The Q&A Archives: Gourd Rattles

Question: I am interested in making gourd rattles with my music students. What varieties are appropriate? How are they dried? What materials can be used to decorate them? Thanks so much for any help you can give.

Answer: Gourd rattles may take either the simple or the composite form, using either the whole intact gourd with seeds inside (sometimes perforated to "let the sound out") or, a cut gourd with a handle attached and stones or seeds added to create the desired sound. "Shake re"-type rattles derive their distinctive sound not from objects within but from the netted arrangement of seeds, shells or beads which hit and rub against the gourd's hard outer surface.

Preparation of gourds for instrument manufacture is simple once a mature gourd is obtained. (Round or oblong shaped gourds are commonly used for rattles.) Gourds have reached maturity when the vine has died and dried. Cutting a gourd from the vine prior to maturity will result in a rotted, not a dried, end product. Depending on the gourd's size, it will dry (preferably outside in cold weather) in a few weeks to several months. When dry it will be relatively light in weight and one can hear either the seeds or a large lump rattling around inside when shaken.

During the drying process, the outer skin (a thin layer which covers the thicker shell) will flake, mold, mildew and generally begin to look like a leftover science project gone bad. Have no fear. The transformation now begins. After wetting down the gourd's skin to soften it, begin to scrape away the offending matter with a knife, shell or stone flake. The skin will peel away and you will be rewarded with a beautiful, smooth, cream to amber colored shell. This preparation serves more than an aesthetic function, by the way. The cleaning of the shell's outer surface (like the removal of the pithy material inside the gourd) will aide in the prevention of future deterioration. An unscraped gourd will continue to draw moisture, even from the air in humid climates. And, if you are looking for a resonator here, be assured that improved appearance equals improved performance. You are now ready to cut, empty, interior scrape, perforate, oil, decorate or otherwise modify the gourd to suit your purposes.

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