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  • Writer's pictureNathan Coles

Which Castanets Are Right For You?

Updated: Mar 14

Black Swamp Percussion offers a comprehensive selection of castanets and castanet-related accessories. Designed to meet the needs of both professional musicians and enthusiasts, their castanet collection comprises the Pro Concert Castanets, Castanet Machines, and Castanet Accessories. These offerings not only showcase Black Swamp Percussion's dedication to quality and craftsmanship but also aim to enhance the user's rhythmic experience and elevate their artistry.

Black Swamp Percussion makes two varieties of Castanets. Handled castanets and machine castanets. The difference between the two is simply in the name. Handled versions are castanets attached to a maple handle and meant to be held while playing. Machine castanets are a pair of castanets mounted to a frame and can be placed on a table or cymbal stand while playing. Within these two categories, there are a few options to choose from as well as some model specific accessories.



 

History


Let’s quickly cover some basics about the castanet instrument origin.


It may be hard to believe, but castanets were invented by the ancient Phoenicians more than 3000 years ago and later adopted by surrounding Mediterranean countries before moving their way to Spain. This is where we typically associate the castanet sound with flamenco music and the paso doble, initially a high tempo military march which transitioned to a dance and instrumental music sometimes heard during bull fights.


The Spanish word for castanet is “castanuelas” which comes from the word “castana” meaning “chestnut” or “hazel,” which were the woods castanets were traditionally carved from.


At the time, castanets were performed by resting one pair in each hand with strings looped around the thumb, and rhythms performed with fingers. This is still the preferred performance technique for traditional flamenco music.


In a traditional performance setting, castanets are always played in pairs, with one held in each hand and having different pitches: macho and hembra. The “macho”, or lower pitched castanets, should be held in the left hand and outline the basic beats of the music. The right hand holds the higher pitched “hembra” pair of castanets and performs more intricate patterns, filling out the bass rhythms of the left hand.


However, in modern band and orchestral literature, composers, conductors and performers typically prefer rhythms to be clear and consistent, so contemporary castanets are pitched as closely together as possible.


Relevance to Modern Percussion


So how does all of this apply to percussionists? Well, some of the earliest pieces featuring castanets in a more “classical” context are from the Baroque period. This includes works for guitar and castanets by Santiago de Murcia in Spain and works by Boccherini in Italy. As modern musicians, we are more familiar with castanets being used to evoke this flamenco sound in Bizet’s Carmen or Capriccio Espagnole by Rimsky-Korsakov.


As the castanet instrument developed over time, different materials were used to construct the cups of the castanets, including rosewood, ebony and grenadillo. Handles were added to assist in performance (like our first castanet models introduced in 1997), and machine style castanets were adopted into contemporary performance settings.


Check out our Castanet Deep Dive video which goes into detail about the construction and features of our handled castanets.


Pro Concert Castanets


Grenadillo Black Swamp Pro Concert Castanets

Overview

First generation of Black Swamp castanets

1997 is when Black Swamp Percussion debuted the first version of our tension adjustable, handled castanets. Since then, there have been some serious improvements to the sound and design of the instrument.


The first major improvement was beginning to CnC machine castanet cups in our own facility. Initially, we purchased castanets directly from Spain and retrofitted them to our original handle design. For more than 15 years now, we’ve been machining and assembling castanets in house. We’re able to source high quality lumber, then precisely machine and shape by hand. This culminates in a superior pair of castanets with exceptional clarity and consistency.


The current lumber options for our handled castanets are Grenadillo and Purpleheart. Each has a distinct tonal character and quality of sound.


The second improvement is the elastic free tension adjustment system we developed around 2015. Castanets are attached to the handle and held in place with a slick T-shaped flange. That’s right; no elastic or cord to stretch and break over time.


These Pro Concert Castanets have the option of performing both in the air or on your leg, also a feature unique to Black Swamp handled castanets. This flexibility allows you to also perform a redoble roll with ease. Check out our tutorial video on how to perform this castanet roll.


PCC3-GD: Grenadillo

Grenadillo, flourishing in the arid forests of southeast Africa, predominantly thrives in the captivating expanse of the East African savanna grasslands—the very heart of its most vital sources. Esteemed for its exceptional qualities, Grenadillo stands out as a prized timber for crafting woodwind instruments and in our case, castanets, thanks to its remarkable attributes including a resilient, velvety-smooth surface and an exceptional resistance to moisture absorption. To our ears, Grenadillo castanets have a round, warm sound with plenty of projection for a classic "clack" sound.


PCC3-PH: Purpleheart

Enchanting and elusive, Purpleheart stands as a captivating exotic wood, sought after for its stunning beauty and rarity. This extraordinary timber graces the landscapes of Central and South America, spanning from the southeastern realms of Brazil to the lush realms of Costa Rica.

We find that these castanets speak with a more pronounced "tick" adding more articulation and projection over larger or louder ensembles.





Accessories


Black Swamp also offers a few accessories that are exclusive to the Pro Concert Castanets.



Black Swamp Professional castanet mounting frame

PCMF: The Professional Castanet Mounting Frame turns your handled castanets into machine castanets that can be placed on a trap table or mounted to a cymbal stand. The sleek, simplistic appearance are hallmarks of Black Swamp Percussion design.




Black Swamp handled castanet case

HCC: The Handled castanet case is a MUST for anyone wanting to protect their castanets on the go and travel in style.




