Bach Cello Suite, Prelude

On a Cello Banjo no less! I gotta say, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Cello-size Banjo before but I like it! Robby Faverey has some amazing talent and I hope you check out more of his work on YouTube.

ENJOY!

If you are still interested at this point, check out more about him and his musical family from Suriname by having a look at his website HERE.  Isn’t it fun to learn new things and explore new cultures?

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

Woody, Pete, and Some Hand-Made Music

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Woody Guthrie (fiddle) with Pete Seeger (banjo).

“What are ears? What is Time? that this particular series of sounds called a strain of music, … can be wafted down through the centuries from Homer to me, and he have been conversant with that same aerial and mysterious charm which now so tingles my ears? What a fine communication from age to age, of the fairest and noblest of thoughts, the aspirations of ancient men, even such as were never communicated by speech!”  Henry David Thoreau.

One of Woody Guthrie's final performances before the onset of Huntington's Chorea. Back to his fiddling roots.

One of Woody Guthrie’s final performances before the onset of Huntington’s Chorea. Back to his fiddling roots.  Photographs by Leonard Rosenberg.

More images from this session can be seen HERE.

Home Grown Music

As an undaunted woodworker I have made most of my musical instruments over the years.  I could never justify purchasing a high-end, high-quality instrument but I could make a reasonable proxy.  My interest has been rekindled in the last couple years, making my third banjo for myself and reviving one of the mountain dulcimers as my partner has decided to take an interest in it.

I find that there is never enough time to play an instrument properly with a regular day job, a relationship, and other interests.  It seems that it’s time for a change in the schedule to put music back into the center of life.

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Early Banjo

A little historical banjo for a musical Monday.  Nothing comes from nothing.  The banjo is truly American with roots in Africa, the mother of us all.

The Banjo Player by William Sydney Mount, 1856.

The Banjo Player by William Sydney Mount, 1856. Click the image for some info on early banjo sources.

Manjak bunchundo master Francis Mendy. Banjul, Gambia, 2004 (Photo by Ulf Jägfors).

Manjak bunchundo master Francis Mendy. Banjul, Gambia, 2004 (Photo by Ulf Jägfors).  Click the image for more information about this three string lute and other banjo cousins.

An interesting article on NPR about the akonting: a three-stringed instrument with a long neck and a body made from a calabash gourd with a goat skin stretched over it.

An interesting article on NPR about the akonting: a three-stringed instrument with a long neck and a body made from a calabash gourd with a goat skin stretched over it.

A lonely but beautiful image of a lone musician.

A lonely but beautiful image of a lone musician.

The Unlikely Banjoist

A post I’ve been hanging onto; a bit off-topic, personal, and possibly without any point.

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My most recent banjo polished up and fitted with a new calfskin head.

I am an unlikely banjoist.  I got a very cheap banjo when I was 14 years old but didn’t find a teacher.  I took a couple lessons from uninspired twenty-somethings but didn’t get much from them.  Fortunately, this didn’t stop me.   There was even a old neighborhood guy who offered some help but it turned out he only strummed a tenor-jazz-banjo.  He may as well have played a ukelele for all that it mattered to me. So I learned by listening and from the few books I could find that suited my interest.

seeger_book_coverI don’t even know why I picked banjo particularly, but I did.  I was fortunate to be a latch-key kid from and early age, so when it wasn’t sports season, I cherished my solitary time after school.  I would often sit in the kitchen or on the back porch and plink around, playing old folk tunes.  I discovered Cecil Sharp and Francis Child and learned what I could about folksong of Western Europe and the British Isles.  I found this very old and diverse instrument adaptable to lots of styles of playing having found it’s way from 18th century plantation shacks to Victorian concert halls.

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My college instrument. Oh where are you now?

Coming from a classical music background helped.  My dark secret is the I spent three years in college as a music major.  I could read music and understood a little about musical structure so I spent time in the library digging through old folk music books and journals.  I never became great but good enough to not be ashamed to play in front of people and had about an hour-long proficient set of Irish, Scottish, Appalachian, and Ozark tunes in my repertoire.  Then life happened.  I gave it up (mostly) for over a decade while traveling and working like a dog and trying to be a good father but without playing an instrument, I think I lost a little of my identity.

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From the era of the “classic banjo.”

So the short story is that I’m back.  Making time to do something I love has helped my mind immensely.  I’ll never be Tony Trischka, Earl Scruggs, or Bela Fleck, but at least I have some music back in my life.

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View of the backside to show off the beautiful maple figure.

For those few who may be interested in the technical details of this machine.  My most recent instrument is roughly a Vega design with a White-Lady tone ring.  The tension hoop and arm rest are plain brass and the head is genuine calfskin.  The neck sports a Mastertone-style peghead taken from the diagram in Earl Scruggs’ classic banjo book.  The fingerboard and peghead cover are cocobolo.  The tuners are scavenged off my first banjo and are Keith planetary-type except one.  The D string tuner is a replacement as someone actually stepped on my old neck and broke one!  The replacement is a 5-Star from Stewart-MacDonald’s lutherie shop.  These days I could get online and order one instantly, but back in the mythical pre-internet era this actually took some phone sleuthing.

