7 Appalachian Musical Instruments You Might Not Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Appalachian music was influenced by a wide range of cultures, thanks to the simple instruments brought over by the first multinational inhabitants. Native Americans created this mixed cultural heritage along with the emigrant Scots-Irish, English, Scots, and Africans.

The instruments were also entirely improvised from the uncomplicated lives of the early inhabitants. In contrast, these instruments gave the music a distinctive sense.

So, today, we’ve compiled the most important musical instruments that shaped music in Appalachia. Stick around to find out more about Appalachian instruments.

1. Appalachian Fiddle (Violin)

Up first we have the Fiddle, another name for the Violin, which is a stringed instrument that came to the Appalachian Mountains when the Europeans settled in Appalachia in the late 1600s and into the 1700s.

These first settlers came from parts of northern England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of course, they brought with them their music and their instruments.

It was common for the community to dance to the old jigs and tunes from home after a day of working and the violin was the main instrument to accompany them.

2. Mountain Dulcimer

The Mountain Dulcimer or Appalachian Dulcimer appeared for the first time in the Appalachian Mountains. In fact, it’s one of the only folk instruments that was actually invented in the Appalachians.

To look at, it’s a type of string instrument with a fingerboard attached to the wooden box below and sort of resembles the appearance of a violin or guitar.

To play one, the musician lies it flat on their lap and they then press the strings down with their left hand while either plucking or strumming the strings with their right.

Although it’s been used in the Appalachians for many years, in the 50s and 60s it experienced a bit of a resurgence with the popularity of American folk music having somewhat of a revival.

You might have heard Joni Mitchell play the dulcimer on her song “A Case Of You“.

3. Banjo

The Banjo is a very familiar instrument when it comes to American folk music and it too was popular in the Appalachian mountains.

The first name given to this instrument was the “strum-strump” in 1687 when it first came to American on the slave ships from Africa. It eventually made its way up to Appalachia in the 18th century.

Since then, it’s become synonymous with Appalachia and was commonly found alongside a fiddle in early Appalachian bands.

4. Spoons

Next, we have the Spoons which are a percussion instrument that are played by hitting two spoons against each other. This makes the distinctive clicking sound that musicians use to keep the rhythm.

Although metal spoons are a more recent addition, it’s thought that ancient musicians would use animal bones instead to keep the beat.

While it might look quite simple to simply strike two spoons together, the technique is actually quite difficult and it takes a lot of practice to be able to play some of the more complex rhythms as you can see in the video above.

5. Mandolin

While the Banjo and the Dulcimer were the main instruments to be used in early Appalachian music, the Mandolin began to make an appearance in the late 19th century.

To look at, mandolins look like a small guitar or ukulele and they occupy a similar role in Appalachian string bands playing the harmony with their higher-pitched strings that were strummed.

Nowadays, they’re a stapled part of American folk music being extensively in bluegrass music.

6. Washboard

The Washboard is a peculiar instrument in that it is actually a tool used for clearing clothes!

The washboard is was picked up by percussionists and played by stroking things over it to create more of a drawn-out sound than the clicking spoons. They used things like spoons or metal thimbles on their fingers to hit the metal washboard.

Some even attach small cymbals, cowbells, or different wood blocks to get more options of sounds to play. Almost like a miniature drum kit!

7. Washtub Bass

And finally, the Washtub Bass is the instrument that holds the band together at the low end of Appalachian musical instruments.

Also known as a “Gutbucket“, it’s literally a bucket (or washtub) that acts as a resonator with a string attached to it that’s plucked to create a sound.

The musician then adjusts the tension of the string by moving a stick so that they can play different pitches of notes.

Summing Up Our List ofAppalachian Instruments

As you can see, there are a number of unique and interesting folk instruments of the Appalachian mountains.

Despite their simplicity, they’ve left an impressive artistic legacy and have gone on to influence many musicians in the US, both old and new.

Hopefully, our article has provided you with all the information you need to know about all these unique Appalachian instruments.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.