Traditional Australian Bush Instruments

Traditional Australian Bush Instruments are those instruments that were in popular use for entertainment and recreation in the countryside of Australia. The main uses to which they were put was playing for dances and accompanying singing. Dances were initially held in homes with a room cleared of furniture and just a few locals gathered. Woolsheds, and later the Schools of Art, Mechanics' Institutes or local halls were also very popular. Often they were the only entertainment available in a country area, and the only chance to get together on a social basis and many descriptions of these social occasions have been recorded in Australian literature.

The Bush Musician who played for these dances was a locally important person, as was the Master of Ceremonies who conducted the dance. Quadrilles or Set dances, such as The Lancers, The First Set, The Alberts and The Waltz Cotillon, and couple dances such as the Varsovienna, Polka, Mazurka and Schottische were immensely popular with dancers, who were so familiar with the steps that the MC needed only to call out reminders. Each dance had its own tunes, or in the case of set dances, groups of tunes.

The Bush Musician was a quite heroic figure, able to play from eight at night till the early hours of the next morning with a ready supply of tunes to fit all the dances that might be suggested during the evening. It was not uncommon for bush musicians to be competent on a number of instruments. Sally Sloane for instance, played concertina, button accordion, jew's harp and piano, as learnt from her mother, and added fiddle, whistle and mouthorgan.

The Tin Whistle has long been a popular bush instrument because of it versatility and convenient size. It would easily fit into the pack saddle of a drover or the swag of an itinerant shearer. The original whistles brought to Australia by sailors, convicts and settlers would have been penny whistles. Often the pipe was stoppered at the mouth end with a shaped lump of lead which established the tradition of whistle players being as mad as hatters. Robert Clarke patented his tapered barrel design Clarke Whistle in 1843 which became very popular. Today there are a number of makers of the metal whistles and some specialty makers producing instruments with exceptional tone. Each whistle is set in a particular key with C and D being the most common. With some partial covering of holes it is feasible to play in some other keys.

The Mouth Organ or Harmonica, is the smallest instrument that is popular in bush music . It was available in several different keys and used a diatonic scale, called the Richter Scale invented by a German instrument maker in the 1820s. The reeds are arranged so that you blow on one note and draw on the next. The effect of this is to make notes blown or drawn together sound in chords - in thirds, fifths and octaves. The player can block off holes with the tongue and sound single notes, or can withdraw it and play several notes together making a chord. Or, by a combination of these movements, single notes can be played on the down beat and chords on the upbeat. This is known as "vamping" or "putting in the bass" and is the usual way of playing. Hands can be used to cup the sound to add tonal and volume variation. Sometimes a tin pannikin was held up to the instrument to increase resonance.
Mouth organ competitions were common in the late 1800s and in the 1900s. Bob Bolton was a great exponent of the mouthorgan at the Bush Music Club.

The Anglo Concertina  was introduced to Australia just before the gold rushes of the 1850s. Early models were made in Germany and were called German Concertinas. They were cheap and didn't last long. When English makers began to produce them the quality and the price was much higher and they were known as Anglo-German Concertinas with the German being dropped at the time of the First World War. Anglos use the same in and out scale as the mouth-organ which makes harmonising quite intuitive, They were commonly played in the bush as 2-row instruments usually C/G (that is one row was in the key of C and the other in G). Less common were Bb/F instruments. With the revival of interest in playing these remarkable instruments has come a tendency to play 3-row instruments that provide an additional row of accidentals and alternative fingering buttons that make playing in more keys possible with practice. As many popularly played tunes are in D and G there has been a rise in the number of G/D instruments being played.

The English Concertina was invented and patented in 1829 by Charles Wheatstone who was later well known for physics developments like spectroscopy and the telegraph. The English system has  each button playing the same on bellows pressure in or out. The scale is arranged to alternate left side / right side and the C natural scale is located on the inner two rows with all the sharp/flats on the outer rows. The instrument then is fully chromatic. These instruments are available as cheaper beginner models and most musician"s individual progress, as with all instruments, leads to seeking better quality and more expensive options.

The Button Accordion or melodeon operates on the same diatonic scale as the mouth organ. The same blow and draw is involved, but here it is translated into push and pull, with the bellows supplying the wind. Single row accordions were affordable and had one simple set of bass notes. More expensive models  were sometimes augmented with extra reeds accessed by pulling out stops. Three buttons would be one set of reeds at pitch, one set slightly sharp and one set an octave lower. This gave the instrument the volume needed in the larger dance venues. Two row accordions dad two keys usually a fifth apart that enabled key variation and also offered some cross-row possibilities. They usually included a bass with options including minor chords.

The Fiddle or Violin has long been a favourite instrument for musical recreation, with ship's fiddlers being often included to provide music for dancing for the health and amusement of the crew. In Australia the fiddle was in demand for playing for dances in homes, and public halls and shearing sheds. Some fiddlers tuned their fiddle down a tone so that they could use the comfortable D fingerings and play with C tuned concertinas and accordions. The difference between fiddling and playing the violin is essentially one of lifestyle and purpose. A fiddler would play recreationally after a day's work or on a Saturday night outing and would find and play suitable music for the dances that were popular at the time. A classical violinist is constrained by the repertoire and style of concert performance. Today many young players who have had some classical training are able to shake off that yoke and enjoy playing socially for sessions and dances.