Dem Bones (musical instrument)
Lyrics & Knowledge Personal Pages Record Shop Auction Links Radio & Media Kids Membership Help
The Mudcat Cafeawe

Post to this Thread - Sort Descending - Printer Friendly - Home

Dem Bones (musical instrument)

Related threads:
Tambourine head replacemnet (15)
I hate drums (45)
Anyone Know How to Play Castanets? (32)
Odd percussion instruments (74)
Drum machines (15)
Congas (1)
Help: Singing Drummers (23)
How do you re-skin a drum? (11)
Bagpipes and African drums (10)
help - painting a drum skin (20)
Christmas songs for hand-drum (12)
Tambourines and shaky eggs at sessions (46)
Help- Stand for Steel Drum (6)
Oh no, I'm a drummer now too!!! (18)
Help: Percussion for a one person act (38)
Electronic percussion (7)
Percussion arrangements for groups (1)
Help: drum used in Jewish music (14)
Question about the bones (26)
BS: Ted Nugent's drummer (5) (closed)
More drums (11)
What happened to all those drums? (35)
BS: pictures of Liz the squeaks drum please (19) (closed)
BS: drums and drum circles (26) (closed)
Drums scores (1)
BS: Drummers... (18) (closed)
Help: Highland Snare Drumming (1)
MIDI Drum patterns (8)
Help: Vocal Percussion Info (5)
Control of volume of a drumset (21)
Making conga drums (3)

03 May 98 - 08:53 PM
Ole Bull 03 May 98 - 09:09 PM
Bob Bolton 03 May 98 - 10:52 PM
Barry Finn 03 May 98 - 11:26 PM
Bo 04 May 98 - 12:39 PM
Jon W. 04 May 98 - 01:00 PM
Bob Bolton 04 May 98 - 06:54 PM
Bob Bolton 05 May 98 - 08:57 PM
Bob Bolton 05 May 98 - 09:13 PM
Bob Bolton 05 May 98 - 10:27 PM
Jon W. 06 May 98 - 10:04 AM
harpgirl 05 May 04 - 09:51 PM
Azizi 25 Feb 07 - 07:57 PM
Azizi 25 Feb 07 - 08:00 PM
GUEST 26 Feb 07 - 09:20 AM
leeneia 26 Feb 07 - 10:32 AM
Scoville 26 Feb 07 - 01:09 PM
Share Thread
Lyrics & Knowledge Search [Advanced]
DT  Forum
Sort (Forum) by:relevance date
DT Lyrics:

Subject: Dem Bones
Date: 03 May 98 - 08:53 PM

G'day all,

While getting involved in Bodhran Making ... Thread (somewhere about the wooden 'Tippers")I spun off into a personal interest in wooden (and other - even real) "bones".

I seem to have entered another of my 7-10 years spaced obsessions with wooden "bones". One of my areas of interest is the effect on the development of Australian music traditions of the need for portable and improvised instruments. I keep getting references from old timers/stage players/etcetera to wooden "bones" ("you can't get the real old time, heavy bones - the 'ivory' ones - these days"). I would be very keen to discuss experiences, wood types, designs, results, preferences, etcetera with anyone else in this area.

One of my troubles is that every one of these old blokes has a different idea of what is the best (or "only") timber suitable. One particularly frequent reference was to Lignum Vitae (now difficult to get due to CITES legislation). I did obtain some ~late '80s/early '90s from a friend at Naval Docks and have made several different (often quite successful) designs but I have not covered all the other references.

I recently obtained some Tasmanian timbers, during a family visit, and have made "bones" of Tasmanian Blackwood (very successful from solid or steam-bent), Tasmanian Maple (not so good), Blackheart Sassafras (fair), Huon Pine (poor from heartwood but very good results from a flitch taken off the outer bole!).

I have also used some mainland timbers: Queensland Walnut (good, after some work), Coachwood (not too loud and does not steam-bend well), old Tallow Wood (too brittle - possibly just to well seasoned), (possibly) Red Ironbark (very good, but does not bend too well and the rather old plank I had was too thin to make up from solid or band-saw). I was given some Australian Purpleheart (a beautiful Mulga) but it was so hard that playing bones was like playing with two pieces of curved steel!

My reference piece is a pair of Brush Box bones Dad made about 30 years ago. These were band-sawn straight from the plank and are nearly perfect! - Well, I guess they keep me honest!

I would really like to discuss the subject with someone else that has experience of a range of woods - both with Australians, using our local woods and anyone else using their own timbers in America (or anywhere else).

