The Quills: the forgotten American folk woodwind.

The Quills are a early American folk woodwind, first recorded in the early part of the 19th century among Afro-Americans in the south. There are at least two kinds of woodwinds called the quills: a cane fife with several holes, and a panpipe with several separate cane pipes.  They are assumed to be of African origin, since similar instruments are found in various parts of Africa, and they were most common among 1st and 2nd generation Africans in America.

The Quills would probably be forgotten today if not for the extraordinary recordings by the entertainer and early bluesman Henry Thomas, made in the late 1920s.  Alec Lomax and others have recorded other traditional players as well.


The Quills are first mentioned in early American plantation slave histories, some dating back to the late 1700s. At that time, the instrument appears to consist of two or more cane pipes, played for recreation and dancing, accompanied by “shouts, whoops and songs”.  They are mentioned fairly often in oral histories but little structural and musical information has survived. Considering how popular and common they appear to have been, it is surprising that they are almost unheard of today.  Quills were also used by free blacks in New Orleans in the 1800s.  Two bluesmen recorded songs with the Quills in the 1920, and a rural folk tradition has survived to this day in the American south.

I’ve heard that the word “Quill” is an colonial American (and English) term for a hollow tube of any sort, but have been unable to confirm this.

Surviving African Traditions

A number of villages in Zimbabwe and Mozambique maintained a tradition of pan-pipe playing well into this century, and a few continue to play to this day.

Tracy_flutes_hornsThe earliest recordings of these ensembles are from the field recordings of Hugh Tracy, who traveled through southern Africa between 1935 and 1955, making a series of exceptional recordings of traditional music. His recordings are available from the International Library of African Music (ILAM).  Some of these recordings are included in the collection Flutes and Horns, which can be previewed and ordered from this web site in South Africa:  Some of these recordings bear a striking resemblance to the American recordings of Sid Hemphill.

Another excellent recording is of African panpipes from Mozambique is “Traditional Music of Cancune, Mozambique“,VariousArtists_TraditionalMusicOfCancuneMozambique

recorded by Joel Laviolette around the year 2000. Joel teaches how to make and play panpipes in this tradition at workshops around America, particularly at Zimfest. Currently, traditional instruments in this style are made out of plastic plumbing tubing, softened over a fire and worked  by hand, rolling the end of the pipe until the pitch is correct.

Southern African nations never had a substantial slave trade with the United States, and so it is unlikely that the tradition came directly from these tribes in southern Africa. The instrument may have had greater spread in west Africa in previous centuries and died out or was not documented before modern times.

Are there any original surviving quills?

Lomax reports that when he revisited some of the locations where he had recorded Quills players, the tradition had pretty much died out.  I hope that there are still some players from that tradition, and the skills of making sets of quills has not died out entirely, however I am not aware of any.

I also hope that older instruments still exist.  It seems reasonable to think that these instruments survive, perhaps still kept in the family of the players, and perhaps in small museums in the south.  If you know of the location of any, please let me know!

I was told by banjo scholar Scott Odell that the collection in the Smithsonian once contained a set of Quills that had been donated in the late 1800s along with a Mountain Dulcimer. Its current whereabouts is unknown, and it may have been lost.


Only a few players have been recorded playing an instrument called the quills prior to the folk revival.

  • Big Boy Cleveland, Gennet 1927.
  • Henry Thomas, Vocalion 1927 and 1929.
  • Sid Hemphill, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942.
  • Alec Askew, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942.
  • Othar Turner, who played and made cane flute style instruments for the Smithsonian folk festival on the mall in Washington DC.

Big Boy Cleveland

SongsterCleveland’s Quills Blues can be heard at this site: Document Records (search for “The Songster Tradition 1927 – 1935”.

It is likely that Cleveland is actually playing the cane fife (also called the quills).


