Other Instruments

Updated: March 01, 2011

While a number of musical instruments (including the fiddle, banjo, guitar, fretted dulcimer, mandolin, autoharp, bass, dobro, pedal steel guitar, and harmonica) are commonly associated with Appalachia, several other instruments—such as the mouth bow, psaltery, Jew’s harp, and musical bones or spoons—have historically been important within the region.

While a number of musical instruments (including the fiddle, banjo, guitar, fretted dulcimer, mandolin, autoharp, bass, dobro, pedal steel guitar, and harmonica) are commonly associated with Appalachia, several other instruments—such as the mouth bow, psaltery, Jew’s harp, and musical bones or spoons—have historically been important within the region.

The mouth bow, or musical bow, was one of the first musical instruments played in Appalachia. Closely resembling a hunting bow, the mouth bow includes a tuning peg utilized to change the pitch of the instrument’s one string. A player plucks the string while using his mouth as a resonating chamber. Similar instruments have been historically found around the world (particularly in Africa). The mouth bow was common among Appalachian Native Americans, who shared their knowledge of the instrument with European settlers. The mouth bow is not often played in present-day Appalachia, having been displaced by more versatile stringed instruments.

Closely related to the zither and the harpsichord, the psaltery is a triangular- or trapezoidal-shaped instrument that is either plucked with fingers or bowed (with one or some- times two bows); the instrument generally contains twenty- two to thirty-two strings. Mentioned in the Bible, the psaltery was once popular in some Appalachian localities because it was easy to learn, with strings tuned to a chord when played in the open position. While not widely played in modern-day Appalachia, the psaltery has experienced a revival, with several companies designing and building the instrument.

The Jew’s harp (sometimes called juice harp or jaw harp) has been played in many cultures but is most closely associated with Europeans. In Appalachia, the instrument was traditionally played as both a solo and an ensemble instrument. The Jew’s harp is played by using the mouth cavity as a sound chamber and by plucking a reed positioned inside the body of the instrument. Most Jew’s harps found in Appalachia have been commercially manufactured out of metal.

Appalachian people have long utilized two expressly rhythmic instruments: bones and spoons. Both instruments consist of a pair of similarly sized objects that are held between different fingers of the same hand and are rapidly clanged together. Bones were originally made out of animal ribs, generally from a cow, while spoons were generally spoons or other household utensils. A skilled bones or spoons player could vary the pitch of the instrument by adjusting each of the two bones in the hand and knocking them together at different angles. Bones and spoons players in Appalachia often served as percussion players in musical ensembles featuring fiddles, banjos, and guitars. Household implements, such as pots and pans, have also been employed as percussion instruments.

Certain instruments not closely associated with Appalachia are nonetheless common, even mainstream, in the region. The piano, long popular among Appalachian people, has been played in some churches and in many homes. The popularity of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s brought drum sets into the region as well as such instruments as the electric guitar, electric bass, and electric fiddle. The recent increase in popularity of two other instruments in Appalachia—the highland bagpipes and the Celtic harp—is an outgrowth of the ongoing revival of Celtic cultural traditions across the region and an acknowledgement of the important influence of Scottish and Irish cultures on Appalachia.

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MLA Style

"Other Instruments," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2014, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 18 Dec 2014 <http://www.www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=167>

APA Style

"Other Instruments." (2014) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved December 18, 2014, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=167

Mouth Bow