Instruments | Wooden | Percussion

Many musical cultures have made use of wooden concussion sticks. Their history goes back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and they are played by the Aboriginal people of Australia.

This group of instruments includes pairs of sticks struck together like claves (3 cm/1 in wide, 20 cm/8 in long), which are cylindrical wooden dowels widely used in Latin-American, pop, jazz and classical music. They may also be wooden plates struck together like the Japanese yotsutake or hollowed-out shallow vessels like Spanish castanets.

Whip and Slapstick

The striking surfaces can be hinged or tied together, as in the orchestral whip or slapstick, which comprises two thin narrow pieces of wood, hinged at one end. The whip is played with both hands – a crack is produced by closing the two pieces of wood smartly. The slapstick has a sprung hinge, so the top piece of wood bangs against the lower one when the instrument is flicked. It is a sound effect widely used in orchestral music since the early-nineteenth century, as in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (1931). It was also a popular instrument in theatre-pit bands and for drummers accompanying silent films.


Castanets are a Gypsy folk instrument and are played with great artistry by Spanish flamenco dancers. They may in fact be a local wooden version of the brass finger cymbals brought into Spain by Muslim conquerors from around AD 700.

Castanets are a pair of round wooden shells made from ebony or rosewood held together with string. They are held in the palm of the hand and played by looping the string over the thumb and pressing the castanets together with the fingers. Traditionally, a pair of castanets will be played with the lower-sounding male (macho) castanet in the right hand and played with four fingers, and the higher-sounding female (hembra) castanet in the left hand and played with two fingers. Performers create complex rhythms by alternating beats on the pairs of castanets.

As orchestral percussionists may not be adept at playing the castanets in this way, orchestral castanets used in pieces like Manuel de Falla’s (1876–1946) Three-Cornered Hat (1919) are usually played against the knee, or a castanet machine is used, in which a pair of castanets are mounted on a wooden block and held open with a spring mechanism. The players drum on the castanets with their fingers.

Introduction | Percussion Instruments
Instruments | Metal | Percussion

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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