Fifes and Drums: The Instruments

Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums introduces the instruments designed to be heard under cannon fire and over musket volleys. Learn the history of their distinctive sound with Amy Miller and members of the Senior Fife and Drum Corps.

Learn more: The Fifes and Drums


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter.

This week the podcast comes to you from Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area, where musicians are performing "The Art of Fifing and Drumming," a program that explores the history behind Williamsburg’s iconic Fife and Drum Corps. If you’ve never heard the Fifes and Drums in person, plan a visit this Friday, May 14, and see the annual fife and drum muster, Drummers Call, where fife and drum units from the United States and Canada will gather in Williamsburg for three days of marching and playing.

Colonial Williamsburg’s Fifes and Drums also perform year-round in the Historic Area, so make sure to come see them play no matter when you visit.

Amy Miller: Fall in.

David Baker: “O’ Carolan’s medley,” “Open Beating Tune,” “Slingsby’s Allemand” … let’s go. “O’ Carolan’s Medley.” Fifes up. Ready.

Music:“O’Carolan’s Medley,” “Open Beating Tune,” “Slingsby’s Allemand.”

David: Fifes down. Rest.

Amy: Thank you ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Art of Fifing and Drumming. We’re going to be playing music that was played in the 18th century and showing you how music was used as a form of communication for the military in the 18th century.

David: My name is David Baker and I’m a fifer here at Colonial Williamsburg. This is my instrument, the fife.The fife is a woodwind instrument that is made of one piece of hardwood. This particular fife is made out of a darker wood called grenadilla. It’s a little bit more exotic, and it comes from Africa. Typically in the 18th century, fifes would have been made out of any local hardwood: maple, persimmon.

The fife is completely hollowed out through the center and has seven holes drilled into it. These six smaller holes you see, these are the finger holes. This larger hole is the embouchure hole, or as you may know it, the blowhole. Inside the fife, right above the embouchure hole, there is an essential piece. It’s a cork that directs the air that makes its way into the fife underneath these six finger holes. With different amounts of air and different fingerings for the notes, I can produce different pitches and tones.

On either end of my fife, you see these two pieces. They’re called ferrules. Their main purpose is to hold the fife together, prevent cracking. Here in Virginia we have very hot and humid summers and cold and dry winters. So when the wood expands and shrinks, cracks can occur. The ferrules’ job is to prevent them from spreading. They also serve somewhat of a purpose of decoration.

The fife can produce roughly two and a half octaves, the lower octave and the higher octave. The lower octave was used mainly back in the encampments in the 18th century to practice the higher-octave tunes without disturbing others as well as it was used as entertainment. Now I am going to demonstrate the lower-octave tune for you entitled “Devil’s Dream.”

Music: “Devil’s Dream.”

Now the other octave, the higher octave, it was used mainly out on the battlefield. On a clear day, such as today, it could be heard up to a mile away over the cannon fire. That’s why the fifers and drummers were essential during the 18th century for communication. I would like to demonstrate the higher octave with a tune entitled, “Marionettes.”

Music: “Marionettes.”

Now I’d like to turn over the program to Chris Myers, who will interpret the snare drum. Thank you.

Chris Myers: This is a replica of an 18th century field snare drum. It’s made out of all-natural parts. This main piece you see here is called the shell. It’s the body of the drum. On either side of the shell are two calfskin heads. The top head is called the batter head, it’s the head I play on. The bottom head is called the snare head. It gets its name from the six to ten catgut snares strung across the bottom.

Holding the calfskin heads to the shell are these two red pieces here, called rims or counter hoops. Strung throughout the counter hoops is 50 feet of cotton or linen rope. On the rope, you see these leather pieces called ears. Their main purpose is to control the tension on the calfskin heads.

If I wanted to play on the drum, I’d push down on all the ears, as you see it right now. What this does, is it pulls the counter hoops closer together and stretches the calfskin heads across the shell, creating a nice tight playing surface. If I wasn’t playing the drum, I’d pull up on the ears all the way around the drum. This relieves tension on the heads and keeps them from tearing.

In the 18th century, drummers had little or no written music, so they had to learn everything by ear. To make this easier, they came up with a system of rudiments. Rudiments are simple patters of notes whose names generally reflect what they sound like. A couple examples would be flam-tap, ratamaque, or paradiddle.

In the 18th century, to prove to their instructors that they could play these rudiments proficiently, they'd play them open to close to open, or slow to fast to slow. To demonstrate this, I'll play the ratamaque open to close to open.

Amy: I'd like to say one word about what we're wearing. Our uniform is portraying the regimental uniform that George Washington designed for the State Garrison Regiment late in the war, around 1779 or ‘80. This was patterned directly after the British Regimental coat.

We are wearing red coats with blue facings because we are the musicians attached to the Virginia State Garrison Regiment, who wore a blue coat with red facings at the cuffs and the collars. So we wore the opposite colors of the infantry we were with, and this is exactly how British did, also. So the musicians were always set apart by color-coding.

You could see this on the battlefield, and believe it or not, there was a gentleman's agreement during the Revolutionary War that you would not purposefully shoot at the other side's fifer and drummer. Very good reasons for this included the fact that they were children. They were unarmed non-combatant children, roughly aged 10 to about 16 or so. That varied from area to area, but when you became of age, you then took up arms and joined the military.

After you reached the age where you no longer had to bear arms, had you been a fifer or drummer as a child, you could choose to come back and mentor the new fifers and drummers who were coming up through the ranks. The musicians in the 18th century military actually ranked higher than the adult infantry that they supported and they were paid more. Their job was considered critical to the day-to-day operations of the military.

Harmony: We’ve only scratched the surface of The Art and Fifing and Drumming. Listen again next week to hear how a soldier’s day was regulated by the tunes played by fifers and drummers.


  1. I still have my drum that was made in Williamsburg in thew 7o’s. I need a new head. Please send info on where I can get one.

  2. seeking info on Mr Carroll who was an instructor for Colonial Williamsburg, Va. I came along with the W&M Queen’s Guard in the early 1970’s and as I remember just after his period as an instructor to Williamsburg’s “children” . As I understand it, the residents of Williamsburg’s and environs eagerly sent their young children to Mr Carroll for instruction. As I heard it back then Mr. Carroll was revered by all who passed thru his classes. I am seeking info on his years as an instructor. We trained in a building near the magazine in the Colonial History area.

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