A single-corded musical instrument. The instrument is always accompanied by singing; musical folklore, specifically epic poetry. The gusle player (guslar) holds the instrument vertically between his knees, with the left hand fingers on the strings. The strings are never pressed to the neck, giving a harmonic and unique sound.
There are records of an instrument named gusle (гоусли) being played at the court of the 13th-century Serbian King Stefan Nemanjić, but it is not certain whether the term was used in its present-day meaning or it denoted some other kind of string instrument.
The gusle should not be confused with the Russian gusli, which is a psaltery-like instrument; nor with the Czech term for violin, housle.
The gusle consists of a wooden sound box, the maple being considered as the best material (therefore often the instrument is referred to as 'gusle javorove' - maple gusle), covered with an animal skin and a neck with an intricately carved head. A bow is pulled over the string/s (made of horsetail), creating a dramatic and sharp sound, expressive and difficult to master. The string is made of thirty horsehairs.
The gusle has played a significant role in the history of Serbian epic poetry because of its association with the centuries old patriotic oral legacy. Most of the epics are about the era of the Ottoman occupation and the struggle for the liberation from it. With the efforts of ethnographer Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, many of these epics have been collected and published in books in the first half of the 19th century. At the beginning and in the middle of the nineteenth century, the first systematic collections of Serbian folk songs, tales, riddles and proverbs were published. They had been collected by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić 'fresh from the lips of the people'. Serbian folk poetry was given a marvelous reception, as it appeared in Europe when romanticism was in full bloom. This poetry, which appeared in Karadžić's anthological collections, met the 'expectations' of the sophisticated European audience, becoming a living confirmation of Herder's and Grimm's ideas about the oral tradition. Jacob Grimm began to learn Serbian so that he could read the poems in the original. He wrote minute analyses of each new volume of Serbian folk songs. He ranked them as being equal to the Song of Songs, as did Goethe somewhat later. Thanks to Grimm, moreover to the initiatives of the well-educated and wise Slovene Jerner Kopitar (the censor for Slavic books, Karadžić's counselor and protector), Serbian folk literature found its place in the literature of the world.