Sun-dried, fire-burned, clean-picked and rackety — bones have been used as rhythm-makers throughout the ages. In medieval Europe roving performers called "jongleurs" accompanied their melodies by clacking ox ribs together.
No American minstrel show of the 1800s was complete without a bones player. In fact, the end man in a semi-circle of musicians was always called “Mr. Bones.” His job was not only to keep the beat (sometimes with commercially made hardwood clappers), but also to engage in comical exchanges — often punctuated by a skeletal clatter — with the emcee, who was addressed as “Mr. Interlocutor.”
Similar banter continued in the vaudeville of the early 1900s, with such noteworthy characters as Gallagher and Shean (“Absolutely, Mr. Gallagher! Positively, Mr. Shean!”) handling the patter. By then, the bones had pretty well vanished from the shows. A lot of old ideas are receiving new attention nowadays, though, and I think the “animal clackers” deserve a revival.
Making Instrumental Bones
You can still purchase commercially made hardwood bones from some outlets, or you can whittle your own, if you prefer. But, the aspiring and practical musician may find the best bone is a real bone. In this case, you need to visit your local butcher or slaughterhouse to get some cow ribs (those from lamb and swine aren't heavy enough to produce the proper resonance).
The size and shape of the ribs are critical: If the bones are either too heavy or too thick, they'll be unwieldy and could hurt your fingers. The key is to obtain sections from the far end of the rib — away from the backbone — which are about a quarter-inch thick, 1 inch wide and 7-1/2 inches long.
Some supermarkets offer precut “rib stew” made from the beef plate, which can provide both a good dinner and the bones you need. If this isn't readily available in the display case, your butcher will likely be willing to cut such pieces for you.
The first step in preparing the music-makers is to remove any meat that might still cling to them. Trim away as much as possible and then boil or stew the bones until the remaining scraps come off easily. Place the stripped ribs in an oven heated to 150 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour, or let them bleach in the sun until they're thoroughly dry. When they've cooled, file and sand the rough edges smooth. (Don't bother painting or staining them, though. Paint only chips off during play, and stain doesn't seem to “take” well on this material.)
Lesson One: How to Hold Bones
To begin, hold two bones back to back with your middle finger between them. Then close your hand, keeping the rib ends almost directly in the center of the heel of your palm. Your middle finger should press down directly on the bone closest to the thumb and hold it in a fixed position. This rib doesn't move. The ring finger holds the second bone firmly enough to remain in place when the hand is stationary, yet in such a way that it's somewhat easily moved. When you can separate the loose rib and then release it and hear it strike the fixed one, you're holding the bones correctly.
Lesson Two: Snapping the Bones
With instruments in hand, you're all set to concentrate on the basic sound: Snap! In order to achieve it, imagine that you're trout fishing and need to cast a short way into the stream. Rather than imitate an overhand cast, though, begin at the right side of the chest and angle out slightly to the right (left-handers can simply reverse the directions). Extend your arm away from your body, keeping your elbow bent, and flick your hand sharply outward. Snap! The loose rib will strike the fixed one with an authoritative crack when you get it right. This particular sound means business, and its performance is the most difficult-to-master movement in bone playing. Don't be discouraged if the clappers slip out of place at first and your snap is unimpressive. Just be persistent, and practice until you get it right.
Lesson Three: The Triplet Snap
Once you've mastered the basic snap, you can get to work on a more advanced motion that involves not just the wrist but the entire lower arm. To perform this move, do the basic snap in the usual manner, but then roll your arm back toward you at once — almost as if you were on the trout stream again and doing a series of false casts. The tips of the bones won't move side-to-side much, but your hand will arc back and forth over them. Your wrist and elbow will move in opposite directions as you play. Listen for the sound of click-e-ta, click-e-to in a continuous triple beat. It isn't necessary to fling your arm back and forth or from side to side. A gentle, steady movement will do it. As you get more proficient through practice, you'll be able to vary the meter and the volume of the sound to suit the musical accompaniment.
Making Music With the Bones
The moment has arrived. It's time to put on some lowdown, Dixieland music that swings with a steady, insistent beat. As soon as you begin to feel the rhythm, stand up and snap those bones — and don't be surprised if you find a silly grin spreading over your face as you get with it!
Now, exasperation is part and parcel of almost any learning process (especially when the skill you're tackling looks easy). Playing the bones does take some effort — but once you get the knack, you'll have it forever. Believe me, this instrument is well worth mastering — not only for the sheer delight it gives, but also for the satisfaction of knowing you're helping keep alive a fine old showbiz tradition!