Keep on knockin' away,

Bob Bolton

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones
From: Ole Bull
Date: 03 May 98 - 09:09 PM

Bones reach a hieght of popularity in the mid-nineteeth century minstrel show where they were about as much of a standard as a banjo in a bluegrass band. It appears to me that they were more often wooden ones, and so they were often referred to as such. I've seen a late 19th c. mailorder ad for them, wooden ones only. I've a pair of antiques- they're oak. The professionals must have had a preference to wood for there had never been a short supply of animal bones readily available and yet wooden bones had to be crafted, hence more costly. So it seems to me.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones
From: Bob Bolton
Date: 03 May 98 - 10:52 PM

G'day Ole Bull,

I know that the main criterion was how good they sounded. One old butcher I talked with worked as a boner in a large meatworks in Sydney, during the 1930s. He said that the Vaudeville performers would spend hours looking through the discarded bones "for the Ivory ones, the big solid ones".

Even then, when cattle were still walked in from cattle stations (ranches) it was hard to get as heavy and hard a bone as they liked for stage use. Their need was a high, sharp sound that penetrated and carried to hundreds of people without any amplification. I have a solid bone set from this era. They are not rib bones but a pair sawn from a single shin bone and ground to final shape. They carry marvelously but are too aggressive for use in a friendly session!

I have one very old rib bone (no pair, alas) that is larger than I have ever seen on the sort of beast that ends up as steak today. This is an almost flat section about 8 1/2" by 1 1/4". That was one hell of a big steer! I suspect that it would be too slow to play rhythm to modern music, anyway.

Lignum Vitae (now rare; hard, heavy tropical wood) could be crafted to get much the same sound. This was a definite standard in some areas of Vaudeville (a request Lignum Vitae from one of the old bones players I met a Festival led me into this area) but it is hard to get today. I try for a deeper 'clonk' sound at good volume to suit smaller grouping - and can make use of microphones today.

I have seen several sets of manufactured bones from the 40s and 50s - narrow (~5/8" - 3/4") and possibly bent from sections cut from heavy straight bones (suggested by the curvature of the cross-section). I have no idea if these were sold in the same form earlier, but that seems logical, as their heyday was much earlier. Their sound is high and sharp and they are fairly small (~6 1/2" long) so they could play very fast.

I talked with a man who was in a children's home in the 30s. The kids there all played wooden bones, but their trick was to steal the slats from the shutters on the local train carriage windows. They cut these to length and played them as straight sections (I am definitely of the bent bone bent!). He said the wood was often too soft for a good sound, so they hardened the striking surfaces in the flame of a candle.

I am interested to know what woods are used in America, as well as Oak. We have a number of very heavy and hard woods in Australia - currently I'm looking at Ironbarks: typically 1.05 - 1.1 specific gravity - i.e., they sink like a stone in water. These are durable and (if finely crafted)can produce a good medium/high sound for large sessions and acoustic dance music.

I gather the American playing styles favour the multiple approach - at least one set in each hand. I play the more British style with a single set, striving for high speed when needed by rapid action, not multiple patterns. However, we do see two-handed players among the old-timers - I have seen one really good player work with eight bones!

Some of the stage performers used two sets for complex counter-rhythms to accompany stories. I remember standing enthralled around the campfire at a Festival around 1990 while one fellow gave a long description of a train journey - complete with all its rhythms.

I had better stop rattling away for the moment!


Bob Bolton

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones
From: Barry Finn
Date: 03 May 98 - 11:26 PM

John Burriel (sp?) aka Mr Bones, played a good bit with Spider John Keoner (sp?), was a great 2 handed player from the northeast US, he played the same rhythum on both hands, another would be a 2 handed player from Mystic Seaport & again Steve Brown, doing polyrhythums with 2 hands, I don't know if it's just around here but there isn't a shortage of double handed players. An old friend who comes from our southern mountains playes the longest bones I've ever seen, holding a pair in both hands about mid way on the bones & somehow getting a hit from both ends. Steve usually does workshops, locally, & an unforgettable one, quite awhile back, (both John & Percy have passed on) he brought in Percy Danforth, John Burriel, a 2 handed old timer from the Polish Polka tradition, Mance Grady (single handed, Irish), these to show the bones used in different styles. I just saw Steve, if I see him in the near future, I'll ask him what woods he uses to make his out of. Barry

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones
From: Bo
Date: 04 May 98 - 12:39 PM

I'd love to see jpegs of some of these bones, or even pay for a collection of photo's mailed to me. It just strikes me as a great little musical instrument and fun hand hobby.

