The Appalachian Mouth Bow: Easy to Make, Easy to Play!

No one knows what inspired its transformation from a hunting weapon, but the mouth bow is one of humanity's oldest and simplest instruments.

| May/June 1983

mouth bow - tensioning the bow

Set the tension.

Rick Sell

Musical instruments have been around for a long, long time, and the mouth bow is probably one of the oldest of them. In fact, an ancient French cave drawing, made perhaps 15,000 years ago, shows an individual dancing toward several buffalo while playing one of the stringed resonators. Early humans may have believed there were magical powers in this simple soundmaker, or may have discovered that wild animals were intrigued by the humming, twanging noises it could produce. Regardless, later musicians have continued to find the mouth bow to be a charming instrument — one that's both easy to play and to construct.

The most traditional sort of mouth bow is similar to its counterpart, the simple hunting bow, being little more than a springy bough with a length of twine, leather, or gut strung between the two ends. The so-called Appalachian mouth bow is a variation on this style, having a flat strip of wood, tapered on each end, rather than the rounded branch. Its design is clean and uncomplicated, and lends itself to artistic woodworking or painting if by chance the maker feels so inclined.

Gather Ye Materials

There's no "correct" way to assemble most mountain or folk instruments, and making a mouth bow is no exception to this rule. I’ve provided an Assembly Diagram, but feel free to use your own creativity to alter any details of the bow you build. My design calls for a strip of hardwood, which I had cut to measure about 3/16" x 1 1/4" x 32"; a guitar string (a heavy-gauge steel second or third B or G string works well), preferably one with a ball end; a wooden violin tuning peg; two No. 2 roundhead brass screws, each 1/2" or 3/8" long; and, if your guitar string has a "loop" end rather than a ball, an 18-gauge wire brad.

For tools, you'll need a jigsaw; a drill with assorted bits (1/16" to 1/2" or so); a small screwdriver; a hammer (if you use the brad); a power sander (this is optional); sandpaper in various grades; and some tung oil or boiled linseed oil, fine steel wool, and several clean rags if you want to add a finish to your creation.