Nyckelharpa: Swedish Folk Instrument Made And Played By Eau Claire Family

By Erika Janik | December 23, 2015


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Earl Holzman was already an accomplished woodworker when he decided to try something new. He began making nyckelharpas, an early Swedish relative of the violin with keyed notes, after his son Ian fell in love with the instrument as a teenager.

Holzman first discovered the instrument through folk dancing with his wife at Folklore Village in Dodgeville in the early 1980s. Musicians would sometimes bring nyckelharpas to Scandinavian folk events. That’s also how Ian, already an accomplished fiddler, learned of the nyckelharpa. 

The nyckelharpa has been played in Sweden for centuries. It hangs on the front of the body like a guitar but is bowed. There are about 37 keys that are pressed to change the sound of the strings.

Holzman had never made an instrument before but he found plans for the instrument in English and a kit. Together, Earl and Ian made their first instrument back home in Eau Claire. 

A serious car accident a few years later left Holzman with a fused back. Unable to lift heavy pieces of wood, he took to building nyckelharpas. He honed his craft in Sweden and travels to Europe to keep in touch with the instrument builders. Today, he’s one of few American makers of the instruments.

Ian, now in his 20s, continues to play, and Holzman and his wife travel to festivals and give lectures on Scandinavian music and folk culture. 



Erika Janik

Erika Janik

Erika Janik is the co-creator and former executive director of Wisconsin Life. She is the author of six books, including Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, Apple: A Global History, and  Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine. She’s currently the executive...

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