The Quills

A North American Panpipe

The "Quills" are a rare instrument from the American south, of the panpipe (or syrinx) family.  It is a set of cane pipes, numbering from two to at least 8, stopped at one end by a node of the cane, and open at the other. The pipes are often bound together and are played by blowing across the open ends of the tubes.

Read this Google book published in 19922 Negro Folk Rhymes


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 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.


Only 2 pre-revival players have been recorded, the early bluesman Henry Thomas, Vocalion 1927 and 1929,  and Big Boy Cleveland, Gennet 1927.  Cleveland's Quills Blues can be heard at this site: Document Records (search for "The Songster Tradition 1927 - 1935". 

It is also possible that Cleveland is actually playing the cane fife--for more information on the cane fife, see the following pages on

 There are later field recordings that may represent some of the music, instruments, and styling that from that long-gone time, for example the playing of people like Sid Hemphill and Alec Askew, recorded 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 Hemphill.


There is another recording from Alan Lomax's field recordings featuring Alec Askew playing the "4 hole quills" 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 after the section on Henry Thomas below.

Rock Me, Shake Me: Field Recordings Vol. 15:... by Various Artists

Many of these recordings may also be heard in their entirety on the excellent pre-war blues internet radio station Weenie Campbell" (

In addition to these documents, there are also recordings from Africa which are strikingly like the music recorded by Lomax in the American south.  The best examples that I am aware of are from the field recordings of Hugh Tracy, many of which can be heard on the recording Flutes and Horns. This recording can be previewed and ordered from this web site in South Africa:


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.

These recordings can be heard on two collections:


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. Although there are no surviving instruments of this type (I assume that Thomas made his own, and cane does not survive well) We can learn a great deal about the instruments from these recordings.

I started with Bulldoze Blues, which stands out for a 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 tried to listen to the piece to determine the number of pipes, and then apply 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 but 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. The results are linked below:

Starting from lowest to highest in pitch. You can click on the pipe number to hear the final track for that pipe.

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--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, 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

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. 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) 622.25

Not 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 clear that the whole set of pipes is tuned a bit sharp (or the cutting lathe for the recording was running a bit slower than 78 rpm).  Other than that, one oddity that stands out is that 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 is 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.

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 instrument does not include a G in either octave.  This means that the mode could be  ionian (major) or mixolydian, or could map to other less well defined, blues" scales. Bottom line, it is what it is.

What size pipes does this give us?

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.

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
553 150.50 13.04

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 acquire 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.

I am in the process of finding a source for cane to create reproductions.  If you happen to live near a canebrake, I'd be glad to trade a reproduction set for some raw materials!

Until I get a set of real cane quills, bamboo is a adequate second choice, so this is where I've focused my attention at the moment.

The Alec Askew "four hole" Quills

There is a field recording from Alan Lomax featuring Alec Askew playing the "4 hole quills".  As mentioned before, this recording is included on the Document CD Field Recordings Vol 15 (DOCD 5672).

On this recording, Lomax asks Askew to play the individual notes--this makes analysis easy.

4 hole quills mp3 extract

The notes are:

1188-1192 hz D 70 mm long 6.5 mm id
991-1004 hz B 85 mm long 7.5 mm id
874-882 hz A 95 mm long 8.5 mm id
779-790 hz G 106 mm long 9.5 mm id

  Although the track is called 4-hole quills, Askew plays one note 3 times each time he goes through the scale.  This makes me wonder if perhaps there were repeated pipes at that pitch included in his set.  The tune that Askew plays later in the recording show no evidence of this repetition, however.