Final Note: Placement of Rattlesnake Rattles Inside Instruments

Posted by | June 11, 2013

Please welcome guest author Hilda Downer. Downer is an Appalachian poet who makes a living teaching English at Appalachian State University, and as a psychiatric nurse. Hilda DownerShe is a member of the Appalachian Studies Association, NC Writers Conference, and the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. She has published poetry and essays in journals and anthologies such as the award-winning anthology of Appalachian women’s writing on the sense of place, Bloodroot. Her most recent book of poetry, Sky Under the Roof, was published by Bottom Dog Press, 2013. She lives in Sugar Grove, NC.


The postmaster handed over the small package saying he was sorry it was empty. Indeed, the box felt weightless and upon being shaken, its sound was inaudible like that of the first few flurries of a mountain winter. Because I knew what was inside, I opened the taped end gingerly, but with a quick tug to dislodge the flap – the stubby finger of a rattle flexed outward through the resulting side opening.

It swayed from side to side and lifted its “head” like a big fat bug in rigor mortis. My hand recoiled from the rattle’s touch. Between layers of cotton, six rattles filed away like expensive silverware, a strange gift from a friend in Oregon for me to distribute among my son’s bluegrass band, Sons of Bluegrass, comprised of all East Tennessee State University Bluegrass students in the only bluegrass major in the world.

The discussion about the use of a rattle in the fiddle and other traditional instruments had naturally occurred between my son, fiddler Meade Richter, and me. He had spent considerable time with elderly fiddlers in competitions over the years, as well as studied this practice in his Bluegrass History classes.

rattlesnake rattles

He knew fiddlers often inserted a rattle in the f-hole for good luck. Meade, even as second-time winner of Fiddler of the Festival at Union Grove, the oldest fiddle festival in the United States, put more stock into actual practice than the practice of possessing a good luck charm.

Could there be some logical rationale behind this superstition? Because rattlesnakes are only indigenous to the Western hemisphere, the root of magical or practical use of the rattle would trace back to Native Americans.

Opposed to the African reverence of the snake as an object of worship, the European Christian association of the serpent with Satan led to a “reversed bad luck” akin to current motorcycle gang and military jewelry depicting a rattlesnake coiled around a skull or dagger.

The famous Revolutionary War flag portraying the rattlesnake and slogan, “Don’t Tread On Me” represented the shared bravery of soldiers and a snake that warns its victims before striking (Yronwode).

The act of keeping a rattle in a musical instrument as an amulet to ward off evil spirits, especially for people steeped in superstition before their arrival to this country, could easily have derived from their own volition.

However, the use of rattles for warding off pests must precede the Revolutionary War, learned from Native Americans as early settlers adopted other natural remedies. The particular practice had to begin prior to the 1900s when the fiddle was considered to be the Devil’s instrument. Therefore, the fiddle was not allowed indoors, but was hung in the barn or on the porch as a compromise for what was useful to get the work done at corn shuckings and the like.

These open spaces had spiders, mud daubers, and mice seeking refuge in a new home. The smell of the rattle sent a strong message to such vermin to stay away (Miller). Certainly, from their first encounters with the Eastern Diamondback rattlers from the coastal area to the timber rattlers in the Appalachian Mountains as they migrated westward, settlers felt a need to be in harmony with a world wilder and stranger than fiction. To keep a part of something on them that belonged, the rattle of a snake with its own music, just might help them become more a part of the new world they had to either adapt to or not survive at all.

Another utilitarian aspect of placing the rattle inside a musical instrument rises from the belief that it renders a “sweeter sound” – more crisp and loud (Cox 26). Especially in a time before PA systems or modern recording enhancements, a lone fiddle might be the only accompaniment at a dance and would require the most volume it could muster. A singular rattle sounds like a rain stick turned upside down, perhaps a musical instrument in its own right. Alan Jabbour, known for collecting great old recordings, states that the rattle in his fiddle renders “a rhythm section” to his performances (Royce).