For more information on the cane fife, see the following pages on

Sid Hemphill and Alec Askew

Southern JourneySid Hemphill and Alec Askew were recorded by Alan Lomax, and their playing is included in the Alan Lomax collection, Southern Journey, Vol. 1.  A clip of Hemphill’s playing can be heard on’s page for this recording. Another interesting recording is Traveling Through the Jungle, which features a different performance by Traveling through the jungleHemphill.

There is another recording from Alan Lomax’s field recordings featuring Alec Askew playing the “4 hole quills”Rock me included on the Document CD Field Recordings Vol 15 (DOCD 5672), where Lomax asks Askew to play the individual notes–this makes analysis easy, and I’ve included the tuning of this set of pipes in the article Reconstructing the quills.

Henry Thomas

By far, the most information we have about this instrument comes from the early blues recordings by Henry Thomas.  I became interested in the Quills because I study woodwinds, and some friends who listen to (and play) a lot of early blues played Thomas’s “Bull doze Blues” for me. That’s about all it took–Thomas’s music is so strong and vibrant, even through the medium of a 78rpm recording, that I was hooked. We started to discuss what it would take to build a set of pan-pipes as close to Thomas’s as we could.

Thomas left little in the way of documents about his life, and no sets of his instruments have survived. I’ve heard that some instruments cataloged as Quills can be found in small, southern museums, and I have heard a rumor that a set of quills was donated to the Smithsonian in the late 1800’s along with a dulcimer. The quill’s whereabouts are currently unknown however.

What this means is that we are left to apply some of the techniques that I’ve learned to reconstruct historical European woodwinds. In this case, there are no pictures to go by, but in this case we have something much more valuable, actual recordings of the instrument.

During his recording career, Henry Thomas made eight known recordings using the quills for Vocalion, recorded in 1927 and 1929.

  • John Henry
  • The Fox and the Hounds
  • The Little Red Caboose
  • Red River Blues
  • Bull Doze Blues
  • Fishing Blues
  • Old Country Stomp
  • Charmin’ Betsy
  • Railroadin’ Some

Ragtime ThomasThese recordings can be heard on two collections: Texas Worried Blues (Yazoo), and Ragtime Texas (Document).

I have written to Document to ask for information regarding the instrument shown on the cover, but received no reply. I assume that the instrument shown is an example of the style, but not an instrument linked in any way to Thomas.  (I would love to learn otherwise!).

Some clips can be heard on the Amazon site for both these recordings, including several tracks that feature the Quills. Some of these, such as Bulldoze Blues, and Fishing Blues have become blues classics.

How do I get a set of Quills?


A self made set of quills

As far as I (or anyone else I’ve asked knows) you make it. African players make their own instruments, and I imagine that Henry Thomas did as well. Cane does not survive well, and there are no known surviving panpipe style instruments from the old days.


Fortunately, we have a great deal of information in the form of audio recordings, which we can study to determine fairly precise measurements that will allow us to reproduce the instrument that Thomas played. We can learn a great deal about the instruments from these recordings.

I did some research on that subject which can be found in the article  Reconstructing the quills.


Reconstructing the quills

See the post The Quills: the forgotten American folk woodwind for general information about the American instruments known as the quills.

African players make their own instruments, and I imagine that Henry Thomas did as well. Recent players of the cane fife in America do so as well.  So, what do you need to know in order to make a historically accurate instrument?

First off, you need to understand the difference between the cane fife (quills) and the panpipe form of the instrument, and decide which one you want to pursue.  There are modern players and makers of the cane fife form of the instrument, so for the moment I’m going to concentrate on the panpipe version made famous by Henry Thomas.

There are no surviving instruments identified as American (pan pipe) quills.  I was told by Smithsonian conservator and banjo scholar Scott Odell that the collection in the Smithsonian once contained a set of quills that had been donated in the late 1800s along with a mountain dulcimer. The dulcimer survives, but the current whereabouts of the quills is unknown, and may have been lost.

