How to Play the Spoons

Appalachian musician and multi-instrumentalist David Holt provides a primer on how to play spoons.
By David Holt
July/August 1980
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Hold the implements this way when you're learning how to play spoons.
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Learning how to play spoons is easy, enjoyable, and on a more practical side enormously impressive to Aunt Minnie when the family gets together over the holidays.

The first (and only) things you'll need in order to complete this compact music course are your instruments: two spoons. Teaspoons will work well for this purpose, stainless steel tablespoons will do the job even better, and silver-plated scoopers will sound best of all. (On the other hand, solid silver implements dent too easily to be worth using.) Now that you know what to fetch, I want you to put this magazine down, run into the kitchen, and get some spoons.

You're back! Let's start class off by mastering the basic "spoonster's" position. Place one of the instruments between your thumb and first finger ... with the end of the utensil's handle on your palm and its approximate center crossing over your middle knuckle. Now put the other clacker between your first and middle fingers. Hold this second spoon upside down, so that the bottoms of both soup scoopers can hit each other. (If you have little hands—or big spoons—you might have to put a pair of fingers between the two implements.)

Next, make a fist and grip the handles of both spoons tightly. (Be sure to leave about half an inch between the two stirrers' bowls. That way, the convex sides will click together whenever you bang them against a surface ... while your tight palm grip will act as a spring to pull the cups apart again afterward.) Try striking your leg with the spoons. Did you hear a clicking noise? Good. Try it again.

You're now ready to put your free hand above the spoons and hit the gripped implements down on your leg ... up against your hand ... down on your leg ... and up on your hand again. Try this procedure slowly at first and work at getting a nice, steady, clicking rhythm.

Remember to keep a firm grip on the spoon ends so that their bowls always bounce back after impact to a distance of one-quarter to one-half inch apart. Keep practicing the leg-and-hand rhythm for a while until you begin to feel comfortable with it.

When you're ready to move on, you can try to get some different sounds out of your kitchen instruments. Make a high-pitched click by hitting just the tips of the spoons on your leg and hand, for instance ... or a lower-sounding clack by hitting the cups of those little ladles on your body. Experiment with the two "riffs" for a while, and see what variations you can come up with.

OK, now it's time to add some rhythmic dynamics to your spoons playing by accenting the second and fourth beats of the basic pattern. Simply hit the spoons in the normal repeating sequence of leg ... hand ... leg ... hand ... leg ... hand ... leg ... hand, only every time you come to one of those italicized "leg" beats, strike a little harder to give that note a slight accent.

At this point, you should find some spirited music—either live or recorded—to play along with. (Southern string band music, by the way, is ideal for spoons playing.) Accent every second and fourth beat, throw in the different tones that you've mastered, and go to it! Now, ain't that fun?

Spoonin' Sophistication

Once you've mastered the above "journeyman" spoons-playing skills, you might want to learn some of the tricks of the trade. One of the most basic flourishes—the roll—is really quite easy to do: Just spread out the fingers of your free hand, with the thumb pointed skyward and tilted slightly away from you. Hold the fingers of this hand quite still, spaced about one-half inch apart. Now drag the spoons rapidly across from index finger to extended pinky and let the last beat hit your leg. You should get a clicking sound as you hit each digit, and conclude with a climactic thump on your leg. (If you didn't get this drum roll effect, you were probably either holding your spread fingers too limply or letting the bottoms of the spoons stay together while you dragged them across your hand.)

Start using this new trick along with your other rhythms ... by beginning with the roll, hitting your leg, and then going back into the basic beat. Then fiddle around some and work the roll into your playing whenever it seems appropriate ... or add a touch of "fancy" by turning your free hand over and dragging the spoons across the back sides of your fingers. (This move won't sound any different ... but it looks really impressive!)

You can create another unusual spoons flourish, called "the galloping horses," by curling the middle finger of your free hand under, and letting the spoons click against that digit every time the instruments are traveling from the hand to your leg. (Or, you might want to use that middle-finger produced addition occasionally—instead of continuously—to add a little grace note to your playing.)

Once you've mastered the basics and a few flourishes, you will have learned all the essential techniques of good spoons musicianship. But, as long as you're at it, you might as well add some flashy special effects to your repertoire, as well. For instance, try clicking the spoons back and forth between your elbow and leg instead of between your hand and leg. Or move the constantly hand-hitting spoons up your thigh ... across your chest ... down to the bottom of your feet ... and back up the other leg. You can even strike the instruments between your knees and ankles against your chin and chest ... and between the free hand's thumb and middle forger. Lordy, the variations are all but endless!

You might even want to try an extended roll, by starting at the shoulder and dragging the spoons all the way down your free arm to your wrist (the ridges of a heavy shirt will help you produce good clicking noises when you do this tuck). Add that move to a finger roll, and you'll really have a crowd pleaser!

For a final musical spoons effect, tap the instruments lightly against the side of your mouth. If you shape your lips like an "O" as you do this, and vary the width of this opening, you'll he able to produce a whole range of different tones.

Anyone who's worked all the way to the end of this article has probably been "spooning around" for well over a day. Spoons playing does take practice, you know, but I think you'll find that it's well worth the trouble.

Let me add just two more words of advice. ONE: When you play with live musicians, try to blend your sounds in softly and tastefully with the rest of the music. There's nothing more irritating than beginning spoons players who think they're lead instrumentalists. And TWO: Don't get carried away and hit yourself too hard when you're playing, or you'll end up covered with black and blue marks ... I know, I've done it!

That's all there is to it. As the official professor of the David Holt Spoons Playing Course, I hereby confer upon you an honorary M.S. degree. And what, you may ask, does "M.S." stand for?

Why, Master of Spoons, of course!


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