Thursday 25 May 2017

Bones - Part 1. How to make (1958) & play (2017) the bones. updated 2019

Click on pictures for full-screen image

Part 2     Part 3  

Updated 2019

Bones have been part of bush bands since the early days of the Australian bush music revival, when they were used in the first bush band, The Bushwhackers (1953-1957) who founded the bush Music Club in 1954.

Bones are still in use among BMC members & other bush musicians across Australia.

Dale Dengate at 2017 National Folklore Conference
(Sandra Nixon photo)

Dale Dengate playing bones, 2012 National Folk Festival 
(Sandra Nixon photo)

Helen Romeo showing young musicians how to play bones at August 2014 Saplings workshop 
(Sandra Nixon photo)

Bones & spoons, Bush Traditions Gathering, 2011
(Sandra Nixon photo)

Frank Maher at Bush Traditions 2014 
(Sandra Nixon photo) 

Frank has been a member of BMC since 1955, & was taught to play the bones by Jan Jones.

Concert Party 1964 - Jan Jones & Frank Maher on bones. Singabout, 5(2), p.13, 1964 (BMC Archives)

Concert Party at Orange, 1960. Jan's broken arm meant that Frank was invited to join Concert Party at the Banjo Paterson Festival although Gay Scott is playing the bones in this picture.  L to R - Jamie Carlin, Jan, Frank, Gay, Alan Scott, Jack Barrie.   
(BMC Archives)

Singabout 2(2), Sept 1957 

But first an article from our early days - when bullock ribs were available from your local butcher's shop. This article was written for a club based in Sydney with members all around the country.   

Singabout 2(3), Dec 1957, page 10 
(BMC Archives)


Sketch by Bob Bolton
((BMC archives)

1998 post by Bob Bolton to Mudcat Cafe online discussion group

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 for 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!


One evening at the 2017 National Folk Festival Wally Bolliger gave bones & lagerphone lessons to a younger musician.    (Sandra Nixon photos)


        (Sandra Nixon photos)


National Folk Festival, Easter 2019 - Tony Romeo with bones supplied by his butcher. The first lesson for would-be musicians at the Sapling sessions.

(photos - Sandra Nixon)

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