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Waterfowler's Notebook: Anatomy of a Duck Call

A custom call maker explains how a duck call works from the inside out
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  • photo by John Hoffman, DU
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By Wade Bourne

It's not a stretch to compare a duck call to a traditional woodwind instrument such as a saxophone or clarinet. Musicians play these instruments by forcing air through a mouthpiece and across a reed, which vibrates to produce sound. Duck calls work in much the same way.

"A duck call is as sensitive and finicky as any musical instrument," says David Gaston, who owns and operates Gaston Custom Calls in Thomasville, Alabama. "Changing any part of a call will alter the sounds it produces. So the call maker's challenge is to make and assemble the parts and tune the call so that it consistently produces notes with the desired pitch and tone."

Gaston makes Arkansas-style calls, the standard design for modern duck calls. These calls have five main parts: a barrel, insert, tone board, reed, and wedge. The barrel is the hollow body of the call into which the caller blows. The insert fits tightly into the barrel. The tone board is the part of the insert that holds the reed, which is anchored in place by a wedge. 

According to Gaston, minor changes to the "guts" of a call can dramatically alter its pitch. "Lengthening or shortening the reed the slightest bit will change the sound," he explains. "A longer reed vibrates more slowly and has a lower pitch. Conversely, a shorter reed vibrates more quickly, so the call's pitch is higher."

Changing the thickness of the reed can also affect a call's sound. A thicker reed requires more air to make it vibrate, and produces greater volume. A standard plastic reed is typically .010 inches thick, whereas stouter reeds usually measure .014 inches. 

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