Fortunately, we have a great deal of information in the form of Thomas’s audio recordings, and we can study these to determine fairly precise measurements that will allow us to reproduce the instrument that Thomas played.

I started with the classic Bulldoze Blues, which stands out for its especially well played quills part. Here is a short except from Bull Doze Blues in case you are not familiar with the song.

An analysis of the Quills featured in Bull Doze Blues

I first listened to the piece to determine the number of pipes, and then applied audio analysis tools to a digital recording of the song in order to determine the exact pitch of the pipes–some of them sound for too short a period of time (for me, at least) to get an accurate feel for the pitch of the pipe by ear.

This worked fairly well, and I was able to determine that 8 different notes were sounded, so that the instrument contained at least 8 pipes.  I had less luck with the audio analysis. I used the Spectrum tools in Sound Forge, but some of the notes sounded for too short a period of time still to get an accurate rendering.  This was obvious after I had made some bamboo prototypes (thanks to some generous neighbors who let me raid their bamboo patch).

Although the pipes were tuned within .25 Hz. using a frequency generator and an oscilloscope, the finished instrument did not play well with the original instrument – clearly, something was wrong.

I decided to make larger samples for analysis by condensing all notes of a particular pitch into a single file. This proved to be an straightforward if time consuming task, again using Sound Forge.  I simply worked my way through the master file, and clipped each quills note, and appended it to a file that held other notes of the same pipe.

Here is what I was able to determine:

Pipe number Total duration of sound Approximate pitch of highest point of graph Approximate pitch of note estimated by ear Approximate Amplitude of note
Pipe 1 2.4 676 Hz 680 Hz -37 dB
Pipe 2 2.9 731 Hz 731 Hz -36 dB
Pipe 3 14.6 854 Hz 851 Hz -34 dB
Pipe 4 8.3 961 Hz 961 Hz -36 dB
Pipe 5 17.9 1061 Hz 1055 Hz -36 dB
Pipe 6 10.5 1247 Hz 1256 Hz -33 dB
Pipe 7 0.6 1421 Hz 1442 Hz -40 dB
Pipe 8 3.6 1666 Hz 1696 Hz -32 dB

The approximate pitch is just that–approximate. When playing the quills, it is possible to play the pipe so that it’s pitch varies a considerable amount.  It is also possible that the record it’s self was pressed slightly off center, causing different notes to playback at slightly different frequencies.

In any case, the record is what we have to work with, and it is a starting point for a more accurate analysis.  This time, I selected the entire body of each one of these audio files, and subjected them to Sound Forge’s Spectrum Analysis tools. The results are shown below. You can click on each graph to view a full-size image.

Pipe number Spectrum analysis from Sound Forge 7, full sample is selected. Approximate pitch of highest point of graph Approximate pitch of note estimated by ear
Pipe 1 The note is split into two peaks at 676 and 687.  When analyzed by ear, the pitch seems to fall around 680, which makes sense, since the ear tends to average out rapid variation in pitch.


676 680
Pipe 2 731 731
Pipe 3 854 851
Pipe 4 961 961
Pipe 5 There is some variation and “flutter-tounging on this note, which gives a range of perceived pitches.  I’ve chosen 1055 as the strongest note heard, but you might feel otherwise.  The pipes play sharp when the player blows harder, and that is clearly what is happening in some of the samples used to make this track.


1061 1055
Pipe 6 1247 1256
Pipe 7 Another short sample with two nodes.  Although the peak is on the lower node, the note sounds higher, as shown to the right.


1421 1442
Pipe 8 1666 1696

As you would expect, the pipes with the longest samples provide the most accurate results.

The recording of Bulldoze blues plays back a bit sharp of the key of  Ab. It is said that Henry Thomas played with a capo high on the neck of his guitar, so this is very possible. It is also possible that the recording machine ran a bit slow, which would have given a faster sounding performance and a higher pitch. This was done on occasion by 78 rpm recording engineers to add more punch to a recording by making the player just a bit faster than they were in real life. If this was the case, and the recording was as much as a semitone sharp, the key of G would be a reasonable guess for the original key of the song.

