Instrument Makers and Instrument Making

Updated: March 01, 2011

Appalachia has long been recognized for its diverse musical traditions, and over the past three centuries much of the region’s music has been performed on handmade musical instruments.

Appalachia has long been recognized for its diverse musical traditions, and over the past three centuries much of the region’s music has been performed on handmade musical instruments. Not surprisingly, this musical environment has fueled a craft heritage of instrument making. Practically every type of instrument used in the playing of Appalachian folk music—including the fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, fretted dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, mouth bow, ukulele, autoharp, bones, and piano—has at one time or another been built by an Appalachian instrument maker.

The earliest music makers in the region were Native Americans, but historical accounts shed little light on the instruments made by these various peoples. Documented instrument making within Appalachia begins with settlers from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, whose traditions included both distinctive musical styles and selected types of instruments. As Appalachia’s musical and instrument- making heritage evolved, regionality, industrialization, and popular culture influenced the preferences of local musicians and artisans for instrument forms and playing styles.

Researchers have faced a number of challenges in studying early Appalachian instrument-making traditions, especially in the documentation of instrument making prior to the 1900s. Since instrument making has been primarily a part-time craft in Appalachia, it has rarely been mentioned in historical documents and records. For example, the 1834 inventory of the estate of Jesse Henscher (Wythe County, Virginia) listed dulcimer-making tools (as well as gunsmithing and wheelwright tools), and John Scales Jr. (Floyd County, Virginia) in 1832 signed a dulcimer he made, but neither man was identified as an instrument maker in the manufactures census of the period. Many artisans did not sign their instruments, and often it is only through listening to family stories about particular instruments and through investigating regional instrument forms that researchers can deduce the instruments’ origins.

Three instruments stand out in the Appalachian instrument-making tradition: the fretted dulcimer, the fiddle, and the banjo. Within the region, these instruments have been produced in the greatest numbers, across the broadest geographic range, and over the longest span of time. All three instruments predate the American industrialization of instrument making in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In the mind of the American public no instrument has been more strongly associated with Appalachia than the dulcimer. (The term dulcimer as used here refers only to the fretted dulcimer; the hammered dulcimer also has an Appalachian heritage but was made only in localized pockets, such as central West Virginia.) Along with the fiddle, the dulcimer was likely one of the first instruments made in the region. Early dulcimers are found most often in those areas of Appalachia where people of German ancestry settled.

The oldest dulcimer-family form is the Scheitholt (also referred to as the zither), a straight-sided instrument with frets mounted directly on the body of the instrument rather than atop a soundboard. Found in the Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia, the Scheitholt was still being made by traditional artisans such as Lewis Radford in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia as late as the 1950s.

The more popularly recognized form of the fretted dulcimer, sometimes called the Appalachian dulcimer in modern catalogs, also exhibited regionally specific differences in form. Early dulcimer makers in southwest Virginia, such as Steve Melton (most active in 1890 in Carroll and Lee Counties), favored a teardrop shape for the instrument. However, nineteenth- and twentieth-century craftsmen elsewhere in Appalachia adhered to an hourglass form. These include, in western North Carolina, Eli Presnell (most active c. 1880s, Beech Creek); in eastern Tennessee, James Holly (c. 1920s, Morristown); in eastern Kentucky, James Edward Thomas (c. 1870s, Knott County); in southern Ohio, John H. Lunsford (c. 1870s, Lawrence County); and in southern West Virginia, Lewis Hinkle (c. 1880s, Upshur County). Later dulcimer makers in Appalachia have usually followed the forms popular in their particular localities.

With few exceptions, Appalachian fiddle makers, such as Alabama’s Gene Ivey (DeKalb County), have utilized the basic form established by European violin makers long before Appalachian settlement. Within that context, one of the most regionally influential of the Appalachian fiddle makers was Albert Hash (Grayson County, Virginia); before his death in 1983, Hash taught at least eight other makers of various instruments. His daughter, Audrey Hash Ham (Ashe County, North Carolina), is one of the few female instrument makers in Appalachia. An exception to the European violin form is the gourd fiddle, which features a fiddle-type neck attached to a body made from a gourd. Frank Couch (Hancock County, Tennessee) made gourd fiddles as early as 1840, and similar instruments have also been found in southwest Virginia. Such instruments were likely made elsewhere in Appalachia, but since musicians preferred the standard forms of instruments, surviving gourd fiddles are rare.

Banjo-making traditions in Appalachia probably developed later than regional dulcimer and fiddle traditions. Prior  to the 1830s, the banjo was a homemade gourd instrument made and played by slaves primarily in eastern Virginia and Maryland. In the 1840s, during the popularity of the new minstrel genre of entertainment, white banjoists performing in blackface with frame (as opposed to gourd) banjos toured Appalachia, in many cases as part of circus troupes. White Appalachian musicians thereafter enthusiastically took up the banjo. Early-twentieth-century gourd banjos are mentioned in oral histories in North Carolina and Kentucky, but most artisans built instruments patterned closely after the factory-made banjos that became readily available through mail-order catalogs in the late nineteenth century. Again, folk instrument makers historically did not sign their work, and it is not until the first quarter of the twentieth century that prolific Appalachian banjo makers can be specifically identified.

One regional banjo variation is found in the construction of the so-called mountain banjo, which features a small animal-hide head drawn across a circular hoop with a broad wooden rim. Built primarily from the late 1800s to the 1950s, the mountain banjo was produced by instrument makers in southwest Virginia such as Bill Plummer of Smyth County, as well as by artisans of nearby counties in neigh- boring states, such as Stanley Hicks of Watauga County, North Carolina. Plummer is the only Appalachian African American banjo maker that researchers have specifically identified thus far. The more common version of the mountain banjo made in the Blue Ridge has a round body, yet makers in the valley system west of the Blue Ridge and into the Alleghenies also fashioned octagonal rims.

Despite local instrument-making traditions, most musical instruments used by Appalachian musicians have come from factory sources outside the region. By the end of the nineteenth century, musical instruments of many types could easily be ordered through the mail, and, in part because of catalog sales, “newer” instruments, such as the mandolin, the autoharp, and the guitar, became part of the Appalachian folk music environment. Still, the traditional instrument maker—almost always a male artisan working part-time at his craft—remained an important figure in Appalachian society, fulfilling local demand for the type of instrument he produced. The increased attention granted Appalachian folklife during the twentieth century led to the documentation of numerous regional instrument makers. Many modern-day Appalachian instrument makers are recognized as cultural resources. A few of the finest—such as Virginia guitar maker and champion guitarist Wayne Henderson (Grayson County), North Carolina dulcimer and banjo maker Leonard Glenn (Watauga County), and Kentucky dulcimer, banjo, guitar, ukulele, and mandolin maker Homer Ledford (Clark County)—have received special recognition from state or national arts councils.

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MLA Style

"Instrument Makers and Instrument Making," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2018, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 26 May 2018 <http://www.www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=120>

APA Style

"Instrument Makers and Instrument Making." (2018) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved May 26, 2018, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=120

Leonard Glenn