Bagpipes Gone Baroque

As if traditional bagpiping weren’t enough, here are the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards going all Pachelbel for your listening enjoyment.

A view of the amazing Scottish country of Scotland. All these photo’s were taken by friends on the Isle Of Skye.
Accompanied by the music Canon by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
Music Available @itunes.

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.

strings

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

Sunday Music

A beautiful and sentimental song by Dougie MacLean, a Scottish artist.  If you’ve never heard of him you probably know at least one of his tunes.  MacLean’s most famous piece is probably  “The Gael”, from his 1990 album The Search, which was adapted by Trevor Jones as the main theme to The Last of the MohicansYou know: dumm dumdum dumm  dumdum dum dum dumm, dumm dumdum dumm dumdum dum dum dumm … anyway, you get the point.  Enjoy.

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 Blind Fiddler

The Blind Fiddler 1806 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00099

The Blind Fiddler 1806 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841, Tate Gallery Collection.

“An itinerant fiddler is playing for a humble country family. David Wilkie focuses on the listeners’ different expressions. Only two people seem to respond to the music: the baby and the boy on the right, who is imitating the fiddler by playing the bellows.When this picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy some critics thought the bust on the shelf represented a dissenting minister, and concluded that the family were nonconformists. The power of music to stir the passions of those supposedly suspicious of pleasure was thought to add to the painting’s subtlety.” From the Tate website 2007.

So many historic details in this painting: basket, copper work, cookware, walking stick, spinning wheel, stools, hats, dog, pipe, key, cup, and shovel.  A snapshot of late 18th – early 19th century rural life.

The Unlikely Banjoist

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

Banjo

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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