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.
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!)
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
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