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Banjo redo

Last winter I had an important epiphany about myself as a musician.  I am under nor delusion that I will ever be more than a closet or campfire player.  For me, for now, that’s going to have to be good enough.  Although I love the fiddle more than any other instrument, I went back to my roots and picked up a Deering Good Time five string banjo a couple years back to see if I couldn’t revive my banjo playing.  I hadn’t really played much in over a decade but discovered that not only did the brain still remember some old tunes, but my big, beat-up fingers were actually still suited to it.  Ham-hands I’ve heard them called!

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Deering “Good Time” open backed 5-string banjo.

After playing the “Good Time” for a couple years, I felt I outgrew it as a player.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great instrument for the price (ca. $650), American-made, and travels well but I just wanted a little more substance and a thumpier traditional sound.  Not being able to afford anything fancy, and my playing not really being up to any professional par, spending a load of money I don’t have was out of the question.  It became apparent to me that it was time to make something better myself.  This isn’t quite as outlandish as it may seem as in my woodworking days in my early twenties, I made a couple banjos, a handful of mountain dulcimers, and some mandolin parts that were fair to partly decent instruments.  Anybody who knows me knows I hoard parts and hardware so fortunately I had a set of tuners, some fret wire, a tension ring, and a bracket set for a banjo (obviously the universe conspired for this to happen). For the rest, a quick trip through the Stewart-MacDonald catalog located the missing elements (e.g., a White Lady Vega-style tone ring, brass arm rest, bridge, and tailpiece, as well as a maple neck blank and rosewood fingerboard, and a calf-skin for the head).

Banjo3Unfortunately, time and energy were against me when I made the initial build last summer.  I was traveling and teaching for the university while working on this so I didn’t document the process.  So, I essentially built this one twice.  Once, to have something to play while traveling over the summer, then a rebuild in the fall to tweak the set-up and put a better finish on it (tung oil).  The photos don’t really do it justice here but hopefully, it gets the idea across.  Making an instrument is a doable thing.

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Banjo back to show construction. Steamed hoop comprised of three core layers of shagbark hickory with an inner and outer laminate of american black walnut. Neck made from a “flamed” piece of curly maple.

I won’t even attempt to describe the process and there are many better instrument makers who have done this before me (see the Foxfire books, Irving Sloane, Earl Scruggs and plenty of others).

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This book, and others, made instrument making an approachable thing for me 25-30 years ago.

To make a banjo, you essentially need a few, more-or-less mechanical parts, then find a way to attach them together in a fairly precise and meaningful way; that is to say a neck, complete with a fretted fingerboard and tuners, and a drum-headed hoop of some type.  Having some experience with steam bending, this part was not as intimidating as it might seem the first time around.  My choice for the body was a hickory core with walnut laminates for the outside.

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Plain headstock. Rosewood head plate, fingerboard, and heel.

These pictures already show the six months of use and she already needs a good cleaning.  As can be seen though, there’s little ornamentation on the instrument; no inlay or bindings, just an octave marker on the side of the fingerboard.  I did steal the peghead design from Earl Scruggs’ book where he stole and printed the Mastertone design himself.  It was just too classic.

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Rim detail to show laminae. Core (3) are hickory, outer and inner are walnut.

I had intended to veneer over the back but after completion, I liked the raw look that shows the construction.  Maybe I’ll change my mind about this later but for now, this is it. The calfskin head can be a finicky when traveling as it is affected by humidity.  Some players remedy this with a thin layer of spray-on silicone.  I may try this in the future just to see how it works.

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This photo doesn’t do the maple justice. The Flame is very nice in the sunlight and has some real depth.

I rarely see a reason to hide a beautiful wood grain.

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Rosewood heel cap made from a scrap. No necessary, but gives it a finished look.

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Detail of “the pot” as the body of a banjo is called. The walnut is s little bleached out in this image.

The components that make up the pot of the banjo are illustrated above.  From right to left: brass tension hoop, edge of the rawhide over wire, nickel-plated tone ring, tension brackets, and wood hoop.  the armrest is just visible in the lower right.

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It’s remarkable how fast the weight adds up.  24 brackets, brass screws, tone ring, tension ring, tuners, and armrest make for some significant weight.  I think it’s a good idea for any artisan to sign their work, even if it’s never intended to sell.  This separates the hand-crafted from the mass-produced and show the care and the soul that goes into a hand-made work.

Now, time to practice.

So Long Earl

Thanks to spending so much time with my grandparents as a young child, Earl Scruggs has been a musical influence on me since before I can remember.  I loves seeing him and Lester Flatt on the Beverly Hillbillies and in my early teens, I wanted to learn to play like him.  I bought a very cheap (read junk) banjo and plugged away at it after school, annoying friends and roommates for the next decade and a half.  I never became a great player but still love to sit around and pluck the strings when I’m alone. I went off to college to become a classical musician but spent far more time strumming a banjo than studying or practicing my chosen instrument.

Click the image to go to the Earl Scruggs web page.

Very few people can affect a whole new sound and style of music and be emulated by so many musicians.  People like Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and even John Hartford influenced so much music in ways many younger people wont even know and took virtuosity to a high and classic level.  I’ll pull out the Scruggs book I’ve been carrying around for 25 years and maybe try my hand at some American classical music tonight.

Enjoy one of the coolest banjo licks ever played.