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More Percussion
Historical Tidbits

Appalachian Dulcimer
Here is a short history of the mountain or Appalachian or hourglass or lap dulcimer....Everythingdulcimer has all kinds of information on the instrument.  There are dulcimer clubs all over the United States. 

I have an hourglass cardboard dulcimer that I made from a kit. Painted it blue to match the upstairs bedroom (only paint I could find in the basement at the time...)  Cardboard actually makes a nice instrument. Quite a few schools use cardboard dulcimers in their grade school music programs.

I also have a nice wooden dulcimer that I play and another nice one that I don't much because I always grab the one that is lighter to carry...

I am currently president of the Firelands Dulcimer Club 12/2001. If you want some FREE MUSIC for the lap dulcimer, go to the club website to get the link to my yahoo group "public domain dulcimer".  I have quite a few pieces of music on the site to be downloaded.

Autoharp or chorded zither:

Meg Peterson says in one of her books that "Charles F. Zimmerman invented the autoharp in 1881. It is our only completely native American musical instrument." Interestingly, she was completely wrong. Benjamin Franklin's glass armonica was invented in 1761 and the chorded zither was German.

The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments says it is a kind of zither that was invented in the 1870s as AKKord zither, in Germany, the country of its main manufacturer today, though it had makers in America, too, from early on.

So who is right? There is a terrific website that explains the true history:

The True History of the Autoharp  by Ivan Stiles - The article sums it up with the following:

        "Even though we know that Zimmermann did not invent the chord zither, he certainly was responsible for popularizing the instrument in the United States. However, now that the true history of the autoharp is known, it is important to give credit to Karl August GŁtter, the real inventor of the instrument we know as the autoharp."

So it was invented in Germany and is not a completely native American musical instrument.

The word "autoharp" is patented by the Oscar Schmidt company.  So other companies who made the instrument must use a different name for their product.

         "What's in a name? Quality, history, and tradition--that's what. Our Autoharp is the original, with over 100 years of history behind. A wide variety of instruments to choose from. Oscar Schmidt is truly the original and only complete source for the Autoharp."

I saw someone playing the autoharp in the Appalachian style on TV.  He held the instrument vertically and picked tunes on it. I fell in love with it immediately!  When I saw one in the Sears Catalog, I saved my money and ordered it.  I have played it quite a bit, so much so that some of the letters are worn off the buttons.

One of the nice things about Christmas is if you give your child something that they don't want to play with, you get to play with it.  I have alot of fun with the small autoharp.  I like to play it for students so they can hear that an instrument made for kids can be great fun to play.

Banjo, tenor:

Click here for: The Banjo - A Short History by Mick Moloney  - it has some nice links to more info!

For a great discussion on banjos in Appalachia see Foxfire 3 published by Anchor Books. The Foxfire books if you are not familiar with them - are a terrific resource of information.  Here are some bits and pieces from book 3:

        "Trying to trace the history of the banjo as a musical instrument quickly make you want to tear your hair out. ...One one fact, however, nearly all are in agreement: that America's favorite folk instrument was brought to this country from Africa and Jamaica by Negro slaves in the eighteenth century.....

        "How did it get to Africa? Pete Seeger speculates that the Arabs may have brought it to the African West Coast....We know that instruments like it in the Near and Far East...have been common for nearly as long as records exist, and stringed instruments with skin heads and wooden shells are known to have existed nearly 4,500 years ago in Egypt.

        "..... Cats, possums, raccoons, sheep, snakes and other assorted creatures supplied the skins for the early banjo heads...."

M.C. Worley
        "....his father used the skin of a house cat for his heads. "I'd rather skin a polecat than a housecat. They're the stinkinest things I've ever seen"

Stanley Hicks
          ...."But I helped my daddy make banjos. I don't know at the cats I got for him [for the hides]. But people got fond of'em. I had the best cat dog that could be got. I'd turn him loose and have my club tied right here [in a loop on his pants leg], and that dog would go to a house. I had him trained. He'd come to this house and run this cat away from there and take it to the woods and tree it. And I'd go climb the tree and motion about two or three times to it, and if it jumped, he'd catch it and hold it till I got down. He wouldn't chew it up. I had him trained so he wouldn't chew it! And then I'd get down and finish it off. I'd take'em in a sack and slip around through the woods so nobody wouldn't see me. I couldn't tell you how many I have took in.
          "But they got fond of'em. Back then they didn't care, you know. They'uz too many cats anyhow, and they didn't care much. But they just didn't want t'see you come t'th'house!
          "I wouldn't get th'last cat a man had [laughing]. When I got down to one, I'd leave it fer'im!"

I bought my tenor banjo used from a local music store - Sandusky Music. I don't play it often. I like the sound of a banjo.  I look up a couple of chords and can accompany singing.