A web site devoted to pictures of folk instruments would be a lot of fun.


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones
From: Jon W.
Date: 04 May 98 - 01:00 PM

Have you checked out Lark in the Morning's Online Catalog lately? They've added lots of pictures including some of their bones.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones
From: Bob Bolton
Date: 04 May 98 - 06:54 PM

G'day Bo,

I have been photographing examples of the various styles of bones that I have made over the years - in order to send pictures to people I ask about designs or materials. It has also helped clarify, in my own mind, many points of bones design.

I will work out how (or if practical) to attach ot post some small JPEGs if you are interested.

G'day also to Jon W:

I looked at Lark in the Morning's Catalogue - very depressing to look at the vast range of everything that you lot can buy, over the counter, in America. Still, it keeps us Aussies adept at putting together anything from scrap and fencing wire!

Seriously, I guess this wonderful web opens up unimagined possibilities - we can look for anything and buy from the other side of the earth - we just have to wait and pray a little.


Bob Bolton

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones
From: Bob Bolton
Date: 05 May 98 - 08:57 PM

G'day all,

I'm back again after carefully looking through the Lark in the Morning catalogue. I was fairly boggled by finding a choice of 'bones' in some 25 different materials, a half a dozen styles and from several makers. As far as I can see, in Oz we have one source for for one design of 'bones' in one type of wood - and I don't particularly like that style!

I cheered up a little when I finished a database of my collection of (principally) my own 'bones'. I realise that I have experimented with at least 18 materials (mostly Australian woods) and a variety of designs and weights - and I have not yet tried out all the suggestions from old players and references in interviews, etcetera.

I have a few questions after looking at the Lark in the Morning catalogue:

1/ The pictures don't show curvature - are bones usually flat, or curved, in US usage (about 40/60 on a random sample of players at this year's National Folk Festival)?


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones
From: Bob Bolton
Date: 05 May 98 - 09:13 PM

G'day again ...

I don't know what I pressed then, but it decided I was submitting the message!

I will carry on from the questions:

I have a few questions after looking at the Lark in the Morning catalogue:

1/ The pictures don't show curvature - are bones usually flat, or curved, in US usage (about 40/60 on a random sample of players at this year's National Folk Festival)?

2/ The copy suggests that most of the woods used in the 'bones' in the catalogue are laminated. I can see that this is a good manufacturing technique to get controlled density and high strength but is not very applicable to home making of 'bones'. I am interested in what people do with only basic workshop facilities and the materials at hand.

(My interest in 'bones' arises from an interest in the effect that reliance on portable and makeshift instruments has had on Australian musical traditions - something that would have a lot of common ground with the American experience.)

3/ The catalogue offers a variety of shapes. Does this sort of variation arise from playing considerations or from the showmanship that underlies most bones playing?

Thanks in advance for any help.

Bob Bolton

Extra note for Bo: I don't see any way to post JPEGs on Mudcat (and that would tie up valuable resources). I would be happy to send a few small JPEGs directly to you if you are still interested.

You could give me an appropriate email address directly to mine: if you don't want to post yours.


Bob Bolton

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones
From: Bob Bolton
Date: 05 May 98 - 10:27 PM

G'day yet again Bo,

It looks like I forgot to actually type in my email address: <>


Bob Bolton

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones
From: Jon W.
Date: 06 May 98 - 10:04 AM

I'm not a bones player, have never seen any close up, but I do enjoy woodworking and building musical instruments and I can say that laminating wood, especially small pieces such as would be used for bones, is definitely within the capabilities of the home workman, particularly if you have access to a table saw. Some of the laminated bones in the Lark in the Morning catalog appear to be three rather thick strips (1/4 - 1/2 ") of wood glued together, then cut and shaped as usual. But even the more intimidating lamination of thin strips of wood into curved shapes can be done by using a table saw to cut the thin strips from a board, and a simple form made of a board or plywood, MDF, or the like; and a bunch of C-clamps. I have a ShopNotes magazine at home (which I was just re-reading over breakfast) that gives very clear and helpful instructions on this. Send me a personal Mudcat message if interested in getting a back issue from the publisher or more info.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones
From: harpgirl
Date: 05 May 04 - 09:51 PM


Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones (musical instrument)
From: Azizi
Date: 25 Feb 07 - 07:57 PM

A current Mudcat thread requesting a spoon player for a specific festival [thread.cfm?threadid=99360&messages=35 Spoons] caused me to search Mudcat's archives for threads on spoons or bones. That's how I found this thread.

