The original sambuca is generally supposed to have been a small triangular harp of shrill tone., probably identical with the Phoenician sabecha and the Aramaic sabbekā, the Greek form being σαμβύκη or σαμβύχη.
The sambuca has been compared to the siege engine of the same name by some classical writers; Polybius likens it to a rope ladder; others describe it as boat-shaped. Among the musical instruments known, the Egyptian nanga best answers to these descriptions, which are doubtless responsible for the medieval drawings representing the sambuca as a kind of tambourine, for Isidore of Seville elsewhere defines the symphonia as a tambourine.
- a stringed instrument, about which little can be discovered
- a wind instrument made from the wood of the elder tree (sambūcus).
In an old glossary article on vloyt (flute), the sambuca is said to be a kind of flute:
Sambuca vel sambucus est quaedam arbor parva et mollis, unde haec sambuca est quaedam species symphoniae qui fit de illa arbore.
Sambuca in musicis species est symphoniarum. Est enim genus ligni fragilis unde et tibiae componuntur.
The sambuca is in the symphonia family of musical instruments. It is also a kind of softwood from which these pipes are made.
Sambuca, cytherae rusticae.
Sambucas, simple harps.
In Tristan und Isolde (bars 7563-72) when the knight is enumerating to King Marke all the instruments upon which he can play, the sambiut is the last mentioned:
Waz ist daz, lieber mann?
— Daz veste Seitspiel daz ich kann.
What is this now, you free man?
— It's the Seitspiel, yes, I can.
A Latin–French glossary has the equivalence Psalterium = sambue. During the later Middle Ages sambuca was often translated "sackbut" in the vocabularies, whether merely from the phonetic similarity of the two words has not yet been established.
The great Boulogne Psalter (11th Century) contains many fanciful instruments which are evidently intended to illustrate the equally vague and fanciful descriptions of instruments in the apocryphal letter of Saint Jerome, ad Dardanum ("to Dardanus"). Among these is a Sambuca, which resembles a somewhat primitive sackbut without the bell joint. In the 19th Century it was reproduced by Edmond de Coussemaker, Charles de la Croix and Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, and has given rise to endless discussions without leading to any satisfactory solution.
- Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, published 1913 by C. & G. Merriam Co.
- Schlesinger 1911, p. 114 cites: Arist. Quint. Meib. ii. p. 101.
- Schlesinger 1911, p. 114.
- Schlesinger 1911, p. 114 notes: see Michael Praetorius (1618). Syntagma Musicum (in Latin). Wolfenbüttel. p. 248. and plate 42, where the illustration resembles a tambourine, but the description mentions strings, showing that the author himself was puzzled.
- Schlesinger 1911, p. 114 cites: Fundgruben (in Latin). 1. p. 368.
- Schlesinger 1911, p. 114 cites: Isidore of Seville. "20". Etymologiae (in Latin). 2.
- Schlesinger 1911, p. 114 cites: MS Montpellier H110, fol. 212 v..