Bowed Psaltery:
           Sold the one I had.... Bits of history of the bowed psaltery from Tutor for Diatonic & Chromatic Bowed Psalteries by George Kelischek. 1984 This is a nice little book if you can find a copy.
        "Psalteries of one form or another have been in use since biblical times and appear throughout the history of music.....It was only 35 years ago when a German elementary school teacher living in the Sauerland Mountains of Westfalia created the "STREICHPSALTER", which translates into BOWED PSALTERY. His name is Walter Mittmann and his intention was to create an instrument which children could easily learn and would enjoy playing. The idea took hold rather quickly and the use of the instrument spread rapidly throughout Europe."

There are a number of bowed psaltery makers on the web - click here for one.


Clavinova - Yeah, I know. No strings and it can be a percussion instrument. But I didn't want to put it with the drums or make another category. This is my electronic piano by Yamaha - I have it hooked up to the computer and use Encore to arrange music!

Diddley Bow or Jitterbug:
I have a good time playing with the diddley bow. My kids complain when I play it - are we reversing roles here? - I used a board, wire, tacks, and two film canisters to make mine. I put it on a wastebasket to amplify the sound...

From the Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax 1993 page 347 - This book is great reading. It has more on the diddley bow than I have quoted here.

            "The one-stringed African-American descendant of the oldest of all instruments. Descended from mouthbows and a one-stringed zither from the Congo. Its vibrating string is a sliver of fiber cut out of the central stalk of a large palm leaf and raised up at each end by two bridges. This toylike zither rests on the ground or on top of a gourd resonator, and often two children play it, one beating out a spiky rhythm with two little sticks, the other sliding a metal cup or gourd along the palm fiber to play a very "glissy" tune.

            "Most of us know "jitterbug" as a term for a forties dance style, but the root of the word seems to be African. It seems to refer to a little bug or a small child, crawling on the floor."

I read that Bo Diddley got his name from the instrument. Apparently not. See below:
            "Some claim he got the stage name Bo Diddley from a one-stringed African guitar, the diddley bow. In fact, this is probably the least likely of the derivations. (BO DIDDLEY himself claims only to have heard of this theory in recent years). The truth is that he does not know why he gained this nickname, only that it was often used in the south of the USA to describe a mischievous boy, or a scallywag (Bojangles is a similar term)"
  comment by David Blakey of BO DIDDLEY - The Originator


Fiddles - plastic and others:

I got the plastic one from Elderly Instruments. Here is the information about it from their catalog 1998 page 68.

"It's fantastic!
"It's plastic!
"It's the unique and fascinating Maccaferri violin.

"This wonderful, student-grade violin was the last major project of famed guitarist, inventor, luthier, and entrepreneur Mario Maccaferri. Made of die-injection molded plastics, it is the culmination of years of research and testing by Maccaferri and a team of violinists. In 1990, the Maccaferri plastic violin was unveiled in a recital at Carnegie Hall, and even merited a review in the New York Times!

"We're please to be the first retailer ever to offer it to the public.

"Each violin features a professionally-fit bridge, and a good set of strings. Other features include a cremona-like brown color, black fittings, wooden soundpost and tone bar brace, and through-body metal rod to support the neck. They're set up fairly well, but we have not tweaked the original setup at all, so we're selling the AS IS without our usual warranty."

When I called to order it, I asked about playing it. The salesperson was surprised that I actually intended on playing it. Most people just order it as a conversation piece. Unfortunately, the bridge snapped while it was stored in the case. I have had it out to play and performed with Firelands Dulcimer Club with it. I don't know why the bridge snapped. It was a continual problem and I finally sold it.
          I do also own an inexpensive violin - I bought it just to fiddle around! Then my daughter grabbed it and joined strings at school. So I bought another so I could fiddle around... (This was before I got the plastic one.) I am learning slowly. Just not enough time to practice. By the time I get past the other instruments and finally reach for the fiddle, it is time to get the girls from school.

        I met a new friend who has a terrific fiddle page. It has some great pictures and history of fiddle playing. Go see!!! Nelson McGarys Oldtime Fiddle Pages!


Hammer dulcimer:

The hammer dulcimer was one of Henry Ford's favorite instruments. He included it in "Henry Ford's Old Fashioned Dance Orchestra".  He felt the music of his day was corrupting the youth.....

The hammer dulcimer is not related to the Appalachian or lap dulcimer.  No reason to put much history about the instrument here. The Smithsonian has a great page on it.   For a humorous fictitious history of the instrument go to Kitchen Musician's page. Here are some more Internet Resources on Hammered Dulcimers:

I have a student's hammer dulcimer that I ordered from Elderly Instruments. It is a 12/11. I like it because it is not terribly heavy to lug around. Maddie MacNeil once let me lift her instrument.... felt like 100 pound weights. Felt like the time I tried to pick up my son's suitcase not realizing he had put weights in it!

I used to have a reproduction of a Victorian parlor dulcimer. It is a 9/8. I never played it much.

I learned to play it with a group of friends. We all bought the same book and learned together from the book. I still get together with them to play once in a while.


