CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — Appalachian music is a West Virginia staple, right up there with coal mining and pepperoni rolls. The instruments used to make it are some of the most unique and interesting of any genre, some of which you may never have heard of.
According to West Virginia Tourism, Appalachian music in West Virginia traces its origins back primarily to the Scots-Irish settlers who first came and settled in the mountains with simple instruments and tunes they brought from their home country.
With the vast amount of traveling that the settlers were doing, it was important for the instruments they used to be simple, portable and easy to repair. Therefore many of these instruments were originally built from tools and parts that the average person would have laying around.
West Virginia Tourism compiled a list in 2022 of what they considered to be the most influential instruments used in Appalachian music.
A classic in any Western or rural fiction piece, the spoons are exactly what they say they are, two spoons. Played by placing the backs of them together and slapping them against your thigh, this simple-looking instrument is much tougher to play well than it looks. Polyrhythms and various syncopations can quickly throw a novice off their game but look incredibly easy in the hands of a pro.
Drums and percussion aren’t very common in traditional mountain music. Pieces from Bluegrass and the like typically use bass instruments to keep a beat and drive the music forward, such as the upright bass fiddle. Big instruments like this are obviously difficult to transport and as such, settlers had to find a workaround. Look no further than another household item in the washtub bass.
The single-string washtub bass is simply created by attaching a thin cord to the middle underside of a large metal washtub, flipped upside down of course, and then to the top of a broomstick that you brace onto the tub. You then place your foot on the tub to hold it down and adjust the pitch as you pluck the string for various notes. An image demonstrating this can be found below.
This is one you’ve probably heard of. The banjo traces its origin to stringed instruments with gourd bodies that African slaves brought over to America. While used rarely outside of country and bluegrass music, the banjo has still made enough of a cultural impact to have a presence as a household name.
West Virginia also has its own unique style of banjo playing known as “clawhammer” which involves strumming down instead of up, creating a softer, down-to-earth sound than the usual perky pluckiness of traditional banjo playing.
The first of our instruments created in Appalachia, the mountain/Appalachian dulcimer is another string instrument that has a simpler design compared to the common fiddle of the time, thus making it easier to produce in your home.
The dulcimer has a very airy and blissful sound most similar to a harp, making it unique among traditional bluegrass instruments that feature a sharper plucky sound. You also play it in your lap rather than holding it on your shoulder like a fiddle.
The European-made mandolin could be considered a cousin to the more popular guitar as it shares many qualities to it such as the style of strumming and similar fretting. The main difference stems from the size difference between the two.
Mandolins are much smaller and therefore more portable than their popular cousins which made them a key pick for traveling immigrants.
Just like the spoons, a washboard is exactly what it sounds like, a common household item repurposed for the artistic value that lies within. Also like the spoons, the washboard is used primarily as a high-pitched percussion instrument.
The washboard is played in a variety of ways with different styles and methods seemingly varying from person to person. The method of making sounds on the board is also up to artistic interpretation, be it through spoons, bottle openers, etc. The most common way of making music on a washboard though, is by tapping the board with thimbles on your fingers to keep a steady, tinny rhythm.
I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve never seen this one, or at least didn’t know it by name as it’s likely the most obscure instrument on this list. The psaltery has its origins in Ireland and came with the Scots-Irish that immigrated to West Virginia.
Just like its dulcimer cousin, the psaltery is played in your lap and played with a bow like a violin, making it a strange blend of other different instruments. West Virginia Tourism described the psaltery as “like a combination of a dulcimer and a violin, and hauntingly beautiful.”