀

    • Yes, its the same instrument, also Russians call it Gusli and Estonians Kannele.
      There is many variations in design and how many strings it have and techniques how you play it, but yes, all on all it is same instrument with different names used in Baltic region.

  10. Hey Peteris, I’m trying to build a kokle myself and I was wondering what kind of strings you use. Normal guitar strings? And what gauge? Thanks and hail from the Netherlands!

  11. Hi, Fer!
    Nope, guitar strings aren’t that good for kokle – we usually use piano strings, I don’t remember which size, because i never bought one myself, but probably around same size as G string for guitar.

    • Thanks, tried piano strings and it sounds great! Just took me an hour and 1.5m of string to find a way to reliably tie the little buggers…

      Hope to see you in my hometown of Eindhoven if I’ve got the money!

  12. So… why do you have a picture of kankles there? That’s not how the concert kokle looks like at all.

    • Kankle is the same kokle only in Lithuanian language, it isn’t some different instrument. Ok I changed for better concert kokle picture, just for you!

      • Thank you! 🙂 (That one is a children’s learning kokle though… I guess I should go put some pictures on the internet, so that my interwebs tormenting would have some ground. We just care about these little things. Have a nice day, you guys are very cool!)

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