Usually, the explanation provided by mandolin players is that, ‘“Bill Monroe did it this way . . .”’ (Mandotim). Why did Bill Monroe do it that way, though? One account is that Monroe believed the rattle settled the dust in his mandolin, providing a deeper clarity of sound. Fiddler Bev Conrad, experimenting with a rattle in her fiddle, removed it the next day to find the rattle dust coated—“a big ball of lint, fuzz, dust, and cobwebs had been gathered up by the sweeping motion of the rattle as it wandered around the inside of the fiddle” (Conrad).

Indeed, scientific evidence proves that the movement of a snake’s body creates friction resulting in static electricity that cannot be dispelled as creatures with hair and feathers do (Luck-Baker). Instead, the snake utilizes this electrical charge for sensory purposes, navigation, and to conserve energy for striking when threatened. Also, the rattle distracts an attacker’s attention away from the vital organs of the snake (Vonstille 26). Furthermore, the vibrations of the rattle, attached or detached to the snake’s body, generate static electricity on their own (Luck-Baker) capable of attracting dust particles, thus clearing the inside of an instrument so it sounds less muffled.

No mater what, the rattle is a good thing. It warns predators and innocent bystanders alike. The rattlesnake just wants to live and be left alone. It exemplifies patience, lying in wait for long periods of time for prey. (No, they do not clear out when they hear hikers trekking toward their direction).

Playing an instrument exemplifies the same patience and dedication. Since my son first played fiddle at a young age, I can scarcely remember a meal or time to go out the front door when I did not have to ask Meade to lay the fiddle down first.

Fiddler Meade Richter.

Fiddler Meade Richter.

The difficulty of playing the fiddle prompted people to think that to play well, a fiddler must have to trade his soul with the Devil. I think of when a friend turned to me following Meade’s last competition performance at Fiddler’s Grove and saying through the darkness, “No human could make sounds like that.” Neither could a rattlesnake, like one of Rilke’s “terrible angels,” be more beautiful in its existence.

The fact that my son is even alive after nearly dying from an infection at one week old causes me to believe that, like the rattlesnake, we all have something extra, greater than we as mere organisms can even bear, so that beyond death and even in brave defiance of death, we can leave something of great beauty behind that takes on a life of its own.

Now that Meade has been playing a rattle-inoculated fiddle for a few days, he reports no variation in sound, though he has not been in a studio that might detect such nuances. However, when he lays the fiddle down, he alone hears the rattle, like a final note.


Sources:  Conrad, Beverley. “A Rattle of Truth.” The Fiddle –Legends, Lore & Helpful Hints. 23 October 2012. 4 June 2013.

Luck-Baker, Andrew. “Sience:  Snakes that Shake to Electro-locate.” News Scientist. 20 August 1994. 5 June 2013.

Mandotim. “Folklore, Rattlers and Fiddlers.” The Mudcat Café.  2 January 2006. 4 June 2013.

Miller, Ken. “Rattlers.” Ken Miller Guitar. 2011. 5 June 2013.

Royce, Janet Farrar.  “What’s that Rattle Snake Rattle Doing in My Fiddle?” Flying Fiddle. 3 May 2010. 4 June 2013.

Verstille, W. T. and Stille III, W. T.  “No Electrostatic Sense in Snakes.” Scientific Correspondence. 5 Jaunary 1995. 5 June 2013.

Yronwode, Cat. “Rattlesnake Rattles, Rattlesnake Salt, and Rattlesnake Dust.” Lucky Mojo. 2000. 5 June 2013.

18 Responses

  • Dale McKain says:

    Very interesting.
    Hope the rattles serve your sons well.

  • Dr. Noreen M. Sisko says:

    Hi Hilda! I am Noreen Sisko, Kasey Sisko’s aunt. I loved reading your article on the “placement of snake’s rattles in musical instruments”. Very interesting and informative. We have not yet met Meade, but I hear wonderful things about him from Kasey Beth, and her parents. I am looking forward to hearing some of the beautiful Bluegrass music from the “Sons of Bluegrass”!!

