Traditional Native American Instruments

As the “first people,” indigenous Americans have a rich cultural heritage that spans from the Great Plains of North America all the way down to the windswept landscapes of Patagonia in South America. Like any great people and culture, music played a crucial role in the lives of all early Americans. Northern Natives, for example, considered singing to be an integral part of their culture.

But their music didn’t stop with mere vocals; Native Americans used various instruments, from drums to flutes, as an accompaniment. And due to the disparate nature of various Northern tribes and peoples, these instruments were unique and representative of the locally sourced materials that were used to construct them. Here are some examples of traditional musical instruments fashioned by North American Native Americans.

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Drums

Styles of Native American drums vary from region to region, as culture and available materials played a big part in the look and sound of a particular group’s instruments.

  • Skin drum. This is about as basic a Native American drum as one is likely to find. Popular with the Indigenous Americans of the Rockies and Northern Plains, the skin drum was made of a tanned animal skin held taught at all four corners by planted stakes or by the hands of four people. The player then strikes the surface of the skin to create the drum beat.
  • Frame drum. This is a more iconic Native American drum, as the “frame” in question provides some body to the instrument. Animal hide, such as that from an elk, deer or horse, is stretched over a frame that is often about 4-inches deep and up to 30-inches in diameter.
  • Water drum. The distinct sound of the water drum derives from its body, which often consists of an iron kettle. The kettle is then filled partly with water and the player stretches tanned animal skin over the top.
  • Square drum. This type of drum was popular with Native Americans on the Pacific coast. The drum was made out of a wooden box (usually cedar) and were designed so large that the user could sit on top of it and play with his or her feet.

Rattles

The sound of the rattle is most closely associated with Native Americans. That’s because, as much as the drum, the rattle was a primary cultural instrument for many groups.

  • Container rattles. These widely used rattles are exactly what the names suggests: containers. Of course the containers that formed the rattle instrument were made from different materials, depending on location. Many Native Americans, such as those in the Southwester U.S., made rattles out of gourd. The maker would remove the pulp from a gourd and fill the cavity with small rocks, seeds or pebbles. A handle was then inserted and the rattle was ready to use. Certain groups used other materials to make their rattles, including turtle shells and animal horn.
  • Hoof rattles. This was another popular rattle that was manufactured from deer hooves. The maker would cut holes into a stick and then tie the hooves to the holes. The player would then shake the stick and the hooves would rattle.

Flutes

Another staple of Native American musical instruments is the flute. And just like the aforementioned instruments, the indigenous flute varied in style and design from region to region. Some flutes were small and made of wood while others were larger and made of bamboo. Some types of flute were even fashioned from the hollowed-out bones of birds.

These are just a few of the iconic instruments produced by the early Americans. But that isn’t to say they are the only ways Native Americans made music. Indeed, other instruments, such as clappers, fiddles, rasps and whistles also played a large part in the unique and beautiful music produced by these groups.

Justin Miller is a professional blogger who writes on a variety of topics including taking guitar lessons. He writes for JamPlay.com, a leading online music educator offering 2,000+ guitar songs to learn in HD.

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