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Blues Instruments of Note

Music Instruments

I recently have found myself completely enthralled with the sounds of the Blues, especially, after attending a show in Sacramento, California of one of my favorite artists, Paul Thorn. Now Paul has a very unique sound that I really enjoy but tonight I began to wonder what are all the instruments used in this genre of music.

I have done some research and came up with the following:

The Dobro (Steelbody Guitar) also known as Resonator Guitar
Wooden box (a Cajon)
Djembe (African)
Ibo Drum (African)
Kalimba (African)

It completely makes sense that the tuba and trombone are used in the Blues. What I did find a little interesting and made me chuckle was the use of two spoons to create rhythm. It reminded me of the sounds of tropical music such as in Jamaica, Hawaii, Cuba and Africa.

I learned about the sousaphon when I took a music class in junior high school but at the time was not familiar with the Blues. The sousaphon was created in four-valve and three-valve models. The four-valve seems to usually come with upright bells. Three-valve ones were created to reduce the weight and to lower the cost. Up until the Depression, they were silver-plated and then silver became prohibited to be used making its creators to use a clear lacquer for the standard finish. The silver finish is still available but the cost is extra and very pricey.

The washboard is a traditional instrument that is still widely used. Yes, the washboard is used for, you guessed it, laundry. Its use as an instrument for playing Blues and falls in the percussion category. I found a lot of information on how it is used and played. The traditional one is made in a wooden frame but it is also made in metal, galvanized steel, glass and brass. The glass is the one that caught my attention and would love to hear how that one sounds. Interestingly, the wooden frame is playing by tapping and scraping using thimbles. Washboards are used in jug bands and are stroked using whisk brooms making it function as a drum in the back-beat in most songs. This makes it a substitute for a snare drum. When used in a four-beat measure, strokes are in two-beat and four-beat. To achieve the best sound a single steel-wire snare-brush or whisk broom is used. It is an easy instrument to play and the rhythm pattern used is 1+2+3+4+ using thimbles on the fingers and dragging them across with the dominant hand in a downward position. You would tap the finger using the thimble for the + and needs to be followed by a striking of the board for accenting the following number.

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The Dobro was used when there were no amplifiers. It is a resonator guitar which is inverted in single form. At the time it was created it gave a louder sound and more cost effective as opposed to the tricone from the same period. Also known as a resophonic guitar, it is an acoustic and the sound is produced by one or more spun metal cones, which is a resonator, as opposed to using the wooden sounboard. The resonator comes in squared and round necks. Squared ones were designed to play steel guitar while the round ones were designed to be played in conventional classic and lap steel guitar style. It comes in three main designs: tricone, single cone “biscuit” and single inverted-cone. The tricone has three metal cones for resonator guitars while the single cone is used for other National instruments and the single inverted-cone is the design used for the Dobro. Now, I love bluegrass as well and am very pleased to discover that the resonator guitar was introduced to it. I’m familiar with Flatt and Scruggs and, evidently, Josh Graves brought it into the mix in the mid-1950s using the hard-driven, syncopated three-finger picking style that Earl Scruggs developed for the five-string banjo. In modern play, it is still used this way except for Tut Taylor who uses a flat pick.

Wooden box drums is actually used in my culture as well, the Cuban music. It is basically a wooden box drum and was originally used to play Rumba Yambu and a think wooden panel forms the “skin.” It can me made big enough to sit on while being played and depending on where you hit the box will determine the sound and tone you want to create. The wooden box was originally developed in the early 1800’s and it is Afro-Peruvian. In modern styles an additional feature was added by using several screws in order to adjust the timbre. Also, guitar strings, drum snares or rattles are an option to be added and it gives a buzz effect to the sound produced. Some styles offer a bass pedal, which gives different quality sound. There is also an additional style now considered a hybrid between the wooden box and the congas. Again, what a pleasant surprise. Congas are used widely in many Hispanic and Latin music cultures including, especially, Cuba. The sound quality in these is extremely different. The wooden box is basically considered a drum normally used for rumba, flamenco, traditional African and modern rock. Finding this to be used in the Blues genre just makes a lot of sense.

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In my research, I didn’t understand at first why the African Djembe is used in Blues and discovered that it is a skin covered hand drum shaped in the form of a goblet meant to be used and played with bared hands. It’s a membranophone family instrument and the frame or shell is covered by a membrane or drumhead mostly commonly made of rawhide. The reason it is used in Blues is due to its goblet shape and the density of the wood to create a wide variety of tones. Due to the round shape with an extended tube it gives it the deep bass note used within the Blues. The primary notes played are considered generally bass, tone and slap but advanced players of this instrument can achieve a variety of other tones. The bass comes out low and deep while the tone is more round and full, and yet, the slap creates a high and sharp sound. For maximum effect you want minimum effort and the key to this is by focusing or dispersing the energy of the hand and its position in the correct place. In its technique you want to strike the instrument. If done on the skin with your palm and fingers, do it towards the center of the drum to create and produce the bass note. Otherwise, striking the skin near the rim will create and produce the tone and slap while fleshy part of the palm is just above the rim.

The African ibo drum is also hand used and is produced in ceramic, wood, fiberglass tri sound and is used as well as a percussion instrument. It has a long neck and it originally is from Nigeria. Meinl is the company who makes this instrument in modern times. The ceramic body enhances higher frequencies and is dominant with fat and powerful bass tones. The fiberglass has a sealed metal chamber and it contains water which in turn adds fluctuating overtones offering a large variety of tones depending on your technique. Wood ibo drums offer a wide sonic range in dry tone and has a mic hole. Keep in mind that the Ibo has a low sound instrument when played by itself.

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The kalimba is a small percussion instrument and was modernized from the African mbira, also known as the African thumb piano. Made with metal keys, it is a sound box used in South Africa. It does have a hollow box resonator or a sounding board and it is played by plucking using the thumbs or fingers in reeds or tines. It also is a member of the lamellophone music instruments. Originally it was named the Treble and it had a larger but low pitch 15-note giving it its Alto name. Later created styles added similar but different note layouts and not surprisingly it is played in the G note. Traditional ones were mounted on a piece of wood which would be hollowed to give that resonator sound, thus, a resonant box. Kalimbas are also flat boarded and placed inside or on top of what is called a hollow gourd and this was used to amplify the resonator, ultimately, changing and altering the quality sound produced.

More than likely, there are more instruments that are used in Blues and Bluegrass. These are the ones I found to be most widely used in my research.

© July 31, 2010
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Libby Baez