  • Evan Reilly says:

    And, of course, the Father of Blue Grass Music, William Smith Monroe, had a large rattle in his Gibson F-5 mandolin.

  • georg says:

    How do you put the rattle in the fiddle? Do you push as much as the rattle in the f-opening that you can, and then trim off the excess? or do you get an Xacto blade and make the f-opening wider to accommodate the rest of the rattle? The tip of the rattle is thin and easily goes through the opening, but the rattle gets progressively thicker and not all of the rattle can go through the f-opening. I know this, because I got a rattle from ebay, and I’ve been trying to put it all in my fiddle. Now, about half the rattle fits through the opening and the rest sticks out of the fiddle. When I try to push it in further, some of the scales breaks off and makes a crunching sound. :/

  • William P Marseglia says:

    To fit into instrument, steam the back off and re -glue.

  • Tim Mundy says:

    Hi! Wow…the internet does it’s thing again! I’m ‘mandotim’ who made the comment on Mudcat years ago; never expected to be cited in a work of scholarship!

  • Rick Friend says:

    I have heard that the rattle is only viable if it is a gift.

  • Lloyd Baldwin says:

    After seeing a squirrel nest in my barn with some rat snake skins as part of the construction, I have a hard time believing that rattles in fiddles deter mice from messing with them. However, squirrels are not mice and rat snakes are not rattlin’ snakes, so it may work. I just think that snake rattles make my fiddle sound better, and they do keep dust from accumulating.

    Rattles from a timber rattler are thinner than diamondback rattles, and are easier to insert through the f-holes. My fiddle has three of them inside.

  • Joel Shimberg says:

    I disagree. I compare the rattle to the flat bridge-top of the Sitar and the drone instrument that often accompanies it, and to the soda/beer bottle caps that are fastened to the body of the Shona Mbira. These produce a buzzing sound (akin, now that I think of it, to the drones of the uilleann pipes). The rattle also produces a subtle buzzing sound in the fiddle, and it’s found in the Mid-West as well not only in (Southern) Appalachia. I would argue that his buzzing is somewhat universally sought by traditional musicians.

    The practical advantage of rolling up dust, etc., is also a factor in the use of the rattle.

  • […] from Hilda Downer ( and […]

  • Texas hillbilly says:

    I inherited a 1953 Martin D28 with 3 rattles in it from my Uncle and a 1978 Martin D35 with 4 rattles in it from my Dad. A few weeks ago I took the rattles out and then to my surprise, a few days later when I took the guitars out of the case, both guitars had bowed up at the bridge. As always, they were kept in the case in the same room as always with strings tight. I was told the bowing was caused by humidity. So I am convinced the rattlers help control the humidity while the instruments are stored in the case. When the guitars are repaired, the rattles go back in to stay.

  • […] best to ward off any sort of satanic violin possession. Inside the “devil’s box”, rattlesnake rattles were placed to frighten the devil away, along with other […]

  • CrossKulture says:

    Thank you for this article… I recently inherited a 1954 Gibson J 50 with its original case and a rattlesnake rattle in the sound hole; my uncle was a bluegrass player. Although this was a guitar, he also played: the fiddle, mandolin, and the banjo. After reading this article, I believe the rattle will stay in the guitar…

  • Georg says:

    Update: I squeezed the rattles (I put 2 in the fiddle) through the f-holes of the fiddle. I was thinking of enlarging the f-hole with a knife. But I didn’t want to ruin a good $1, 500, 000 strad if I messed up. :D

  • […] was attributed to the rattlesnake rattles that had been placed inside of it.  Who knew?  Click here to read more about this practice from the Appalachian History […]

  • Peggy Dube says:

    As a kid growing up in eastern Tennessee I saw plenty of rattlesnakes. My Dad’s side of the family is from North Georgia and is Cherokee. Whenever Dad killed a rattlesnake he ALWAYS kept the rattler and put is somewhere in the house. My mother was a wonderful guitar player and singer of bluegrass but I had never heard of this tradition. Very interesting Thank you.

  • West Virginia’s Glenville State Colkege has a bluegrass major also, 4 yr degree

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