The kanun has undergone various changes since its invention. The strings used to be made of gut, but since the early 20th century nylon strings, which give a more powerful sound and are easily available in various gauges, have superseded these. The pegs used today are another recent modification that did not exist in the original instrument. Before these were introduced the musician obtained the notes he desired by pressing on the strings with the nail of his left thumb, making it a far more difficult instrument to play. Haci Arif Bey was the greatest virtuoso of the kanun in this original form in the 19th century. The next kanun virtuoso was the 20th century musician Ferid Alnar, who won a reputation as a very young man with his unusual style of playing, and was regarded as a master before he had reached the age of 20. In 1946 Alnar composed his Concerto for String Instruments and Kanun. Other celebrated kanun players were ‘Blind’ Nazim Bey, Vecihe Daryal and Ahmet Yatman.
The kanun player sits with his instrument on his knees, and with picks made of tortoiseshell attached to rings on the forefinger of each hand. With the left hand he adjusts the pegs to the correct pitch for the piece as the makam changes, while playing the melody with his right. Like the piano, each string produces the single note to which it is tuned. The instrument is played with all the fingers, using a technique comparable to that of the harp and guitar. It is the instrument best adapted to polyphonic music, and might be called the piano of Turkish music. It is equally at home as an accompanying or solo instrument. When played in an orchestra or ensemble it sweeps up all the other instruments and leads them on. The kanun is an instrument of special importance, since it can play both jazz and chamber music, and also has the advantage of being a solo instrument, which can play symphonic works.
Reference: Tahir Aydogdu, Umut Gokalp/Skylife
Some selected examples (please click on pictures to enlarge):