Using the key of Ab major pentatonic, what notes do the pitches determined above give us?

Pipe number Note name and reference pitch, A=440 Difference Approximate pitch of note by ear Approximate Amplitude of note
Eb (6th octave) 622.25Not represented in this octave.
Pipe 1 E (6th octave)  659.26.Not a member of the scale, but rather a “blues” note that always slides into F. 20.74 Hz 680 Hz -37 dB
Pipe 2 F (6th octave)  698.45 32.55 Hz 731 Hz -36 dB
G (6th  octave) 783.99
Pipe 3 Ab (6th octave)  830.60 20.4 Hz 851 Hz -34 dB
Pipe 4 Bb (6th octave)  932.32 28.68 Hz 961 Hz -36 dB
Pipe 5 C (7th octave)  1046.50 8.5 Hz 1055 Hz -36 dB
Db (7th octave)  1108.73
Pipe 6 Eb (7th octave)  1244.50 11.5 Hz 1256 Hz -33 dB
Pipe 7 F (7th octave)  1396.91 45.09 Hz 1442 Hz -40 dB
G  7th octave)  1567.982.
Pipe 8 Ab (7th octave)  1661.21 34.79 Hz 1696 Hz -32 dB

Why is the first pipe so “out of tune”?

It is likely that the whole set of pipes is tuned a bit sharp (or the cutting lathe for the recording was running slower than 78 rpm). Even considering that ,one oddity that stands out – the first pipe plays a E, and the 6th pipe plays an Eb.  This causes some problems when determining the scale and mode of the instrument, although I’m certain it did not bother Thomas at all–the sharpened E is always used to slide into the F pipe, and is never played on it’s own. In other words, it might be a “blue” note, used for effect.

It may be that cane was not available in a proper size for a longer pipe to play Eb, or it may just be that this is the effect that Thomas wanted.  In any case, it works very well in the context of the song.  The Eb in the second octave is played as a true scale element, and is used much more often (10 seconds total, compared to 2 total for the first pipe).

The easy way: a simple set of pipes in G Pentatonic

For ease of playing with other instruments such as the guitar, it makes sense to assume that the recording is about a semitone fast, and that the first note is un-intentionally sharp. If you take the values shown above and drop them by about a semitone, and flatten the first pipe to match it’s octave, you end up with a pentatonic scale in the key of G, starting on the note D.  This is a very reasonable pitch to use for a set if all you want to do is play quills.

Given those pitches, we still need to know two things before we can make a pipe – the length of the pipe and it’s internal diameter that would provide the pitches shown in the chart. Since there is no easy way of calculating this, I did some empirical research on the physics of stopped pipes which can be found at the following page: The Acoustics of Pan Pipes.

Adjusted pitch Estimated internal length from graph Internal diameter Bore
G 53.8 4.55
E 63.12 5.74
D 70.85 6.44
B 84.26 7.66
A 94.58 8.60
G 106.16 9.65
E 126.24 11.8
D 141.7 12.88

The numbers are far more precise than are needed for an instrument made out of a irregular material like bamboo. The bore can be a good bit larger or smaller (experiment with what gives you a good, strong sound). You should start each pipe longer than you think you need by at least a couple of mm.  You can always make a pipe shorter, but never a longer.  One way is by melting wax into the pipe to raise its sound.  If you do that, don’t leave the instrument in a hot car.

The hard way: what size pipes match the recording?

On the other hand, you might just want an instrument just like Thomas used. Knowing what we know about the acoustics of stopped pipes, what would this set of pipes have looked like?

The first step here is to figure out what size pipes (length and width) would provide the pitches shown in the chart. Since there is no easy way of calculating this, I did some research on the physics of stopped pipes which can be found at the following page: The Acoustics of Pan Pipes.

