Appalachian Mouthbow Care
and Feeding
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HISTORY

The mouthbow, as found in the southern Appalachian Mountains, is an instrument of African origin. This is not to say they were exclusive to that culture, only that the appearance of these instruments in North America does not seem to predate the importation of African slaves.

Some time during the 19th century the mouthbow transitioned from the black slave into the Anglo mountain culture. It was also known as a "tangbow" or "songbow". Because of its ease of construction, modest volume, and unobtrusive playing style it found a home with ballad singers in the secluded hollows of the southern Appalachian Mountains. It also, no doubt, migrated to the west (now the Midwest) with the mountain folks that were beginning to feel a little bit crowded by the influx of civilization (i.e., being able to see the smoke from their neighbor's cook fire.)

Two hundred years ago horse tail hair, flax fiber, gut or sinew were used for strings on mouthbows. The bow material was usually a soft wood. Most originals I've seen are cedar but I've found sassafras to work very well. The basic pitch of the bow is determined by the length, width, thickness, shape and density of the wood AND the size and tension of the string. Once you have sorted out these seven variables to get a playable instrument, then you may concern yourself with how to hold your mouth and move your tongue inside to vary the basis pitch enough to play a tune.

PLAYING

1. Tension the bow until the drone pitch of the string is around middle "C" or "D" on a piano. I have found the lower the drone pitch, the wider the range of notes I can hit.
2. Open your mouth about half way. Hold the bow, with the string away from you, in your left hand (right-handed person). Your hand should be about six inches in from the end without the peg. Bring the bow up to your mouth. Position the string ball approximately in the right corner of your mouth. The body of the bow should now run diagonally across your torso (right shoulder to left hip). The ball-end of the bow should be held against your face with a slight pressure and cover approximately half of your open mouth.
3. Pick (pluck) the string one time and mouth (no vocal) the word "ow". If you get an audible sound, you are on the right track. If not, continue the above procedure using slightly different positions on your face each time you pick the string. Don't give up without a fight.
4. Until you get used to picking the bow, use a thin, flexible pick. Once your accuracy and "touch" improve, you may switch to a stiffer pick for more volume and to eliminate the clacky sound.
5. Once you have "your sound", experiment with different mouth movements (i.e., opening and closing, moving your tongue forward and back, and tightening and loosening your cheek muscles) to get more sounds. Have fun with it! The best place to practice is a tile bathroom, a stairwell, or an empty trash dumpster. (Just kidding about the dumpster!)

TECHNICAL STUFF

1. Always slack the tension on your bow when you are done playing to keep it from taking a set.
2. Proper tightness is kept on the tuning peg by applying a slight inward pressure while both tightening and loosening the string.
3. The basic drone pitch of the bow (with a specific amount of tension) can be changed by restringing with a smaller diameter (up) or larger diameter (down) string.
4. If the string size is other than .017 (the diameter of the wire), it will be written near the tip of the bow by the string hole, Strings are either plain wire or wound (gold colored) and all are "ball-end". Individual strings are available at any music store or from Noteworthy Instruments.

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