Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fun with Feathers

People often ask about the old tradition of using feather quills in playing mountain dulcimers, so I thought I'd do a post about it. I also thought it would be helpful to consolidate into one place some of the useful quill pick information that is currently scattered about in various places online.

Feather quills can be used in several ways, and it's a wonderful old tradition to try out.
You need large heavy feathers, such as flight feathers or tail feathers from a turkey or a goose or eagle.
There are two very different ways of using a feather quill for a pick...

One way is using the long thin flexible end in a 'scrambling eggs' motion, parallel to the strings.
See Kimberly Burnett-Dean demonstrate it here in playing: "Galax style"
Here also is Don Graves demonstrating this same method, and showing how to prepare a quill for this kind of playing: Don Graves preparing a quill. This whisking strumming technique is often associated with the playing style from Galax, Virginia.

The other method is to use the thicker end of the quill and cut the tip at an angle like a quill pen (the thinner you whittle it the more flexible it becomes), and hold it more upright- no scrambling/whipping eggs motion at all, but striking the strings straight across vertically in a very strong way with the stiff part of the quill.
Here: Jean Ritchie demonstrates the technique in playing the ballad Shady Grove, recorded about 50 years ago on the Pete Seeger tv show.

Incidentally, some 50 years later, Jean would play Shady Grove with a very similar strum stroke, but this time using a flexible piece of plastic instead of a feather- in this particular case a plastic hotel key card. Jean has said that she now sometimes uses a large triangular pick cut from the lid of a Cool-Whip container instead of a quill because it it easier to hold due to arthritis. Adventurous experimentation in using various materials at hand to make picks from is a very traditional practice!
Jean recently wrote:

"On the frontier (of my Youth) we didn't have plastic containers yet,nor any other materials mentioned here, so that's why my Dad used goose or turkey wingfeathers, whittled down as explained in my old, THE DULCIMER BOOK (published in 1952 and still going strong). They still work, but I'm often explaining to audiences as to why I'm using a coffee-can-lid pick, "Well, they don't make turkey-wings like they used to."

For myself, I tend to use a strum motion that is similar to Jean Ritchie's strum technique but with a touch of Galax side-whipping motion thrown in, and I use a medium-long narrow very flexible plastic pick, not a stiff pick.
In this article, Jim Baldwin gives some more helpful information about using feather quills in traditional Appalachian dulcimer playing.

An additional use for heavy feather quills is to cut off the heavy end and use it not for strumming or picking, but as a noter. I hear it slides up and down the strings quite nicely.
Turkey and goose quills can also be utilized in making old fashioned quill pens, arrow shafts, and even fashion apparel!

...Don't miss reading the post
"Fun With Feathers- Part 2!"


  1. Several years ago, I was in our company talent show playing my dulcimer and decided to add the feather as my pick to emphasize the early Appalachian origins of the instrument (and because I had seen pictures of Jean Ritchie using one). It worked fine, except I had loots of goose feather "dandruff" on my dulcimer when I was finished playing!

  2. I'm getting my first dulcimer on Monday and looking forward to learning the method you teach. I just wanted to say I LOVE your blog...where do you get these pictures...they are PRICELESS!!! Love the woman with the fur and the turkey. Awesome! Looking forward to reading all your posts! Thank you for this great service!

  3. Miss Jean making a pick cut from a Cool Whip container lid is one of the best things I've heard this year. Having just bought a used dulcimer in Missoula, Montana (Dulcimer Desert) I had no soft pick and no bird feathers...but I have some lids in the kitchen!

    A beautiful quote: "Adventurous experimentation in using various materials at hand to make picks from is a very traditional practice." That is even the same spirit in which mountain dulcimers came to be.

    And I'm learning that experimentation with whatever talent is at hand is very traditional too, so playing's still really really fun even with my lack of talent. (A stark contrast to my old classical guitar days...)

    Much appreciation for your blog that is helping me learn that music is "just playing!

  4. Watch out about using eagle feathers, as unless you are a Native American or an adopted member of a tribe and have a permit, it is a crime to possess eagles, eagle feathers or other eagle parts in the U.S., with a fine of up to $25,000. You may also have issues with other wild bird feathers, but domestic goose or turkey feathers should be no problem.

    I also do some calligraphy, and sometimes use a quill pen which I cut myself, so I have lots of well seasoned goose feathers (we generally use the first three feathers from the wing, left or right wing depending on whether you is left or right handed, as they have different curves). So when my new dulcimer arrives I will be trying them out. You can get goose quills--cured or not, pre-cut or not--at some calligraphy supply shops.

    With quill pens, most or all of the barbs, i.e. the soft, "feathery" parts, are removed (which is historically authentic, despite what you see in movies, etc.), as they are useless, tend to get in the way, and you may end up with downy stuff all over your paper and in your ink pot. I wouldn't be surprised if the old time dulcimer players did the same. All you need is the quill itself. Make it long enough to grip well, with some extra to allow for occasional re-cutting/sharpening.

    For many years I used plastic lids to make my guitar picks, which is why when I started actually using the store bought guitar picks that most players use, I had difficulty because most guitarists use a very stiff pick, and I was used to floppy plastic. Now I am more used to standard guitar picks.:-)

    Thanks for the blog, love it!

  5. What an interesting blog. I have two Australian black swans. Do you think I could use them? I have started to collect their feathers and down to make a vest for myself. Then I will feel my swans are hugging me lol.