As a result of googling the key words 'bones musical instrument'
I found this article about a famous bone player:

"Brother Bones recorded one of the most instantly recognizable songs of the 20th century, yet remains a virtual unknown, overshadowed by his own hit record and the world famous basketball team that adopted it as their official theme. Born Freeman Davis in Montgomery, Alabama, Brother Bones was a one-time shoe shine boy, working at stands in the vestibules of local barber shops. While shining, he would whistle, snap his shoeshine rag and pop his brushes in rhythm to records being played on an old Victrola. Brother Bones became known around town as "Whistling Sam." He would also tap dance and play the bones and knives, perfecting a style which used four bones in each hand whereas most bones players used only two. According to Tempo Records, Brother Bones was discovered by their president while playing in a Chinese restaurant in downtown Los Angeles and shortly after, "Sweet Georgia Brown" was playing on the radio across the nation.

Sweet Georgia Brown has been recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Louis Armstrong - even The Beatles! But by far, the most famous variation was the whistling, bone-clacking version recorded by Brother Bones and his Shadows in the late 1940's. Adopted in 1952 as the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters, the catchy tune has been played during their pre-game warm-ups and throughout their games for decades. Millions around the world have heard it and it is probably in the top ten most listened to recordings in history. So important to the Harlem Globetrotters is "Sweet Georgia Brown" that it has become their aural trademark, much like MGM has it's familiar lion's roar.

Brother Bones went on to record over a dozen songs, appear in at least three movies, perform at Carnegie Hall and was on The Ed Sullivan Show. He died in 1974 at the age of 71 and was survived by his wife, Daisy, a daughter and two grandsons.

Note: Some of the above material was extracted from a copyrighted article from the Rhythm Bones player newsletter. Special thanks to Steve Wixson of the Rhythm Bones Society [], a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of musical bone playing."

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones (musical instrument)
From: Azizi
Date: 25 Feb 07 - 08:00 PM

Here's an excerpt from

Bones History

"Rhythm bones in some form date back almost as far as recorded civilization. They have been excavated from prehistoric Mesopotamian graves (3000 BC) depicted on Egyptian relief's (3000 BC) found in Egyptian tombs (c3000 BC) and depicted on Greek urns (c500 BC). Bones were popular instruments in the Roman Empire, and continued to be played as folk instruments throughout much of the same region. In Europe today, bones are most widely heard in connection with Irish, English, and Scottish folk music, and also in many other nearby musical cultures.

Early English and Irish settlers introduced the bones into North America. They were used primarily as an accompaniment to jigs and reels to keep the beat steady by duplicating the rhythm of the music. Bones gradually became associated with the music of African-Americans, and grew to be a cornerstone of the music of blackface minstrel shows, which were hugely successful and popularized the bones during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. After the decline of the minstrel show in this country, bones could be found played in vaudeville shows (which were partly derived from minstrel acts) and jazz music. Bones have enjoyed popular revivals in the U.S.A. from the recordings of Brother Bones in the early 1900's and Ted "Goon" Bones a little later. The renaissance of folk music generally since the 1960's has paralled a growth in interest (or at least a growth in publicly admitted interest) in the bones, partly fostered by study of American and other roots music, the availability of instruments and tutorials, and more lately by the great commercial success of Celtic music in the last decade."

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones (musical instrument)
Date: 26 Feb 07 - 09:20 AM

Should be used much more, shanty singers/players tend to use them alot

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones (musical instrument)
From: leeneia
Date: 26 Feb 07 - 10:32 AM

Thanks for posting that, Azizi. That was most interesting. I wish I could hear a recording of Brother Bones' performances.

My husband plays the bones.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate

Subject: RE: Dem Bones (musical instrument)
From: Scoville
Date: 26 Feb 07 - 01:09 PM

Spider John Koerner, for whoever asked.

I used to know a guy who had a pair carved from scraps of Corian (the stuff they use to make expensive counter-tops in kitchens). He really liked them, but I think someone made them just for him. I seem to remember that they were very gently curved.

Post - Top - Home - Printer Friendly - Translate
  Share Thread:

Reply to Thread
Subject:  Help
Preview   Automatic Linebreaks   Make a link ("blue clicky")

Mudcat time: 7 March 10:33 AM EST

[ Home ]

All original material is copyright © 1998 by the Mudcat Café Music Foundation, Inc. All photos, music, images, etc. are copyright © by their rightful owners. Every effort is taken to attribute appropriate copyright to images, content, music, etc. We are not a copyright resource.