Based on the information on that page, the following values look like good starting points for making a reproduction of Thomas’s instrument to match the pitch of the recordings.

Pitch from recording Estimated internal length from graph Internal diameter Bore
1696 49.07 4.46
1442 57.72 5.62
1256 66.26 6.30
1055 78.89 7.31
961 86.60 7.93
851 97.80 8.82
731 113.85 10.11
684 121.68 10.73

What material were the quills made of?

Now that we know how many pipes were in the instrument and roughly what the length and diameter of the pipes would have been, the next step is to find the appropriate materials. Many historical sources that mention the quills mention that they were made of cane. In the American south, this can be only one plant–Arundinaria Gigantea, also known as Southern Cane, Switch Cane, and Canebrake Bamboo.  It is the only native bamboo found in North America, and is common in southern states.  For more information, see the page: Cane.

If you live in the south, cane might be a real possibility, but if not bamboo is a adequate second choice, and that is where I focused my attention. Another good source is South-American “trade” panpipes, which are often sold in import stores.  The cane in these instruments is thin-walled, and the pipes are usually finished enough to play well. A good friend and neighbor, Chris (who has helped me with my work and research for this web page) has created an excellent set using this method:

Girl scout camping trip summer 2008 012.JPG (2243002 bytes) Girl scout camping trip summer 2008 016.JPG (4121026 bytes) Girl scout camping trip summer 2008 020.JPG (2926328 bytes)

Practical Acoustics of pan Pipes

Chris2largeAs of this writing, there is no good source of practical information available regarding the construction of pan pipes, so I did a couple of tests to establish some general principles for pan-pipe scaling.  The question I was trying to answer was:

Given a pitch, what is the ideal internal length and diameter of the pipe?

Since cane is a natural material, it will not conform to the precise dimensions defined here, however these numbers should provide a reasonable starting point for experimentation.


Acousticians say that the sounding length of a stopped tube (such as a panpipe pipe) is 1/4 the wavelength of the sound produced. In actual practice, the open end of the pipe “loads” the resonating chamber, and the formula I have come up with, (based on simple tests using Lucite tubes of various lengths) is this:

Sounding length = 2.4123*Wavelength

The wavelength of a pitch can be determined as follows:

Wavelength = speed of sound / frequency

Given a sea level speed of sound of 345 meters per second, this produces the values shown in the following graph.  The red line is an idealized curve of all notes between F#3 (261.63) and A#6 (1864.66).  The dark blue indicates values physically determined from cut Lucite tubes, and the green line are the intervals from Henry Thomas’s Bull Doze Blues, which is a early blues recording featuring the rare American panpipe, the Quills – which is what got me thinking about this in the first place.

The following is the table used to calculate the values for the idealized curve shown in the graph above.