I own my Grandfather Carl Gundlach's bowl back mandolin. He had been an expert player and gave lessons to others when he was in his teens. Unfortunately, I never heard him play. He had given it up before I was born. My mother commented that she always wondered how he played the instrument so well. The strings are very close together and my grandfather had huge hands and fingers.
          Here is a   history link with more information.


from page 61 of the Elderly Instruments catalog (from a couple years ago...)Picture of a Marxolin - Aqua-Lin

Marxolin Instruments

            "The Marx Music Co. of New Troy, Michigan, was once well-known in this neck of the woods. Back in the first half of the century, the Marx company became famous for building unique, simple-to-play parlor instruments. While not in the same league as say the Martin and Gibson instruments of the era (both in terms of quality and in terms of monetary value), they're still fascinating. They're as much fun to noodle around with today as they were during the 1930s & 40s, and they're great conversation pieces.

            "Well, you can imagine how intrigued we were when we heard that Marx's leftover inventory - all but forgotten in their abandoned factory for 30 years, and still in the original cartons - was to go on the auction block. We went to the auction and snatched up as much as we could. Even though we're offering these instruments "AS IS" they're in surprisingly good shape. As we said. they're in the original cartons, and some are in tune. Some of the strings are a little tarnished, and the boxes of some are a bit musty - but, again, not too bad.

            "  "Aqua-Lin" - We made up the name, mostly because of its bright "aqua-burst" color, and because we weren't sure what Marx called it. (We've since learned that they called it the "Hawaii'lin." but there's no indication of that on the instrument.) The body is 20" long, and has 18 strings (none on each side of the body), with four chime levers and two pitch shift levers. A wire music holder pops up when you open the case. It's played with a bow (not included) in one hand, and the levers are operated with the other. Beyond that, you'll have to figure it out on your own. A rectangular hard-shell case is included. "

I have a great deal of fun with mine. Sadly, I had just really figured out the vibra-chords when one of them broke off and cannot be repaired.  But I can still bow it. When I first got it, I opened the box and thought "This is the ugliest instrument I have ever seen!" But I take it into the schools and the kids think it is beautiful.....



I have two mouthbows. One I made from a musical saw string bow by putting an old guitar string on it. The other is a Native American mouthbow. I got interested in it when I saw Buffy Sainte-Marie play one on Sesame Street. 

The following is an excerpt from Buffy's comments on the Mouthbow in The Buffy Sainte-Marie Songbook:

          "A mouthbow is probably the oldest musical instrument in the world. It is basically a hunting bow and I guess somebody one day figured out that you can make music on a weapon. Maybe someday there will be virtuoso concertos to be played on M-1s and tanks.
          "Mouthbows have been
found all over the world among people who use handmade hunting bows and have the time to find something worth singing about. I've seen mouthbows from South America that were as tall as a man. Some mouthbows have a gourd attached to simplify the sound, and others have rattles tied on and they sound good when you shake them. Mouthbows have been seen in Africa, New Guinea, Borneo, Finland, Canada, and Greenwich Village. Jimmy Driftwood plays something called a picking bow made from a spinning wheel, but the ones I play are a lot lighter than a picking bow, and so flexible you can bend the bow itself."



The ooney-can is a single string instrument that comes in a kit that you assemble yourself. I used a spaghetti sauce can on mine. It has a plastic fretboard. Fun to play! I found it at a gift store in Marblehead, Ohio called Just for Ewe. Here's some information from the flyer that came with it:

                            I Can
                            You Can
                            We All Can
                            Play the
A Fun Musical Instrument for the Young and Young at Heart

The Dulcimer, Rt. 1 Box 571, Blowing Rock, NC 28605 - Jo and Rogers Magee

Ukulele and banjo ukulele:

My daughter has a ukulele that she allows me to play. I also have a banjo-ukulele.  I like this page on Kamaka ukuleles..most of the ukulele builders there are hearing impaired. Also has a history page. They made the ukulele that Tiny Tim played! The banjo ukulele is a ukulele with a skin head on it. Here is a web page about them.


Violin-uke or Ukelin:
            I got mine from Ebay auction; I've since sold it. I've seen them auctioned off for at a wide range of prices. I got one in good shape at a good price....In other words, if you want one, shop a while. I found a web page with Ukelin Numeric Song Sheets. America's Shrine to Music Museum at the University of South Dakota has information on the Violin-uke (scroll down the questions). The Smithsonian Institution has good information, here is an excerpt:

The Ukelin and Related Instruments
          " "Ukelin" is one of the more common trade names of a type of stringed musical instrument marketed from the early 1920s until about 1965.
          "Ukelins combine two sets of strings, one group of sixteen strings tuned to the scale of C (from middle C on a piano to the C two octaves above) plus four groups of four strings, each group tuned to a chord. The instrument is meant to be placed on a table with the larger end toward the performer, and while the right hand plays the melody on the treble strings with a violin bow, accompanying chords are played on the bass strings with the left hand using either the fingers or a pick. Each string and chord group is numbered, and sheet music is provided in a special numerical system intended to simplify playing for persons unable to read standard musical notation.
          "Ukelin-type instruments were usually sold by door-to-door commission salesmen, often on a time-payment plan, and were intended for home music-making by persons without a formal musical education."



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Barbara F. Gregory, Columbus, Ohio

Last modified: January 19, 2014