Now let's take a look at our two options of castanet machines:


 

Overture Castanet Machine


Black Swamp Overture Castanet Machine

Overview


We have an in-depth overview of our Overture Castanet Machine that gives a deep look at all of the features and benefits of this machine. But, we will quickly recap those features now.


Black Swamp castanet machines are highlighted by their ease of use and convenient construction. These machines have rubber feet so they can be played on any surface and a threaded bottom so they can be mounted to a cymbal stand.

This castanet machine was designed by professional percussionists to have an exceptional sound with an entry level cost for budget conscious band programs and musicians. Considering this, we chose less expensive materials that still maintain the standards of quality and performance you’ve always associated with Black Swamp Percussion.

The fiber castanet cups have a bright, articulate tone, blending well with any size ensemble. The base of the machine is constructed from premium plywood boasting handsome durability at an economic price point.

Learn more about this instrument in our deep dive video.

Superior Sound and Sensible Value!




Pro Castanet Machine


Black Swamp Pro Castanet Machine

Overview


While we provided an extensive overview of our Pro Castanet Machine in a previous blog post, delving into its myriad features and benefits, let us now offer a succinct recap of its key attributes.


The Pro Castanet Machine frame is constructed with solid ash, which holds the same quality Grenadillo castanet cups used on our handheld castanet models. Grenadillo lumber is processed beginning to end in our facility and pitch matched by a percussionist for ultimate quality and consistency. Grenadillo produces a full, clear, natural tone with more body to the sound than their fiber castanet cousins. Essentially, a sound reminiscent of the more traditional castanets we spoke about earlier.


Accessories


Interested in diversifying your sound? The stock Grenadillo castanets can also be quickly removed and replaced with alternate wood options, including Purpleheart, Maple or Zebrawood - each sold separately.


Make sure to listen to these available wood options here.


Important note: these alternate wood options will NOT fit on the Overture castanet machine model. Hole spacing overall shape is slightly different between the wood and fiber castanet cups. This doesn’t allow them to fit on the other version’s frame and respond properly.




 


Castanet Machine Comparison


Similarities


So what’s the same between the Overture and Pro Castanet Machines? The basic operation and function. Each castanet model features our unique elastic free tensioning system, which allows the castanets to have consistent tension without the hassle of sting or elastic. You can also dial in your desired feel and response using the tension adjustment knob on top of the base.


Side note: Our handled castanets were designed with a tension adjustment screw that is set by an experienced percussionist before they leave the shop. We assemble these castanets to be comfortably played at any dynamic without tension adjustment by the performer. However, you may find yourself wanting to make tweaks to the tension yourself as the castanets are played over time.

 

Which One is Right For You?


So, which castanet instrument is right for you? There’s a few points worth considering when making your decision. The first of which is price.


Cost

If instrument cost is a consideration for you, our Overture castanet machine is the most economical option. This machine is durable, easy to operate, and provides a clear and bright castanet sound – perfect for any size ensemble or performance situation.

If you’re willing to spend a little more to get some additional features, definitely consider the Pro Castanet Machine or Pro Concert Castanets. Both of these instruments use high quality materials and hand shaped wooden cups to produce an authentic sound. Speaking of which…

The second point of consideration is Sound Quality.


Sound Quality

Castanets have a distinct and unique timbre however, the materials in which they are built can have an impact on the sound they produce.

The Overture Castanet Machine uses fiber castanet cups. Like we’ve stated previously, these are bright, clear, and very consistent – all great characteristics of the instrument. But when put side by side with castanets made of wood, you not only see the difference but can hear the difference as well.

Both the Pro Castanet Machine and Pro Concert Castanets use wooden castanet cups made from grenadillo or purpleheart. This construction gives the cups a warmer sound with a more rounded attack. While not as bright or chipper as the Overture Castanet Machine, these two instruments lean into a more authentic sound of traditional castanets. Which may be preferred for certain band or orchestral literature.

And if you really want to dial in the perfect sound for your instrument, the Pro Castanet Machine allows you to remove the stock grenadillo cups and replace with other contrasting wood options: maple, purpleheart, and zebrawood.

One more thing you should consider is where you’ll be using the instrument: venue.


Venue

This point can be a kind of a moving target for most musicians but, it’s worth taking a moment to consider where you’ll be using these castanets. Handled castanets require the performer to hold the instrument whereas castanet machines allow some more flexibility for the performer and their set up. For instance:


Pit Musicians performing in musical theaters and playing in close quarters will find the Pro Castanet Machine as a solid option. The customization options for this machine allow the performer to get the right sounds for the job. The machine also allows you to mount the frame on a cymbal stand or place it on a trap table and not have to pick the instrument up to play them - an essential feature for anyone attempting to cram as many instruments as possible into a small space.

If you already have a pair of handled castanets and have a pit gig coming up - take a look at the Professional Castanet Mounting Frame to turn your handled castanets to machine castanets. This will give you the same mounting flexibility as the castanet machines.


Schools and band programs will get a lot of use with the Overture Castanet Machine. It not only has a great sound but its durability and approachability make it an easy option for percussionists of all levels to play confidently.


The Concert Hall is the ideal venue for any orchestral musician and the Pro Concert Castanets are the perfect choice for this scenario, producing a more authentic sound. I also think it’s worth noting that using handled castanets allows you to play in the air when appropriate. Audience members, and conductors, may appreciate seeing the clicky-clack instrument they’re hearing, providing a little more connection to the music.

That being said, The Pro Castanet Machine can also be a great option for the concert hall, especially if you are short a musician, running around covering multiple parts or working within a multi-percussion set up. We know it happens.



 

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