 Note  Frequency (Hz) Calculated wave length (mm) Pipe length (mm) Pipe width (mm)
F#3/Gb3 185 1864.9 449.87 40.90
G3 196 1760.2 424.62 38.60
G#3/Ab3 207.65 1661.4 400.80 36.44
A3 220 1568.2 378.30 34.39
A#3/Bb3 233.08 1480.2 357.07 32.46
B3 246.94 1397.1 337.03 30.64
C4 261.63 1318.7 318.11 28.92
C#4/Db4 277.18 1244.7 300.26 27.30
D4 293.66 1174.8 283.41 25.76
D#4/Eb4 311.13 1108.9 267.50 24.32
E4 329.63 1046.6 252.48 22.95
F4 349.23 987.9 238.31 21.66
F#4/Gb4 369.99 932.5 224.94 20.45
G4 392 880.1 212.31 19.30
G#4/Ab4 415.3 830.7 200.40 18.22
A4 440 784.1 189.15 17.20
A#4/Bb4 466.16 740.1 178.54 16.23
B4 493.88 698.6 168.51 15.32
C5 523.25 659.3 159.06 14.46
C#5/Db5 554.37 622.3 150.13 13.65
D5 587.33 587.4 141.70 12.88
D#5/Eb5 622.25 554.4 133.75 12.16
E5 659.26 523.3 126.24 11.48
F5 698.46 493.9 119.16 10.83
F#5/Gb5 739.99 466.2 112.47 10.22
G5 783.99 440.1 106.16 9.65
G#5/Ab5 830.61 415.4 100.20 9.11
A5 880 392.0 94.58 8.60
A#5/Bb5 932.33 370.0 89.27 8.12
B5 987.77 349.3 84.26 7.66
C6 1046.5 329.7 79.53 7.23
C#6/Db6 1108.73 311.2 75.06 6.82
D6 1174.66 293.7 70.85 6.44
D#6/Eb6 1244.51 277.2 66.87 6.08
E6 1318.51 261.7 63.12 5.74
F6 1396.91 247.0 59.58 5.42
F#6/Gb6 1479.98 233.1 56.23 5.11
G6 1567.98 220.0 53.08 4.83
G#6/Ab6 1661.22 207.7 50.10 4.55
A6 1760 196.0 47.29 4.30
A#6/Bb6 1864.66 185.0 44.63 4.06


I’ve found that a ratio of between 10 to 1 and 15 to 1 for length to bore works well.  I have been using 11 or 12 to 1 in my experiments, and 11 to 1 is used in the example above. Good sounding pipes can diverge from this value and still sound well, which is a good thing because bamboo or cane is rarely exactly the size you need.

More information on panpipes and the quills can be found in the following posts:

The Quills: the forgotten American folk woodwind

Reconstructing the quills, a lost American panpipe

Break cane for fun and profit


Arundinaria Gigantea  Known as:

  • Cane
  • Southern Cane
  • Cane Reed
  • Switchcane
  • Canebrake Bamboo
  • Macon Rivercane (a specific variety available as an ornamental plant)

I’ve collected this information from many sources on the web, while I searched for a source of cane for my Quills project.  I put it here for the benefit of those who don’t want to spend the time searching.

The plant is native to the southern U.S.  Although cleared to near extinction, it still can be found in wetlands and well drained floodplain forests. It is found in canebrakes, thick clusters of plants that grow up to 25 feet high and up to a diameter of 1 and even two inches.

It is the largest native member of the bamboo family to grow in the United States, and its stalks have been used historically for fishing poles, baskets, blowguns, as well as to make quills and fifes. The young shoots are edible.

It was an important forage food for animals, and is said to be a favorite food of the caterpillars of the southern pearly eye butterfly. 

Unlike most other grasses, cane possesses evergreen stems which survive for up to 10 years.  The extinction of the Carolina Warbler is said to be linked to the clearing of the southern cane brakes. Cane is easily distinguished from other grasses by its stout, hollow, jointed stems.  The plant can withstand extreme temperatures of-15 or -25 degrees to 105 degrees, depending on the variety.



Distrubution of Arundinaria Gigantea, from

The cane used for quills should be 4 to 5 years old, to give the walls of the plant time to harden.  If you choose to grow cane, remember that the plant has aggressive runners, so a root shield should be used to contain the stand of plants.

Cane has been cleared from most areas by farmers in the south, but still can be found in river wetlands and marshes.  It is also grown as an ornamental plant, and can be purchased from a number of dealers in different parts of the country.  In the Pacific Northwest, (where cane does not grow natively), there are several sources, including the following:

Bamboo Gardens

A specialty retail and wholesale nursery


196th Ave NE & Highway 202, Redmond. Mailing address:

5016-192nd Place NE  Redmond, WA 98074

Phone 425-868-5166  Fax 425-868-5360   I purchased my plant from these people and found them very friendly and supportive of the project. The only problem so far is that the plant I now own will take several years to reach the size needed to produce good, strong cane.  Because of this, I am also looking for a source of mature southern cane, if you have one to suggest!