I’m On My Way

“I’m On My Way” from Rhiannon Giddens’ album ‘There is no Other‘ with Francesco Turrisi.

Eighth of January

The Battle of New Orleans, 8 January 1815 –

“On January 8, 1815, Major General Andrew Jackson led a small, poorly-equipped army to victory against eight thousand British troops at the Battle of New Orleans. The victory made Jackson a national hero. Although the American victory was a big morale boost for the young nation, its military significance was minimal as it occurred after the signing (although before ratification) of the Treaty of Ghent that officially ended the war between the U.S. and Great Britain. The battle was fought before word of the Treaty reached the respective armies in the field. The anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans was widely celebrated with parties and dances during the nineteenth century, especially in the South.” from the Library of Congress website.

Folk musicians of Americana know this day for the wonderful standard performed under various names, generally as 8th of January.  Enjoy!

Here’s a simple tablature found over on the Banjo Hangout.

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Monday Morning Music

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I can’t find any info on this photo.  I think is says Prairie May at the bottom?

A little cowboy movie music isn’t a bad thing.  Hollywood has produced some good music with the vast resources it has at its disposal.  Here is a link to My Rifle, My Pony, and Me / June Apple from the film Rio Bravo (the hot links will take you to lyrics).

If you know the Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin movie The Three Amigos (a family favorite around here) the first song reminds me of their homage tune Blue Shadows on the Trail.  Take your mind away from work stress, cowboy up, pick up the guitar, and dream of a life on the trails in the Old West.

Giddy-up!

Classical Time – for the Banjo-ista

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If this doesn’t draw in the banjo enthusiasts, I don’t know what will…

I should say it’s Classic Banjo Time.

The modern banjo has ancient roots and shares much with it’s African antecedents.  Its connection to the lute family along with the whole array of drum-headed cousins crossed many lost cultural boundaries in ancient times.  This makes it the perfect candidate for bridging musical genres and styles, from the Sub-Saharan and Arabic music the banjo, with it’s almost ever-present drone string, morphed into creature we know today.  Most non-players only know it from the post-war music known as Bluegrass or maybe even Old-Time Country but there is, and always has been, a broad range of music brought to life on this bright and varied instrument.

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Cowboy Singing – Thomas Eakins

I read somewhere long ago the real instrument of the American Cowboy was the banjo due, in part, to the timing and population of the very people who became cowboys.  Forget the 1950s movie stereotype, most cowboys were freed slaves, their offspring, or poor younger sons of Euro-Americans looking for a job and adventure.  Those who were not were likely caballeros from old Mexico or the west in general; they brought most of the guitarras to the scene.

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Thomas Eakins, Home Ranch 1888

Where I was going with this ramble was that the humble little banjo can do more than Mumford and Sons or Yonder Mountain String Band patterned rolls.  Nifty and tight as they may be, some of us want to reach beyond and find the real soul in our hands.  Don’t get me wrong, these are fine musicians, but really just one narrow style in a giant spectrum of sound.

Here’s a great example.  What could be better than Bach and banjo?

I suggest checking out more of Mr. Raphaelson’s videos if you want to add a little novelty to your listening lineup.  Whatever your instrument, love it, learn it, and expand upon it.

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Since we opened the post with a banjo beauty shot, it seems appropriate to end with one as well.  I love this inlay, by the way.

The Musician – 1887

By Léon François Comerre, French Academic School.  I think this familiar looking instrument comes from Africa via the Arabic world and is generally called a tanbūr. A sort of distant uncle to the modern banjo, America’s African instrument.

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The only thing missing is the drone string.

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This post was prompted by a few photos I recently took to document some of my projects.

I fully disassembled , repaired some problems, refinished, and did a full set-up on my Banjo.  Not surprisingly, it was a bigger job than I hoped for but really paid off in the end.  When I built this one several years ago it was something of a rush job while working and traveling so some details were never attended to as they should have been.  The action now is great and the fretting couldn’t be better in my opinion and I already see some real improvements in playability.  I’ve been happily sneaking in a little practice after breakfast on most days and even a little at lunch if I’m motivated.  Finally, I’m coming back to becoming an actual player reviving skills from 30 years ago.  I’m a little sad that I ever let music fall out of my daily life but better late than never I suppose.

Plain and simple; a little like me.  I laminated the wooden ring from shagbark hickory with walnut inside and out.  The tone ring is a Vega Whyte-Laydie design.

I have never inlaid anything but I think I might give it a try sometime. For now, the peg head is an unadorned Mastertone style.

The fingerboard, heel cap, and peg head covering is rosewood over a maple neck. The flame in the wood is beautiful in this one.

I you want to read about the initial construction of this one, click HERE or on the image below.

Distracted and Sidetracked More Than Usual

Le violon d’IngresSM

Talk about an image hook for an instrument building post! Le violon d’Ingres, Man Ray 1924.

As if I didn’t have enough irons in the fire…

I decided to make (and learn) a new instrument this summer; a three-string cigar box guitar.  It took a few weekends to get it right; figure out the design, apply a finish, and re-work a few details in the setup before I was pleased with the action, feel, and sound.  It’s fretless so I am also learning a lot about the slide as well.  It’s got a great, bluesy sound and maybe I’ll post a few riffs when I’m feeling up to snuff.

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My first CBG, but certainly not the last.

