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The Bones - Stephen Brown


As you can imagine this is truly an ancient instrument, although comparatively little has been written on them, given their long and rich history. The New Groves Dictionary of Music and musicians in a brief listing on the bones states, " The bones were played in China before 3000 BC, in Egypt around that date, and in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and medieval Europe."

Numerous examples of Egyptian bones made of ivory and wood have survived, they were used in religious rites. We know they have spread around the world and exist in some form in almost every culture. Shakespeare wrote of the bones in "Midsummer's Nights Dream", as did Lewis Carroll in the "Hunting of the Snark". They were a featured instrument in the American Minstrel Show during the middle 1800's, and have been played in numerous forms of traditional music in North America including blues, blue grass, French Canadian music, and Cape Breton music from Nova Scotia.

Bones were so popular during the late 19th. and early 20th century, that they were sold through the Sears Company, as well as in other catalogs. They were the featured instrument on the 1948 recording of "Sweet Georgia Brown" by Brother Bones (image right, click for audio, which went on to become the theme song for the Harlem Globe Trotters. Ted Goon aka MR.Goon Bones had seven hit records between 1949 and 1952 and sold 20,000 sets of Goon Bones accross the U.S.

There is a rich connection between the bones and traditional Irish music and they may have first been taken to America by Irish Emmigrants. Little is left us as to how they developed in Ireland, although Mel Mercier of University College Cork is currently involved in extensive research on the use of the bones in Ireland and America and we may have some insight into this when it is published.

Truly a pub instrument, played casually and passed on by word of mouth, they have been kept alive by little pockets of players, the best inspiring others to play. Ronnie McShane played them in Sean O'Riada's group Ceoltoiri Cualann, and in the Chieftains, they were played both by Peadar Mercier, and Ronnie McShane on the earlier albums and by Martin Faye later on.

Inspired by Peadar Mercier, many younger Bodhran players of the 70's also played bones such as Mel Mercier, and Johnny McDonnagh, developing unique styles. As the drum developed through the 80's and 90's younger players showed less interest in them, although Cathy Jordan plays them regularly and well.

One of the areas in Ireland with a healthy population of bones players is in West Limerick in and around the town of Abbeyfeale. This is almost entirely due to one exceptional bones player Paddy "Sport" Murphy. Sport continues to play the same pair of bones he has played for over 60 years, and has made a name for himself as the best player in Ireland. In the early 90's, the town of Abbeyfeale began sponsoring a yearly Fleadh, and in an attempt to make it unique to their area, began sponsoring the All Ireland Bones Playing Championship as part of the Fleadh. Sport Murphy has won the championship numerous times, although the area has other great players including Paddy Donnovan of Ardagh, himself a two time champion, David Murphy of Abbeyfeale (no relation to Sport) and Brian Hickey of Adare. Although the number of contestants has varied from year to year, 2003 saw the largest number of contestants including for the first time contestants from outside Ireland.

Bones construction

The bones are two pieces of bone, generally cows ribs, or wood, they are curved slightly.

Playing the Bones

Playing the bones is all in holding them correctly. To hold them correctly you place them in your hand with the curves going against each other so that the 'bellies' can meet. One is held firmly between either the forefinger and middle finger or between thumb and forefinger, while the other is held loosely between the middle and ring finger. By moving the hand, wrist and arm a variety of rhythmical patterns can be produced by the 'loose' bone tapping against the fixed bone: a single tap by snapping the wrist, a steady two pattern by wiggling the wrist back and forth, and multiple "rattle" of beats by rolling your arm and wrist.

Traditional Irish players play with one pair of bones in their dominant hand, as opposed to the English/North American/ European style of playing a pair in each hand. The Irish style requires the player to develop greater diversity with the one hand to play to different time signatures, and get varied ornamentation. Occasionally a player may play with three or more bones in one or each hand.

Recordings of Irish Players

The only recording of Sport Murphy's playing that I am aware of is video tapes of the All Ireland Contest available from the festival organizers. Early Chieftains albums have Peadar Mercier on bones, particularly #s 2-5. Ronnie McShane plays on #5 and #6. Mel Mercier has recorded with Micheal O Suilleabhan and Nomos. Ringo McDonnagh plays bones on some of the earlier DeDannan records, and on Feadog Stain by Mary Bergin. Tommy Hayes plays bones on albums by Stocktons Wing and a variety of others. Cathy Jordan plays bones on several Dervish albums & Stephen Matier is the bones player with Different Drums of Ireland.

For more information on the bones the reader is encouraged to access the Rhythm Bones Society web site. The Rhythm Bones Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of playing the rhythm bones.

Other Bones resources will be available from on the Drumdojo bodhran reviews page.

Stephen, any chance you can review the bones & spoons element of Tommy Hayes video? :)

Biographical Note: Stephen Brown was inspired to play the bones by the recordings of Peadar Mercier and Ronnie McShane. He learned to play from Percy Danforth in 1977. He is a founding member of the Rhythm Bones Society, and currently the Assistant Director. He won the All Ireland Bones Playing Championship in May 2003. He lives in Winchendon, Massachusetts where he makes, and teaches the bones.

Authors Note: Writing anything as an "Authority" about the bones is extremely dangerous. Given the wide spread use of the bones, and the word of mouth nature of the insturment, it is almost impossible to include all players, recordings, etc. I have spoken from my experience, and it is accurate to the best of my knowledge. I would greatly encourage and welcome additions of players, recordings, or any other information the reader has from their experience. I can be reached at