Instruments of the Central Javanese Gamelan: Rebab

This is the third in a series of articles exploring the various instruments of the Javanese gamelan.

The rebab is a bowed two-string lute of the royal court gamelan orchestras of the central Javanese cities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, Indonesia. Like all gamelan instruments, the rebab is played by a musician sitting cross-legged on the floor or stage, with the player bowing the instrument while holding it upright.

Instrument Construction

Photo of Pak Djoko Walujo with Rebab

Pak Djoko Walujo with Rebab

The resonating chamber of the rebab is a hollowed-out piece of wood about the size of a large coconut, curved in the back and decorated with a velvet cloth and beaded tassels. The front surface of the resonating chamber consists of a membrane made from a bull bladder. Protruding from the bottom of the chamber is a decorative, lathe-turned spike several inches long—forming a leg which rests on the floor. This gives the rebab a striking appearance suggestive of the description “spike fiddle,” as the instrument is sometimes called. Extending from the top of the chamber is the neck, also turned on a lathe.

At the top of the neck is the peg box, in which the wire strings are wound onto two long tuning pegs. Extending from the top of the peg box is a tall pointed spire. Although it serves no musical function, Javanese musicians feel that, in both an aesthetic and a spiritual sense, the rebab represents a conduit between Heaven and Earth. In fact, the entire gamelan orchestra is regarded as highly venerable, even sacred, possessed of mystical powers. Partly for this reason, gamelan sets are given majestic, honorific titles, such as “The Venerable Torrent of Honey,” a gamelan housed in the Sultan’s Palace in Yogyakarta.

The rebab player does not press the strings to the neck while playing. Actually, the neck has no fingerboard. The player merely needs to gently press the string at the correct locations along its length in order to render the pitches of the melody. It is standard practice to play some of the pitches a “hint” higher than the exact fixed pitches of the keyed metal instruments. Doing so makes the rebab—a relatively quiet instrument—brighter and more audible.

Upon close inspection, one will notice that the two bronze strings of the rebab are in fact only one. That is, a single string is wound, at its middle point, several times around the upper base of the leg and then around a small peg. From there, each half of the string extends upward over an adjustable bridge (held on by the tension of the strings), continuing up to the tuning pegs. If the string breaks—depending on where it breaks—it can be unwound a couple of turns from around the leg, and then restrung and retuned. However, restringing a rebab is a relatively time-consuming task. This is one reason why gamelans generally have extra rebabs available during a performance, even though only one is played at any given time.


Our understanding of the history of the rebab is based on informed inference and speculation rather than hard archeological or documentary evidence. On ancient ruins and temples (for example, Borobudur, a large Buddhist monument built in Java during the 8th to 9th centuries CE), one can see reliefs of performing musicians and various instruments carved on the stone walls. However, images of rebabs are lacking. The rebab (Arabic: rabāba) has a long history in the Muslim world, and it is probable that early models of rebab-like bowed lutes were introduced into Java by Islamic traders and sailors sometime during the Middle Ages, perhaps during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Image of Bedouin Rebab Player, Jordan

Contemporary Bedouin Rebab Payer, Jordan

How, then, did rebabs come to be included in gamelan orchestras in modern Java? Perhaps rebabs were played by itinerant musicians outside of the courts, mostly for accompanying themselves or others while singing. If so, over time they would likely have gradually gained acceptance in Javanese culture and eventually been introduced into gamelans to musically support the vocalists.

The validity of this idea may be reinforced by the general function of the rebab in gamelans today, where it melodically supports singers, both male (gerong) and female (pesindhen), in formal compositions. Also, the rebab aids various elaborating instruments (e.g., gender, gambang, suling, siter) by announcing structurally significant pitches just before the elaborating instrument are to sound the same notes. Thus in performance, when the melodic line played by rebab ascends into the upper range, the elaborating instruments and the singers tend to immediately follow.

Image of Javanese Rebab in Case

Javanese Rebab in Case

Playing the Rebab

There are two main categories of gamelan repertoire: the “loud” style and the “soft.” In the soft repertoire, the rebab (or sometimes another instrument or a singer) leads the gamelan with an introductory phrase called a buka (“opening”).  In soft-style compositions (gendhing rebab), the instrument first plays a senggrengang—a short phrase that alerts the other musicians to be ready to play. Then, the rebab will play the buka, leading into the composition’s first section. The rebab always plays an unfretted, open stroke on both strings at the sounding of the large gong (gong ageng), which marks the major structural sections of the composition. It plays on other rhythmically and structurally significant points, such as on strokes of one of the kenongs, medium-sized gongs resembling inverted bronze pots that are horizontally suspended on a rack.

Master rebab players can improvise appropriate melodic phrases effortlessly, while students often rely on written cipher notation of fixed compositions provided by their teachers. It is challenging for foreign students to achieve with authenticity the sound and subtleties of the rebab playing that they hear when seasoned Javanese musicians perform.

The melodic phrases most characteristic of traditional Javanese rebab playing are typically elaborate and ornamental—but may occasionally be quite simple. Either way, they should always be played with an expressive yet calm mood and should sound languid and graceful, in keeping with the rebab‘s role as an elaborating instrument. In this, the tradition of the rebab truly reflects the exquisite refinement characteristic of Javanese royal culture.

Series: Instruments of the Central Javanese Gamelan