There are plenty of web and print resources for making a Cigar Box Guitar (CBG) so I leave the detailed instructional stuff to the pros.  However, Cigar Box Nation is a great starting place if you are interested in homemade musical instruments and I’d suggest starting there if you have no other experience.  You can even buy an inexpensive kit if you don’t know where to start but, in the spirit of the cigar box instrument movement, I decided to wing it for the first one.  I did however, have to find a cigar box so I picked up one from C.B. Gitty for a very reasonable price.  While there, I bought some parts for some other instruments in the planning stages and some very affordable strings to boot.

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So how do you make a Cigar Box Guitar?

What follows is my brief overview of making a CBG from mostly found materials.  As a side note, you are certainly not limited to cigar boxes for a resonator.  A quick look around the internet will reveal some fairly ingenious sound boxes from oil cans, wine boxes, and gourds.  I was tempted to save the few dollars and just knock up a box myself but decided that for my first specimen I would stick to the traditional model.

So what do you need to make a functional guitar?

There are essentially only three parts to this ancient style instrument; the neck, the resonator, and the strings.  Yes, it’s a little more complicated than that but looking at the essentials helps simplify the construction.

The junk pile.

The junk pile.  A piece of oak was found suitable.

Neck

The neck is any straight piece of hardwood about 35 inches (100 cm) long, about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) wide, and approximately 3/4 inch (2 cm) thick.  Mine was made from a less-than-perfect recycled oak scrap out of my wood pile.  While strings can actually be harvested from the steel radials in tires, these make for some pretty limited and primitive sounds.  I just used a set of guitar strings I had around for the setup and strung it properly when complete with a set of open G tuning strings from C.B. Gitty.

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Resonator

The resonator in this case is a wooden cigar box.  Depending on how you decide to put it all together, the cigar boxes may need to be reinforced and modified to hold the neck.  They are only intended to hold cigars so the pieces may need glued tight to avoid rattles.

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Strings

The string assembly needs a few things to keep them under tension and control their length (for tuning).  Starting from the bottom of the instrument you will need something to firmly attach the strings to; tacks, screws, or some sort of tail piece.  I had a very cool hinge without anything to do so I used it.  The screw holes are just small enough to hold the ball ends of standard guitar strings.  Next, you will need a bridge.  This is simply a bar with grooves to hold the strings in place at an even spacing.  This should be something dense like bone, very hard wood, or even a screw laid on it’s side.  At the far end of the neck the strings will need to pass over a nut which is essentially another bridge at the other end.  Finally, the strings attached to some sort of tuning peg or geared machine to change tension (and tone).

Put it Together

Here is the construction in a nutshell.  Cut out the neck and peg head shape. If the neck passes through the body of the box (as opposed to laying over the top) it should be dished out where it would touch the top.  The notches are where is will join with the box.

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DSC_0010 (3)A groove was cut with a rasp to hole the 1/4″ bolt that serves as nut.

DSC_0011 (4)Cut this notch deeper than 1/8″ so the action won’t be too high.

DSC_0014 (3)The peg head can either be set back as above or angled back like a traditional guitar. This allows the strings to be pulled down over the nut.  As this left the peg head a bit thin for my taste I laminated a piece of hickory on the back for strength.

DSC_0019 (2)Drill holes for the machine tuners.  Mine were recycled from an old Harmony guitar (a garage sale gimme) and served perfectly.

DSC_0018 (2)Here you can begin to see the carving of the neck.  I rounded mine fairly traditionally but this is up to the maker/player.  The rest of the shaping will wait until the neck is fit to the resonator.DSC_0002 (4)Once the neck location was determined, an appropriate corresponding notch was created in the box.

DSC_0005 (6)Test fitting the neck.  You can see the wasted area that was removed to make sure there was no interference with the sound board (the box top).

DSC_0007 (4)The box wasn’t too sturdy and had a bit of a rattle upon “tap testing.”  All joints were glued up for strength.  Note I moved the interior lid sticker to the inside back where it can be seen through the sound holes.

DSC_0006 (4)The resonator is dry fitted into place.  After this, it was just a matter of removing the leftover bit of neck, glue the box in place, glue the lid shut, and attach the hinge that serves as tail piece.

DSC_0001 (7) DSC_0003 (7)This nifty hinge served perfectly and suited my mental need for brass or bronze fittings where possible.  I didn’t like my first experiments with a bolt for a bridge so I whittled a simple one from a scrap of ebony.  I played it “in the white” and made the few adjustments necessary before finishing up.

DSC_0021 (1)Fret positions were measured out and marked with a wood burner.

DSC_0023 (2)With a parallel-sided neck this is a simple process.

DSC_0024 (1)Piloting for screws with a gimlet.

DSC_0025 (1)Attaching the tuning machines permanently.

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The rusty old machine tuners cleaned up well and suit it perfectly.

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The head stock is reinforced with a slab of hickory as a bit of insurance.

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Fancy brass nut was cut from a toilet tank bolt.

A few coats of tung oil later, and she’s up and playing.  I’ll update this as I get familiar with my new toy.  YouTube is full of instructional videos about playing a three and four string guitar.  Mine works well in an open G tuning.  Very bluesy and surprisingly bright and clear.

Looking at my junk craft piles around the house I believe I easily have the makings for three or four more.  My next one is already rattling around my head and I think it will be fretted for added versatility.

Come back soon…

George