My Homemade Banjo

After inspecting the instrument of a street musician in India the author was inspired to assemble a homemade banjo.

| July/August 1981

070 homemade banjo 1 author holding banjo

The author posing with a homemade banjo of her own design.


I've always wanted to play an instrument, but—until a few years back—I was kept from my goal by a kind of technological snow job. I lacked the money to purchase the banjo I dreamed about, and when faced with the piano-finished sound boxes and mother of pearl-inlaid necks that line most music store shelves, I became convinced that I could never construct a worthwhile homemade banjo.

My eyes were opened, though, during a trip that took me to the streets of Bombay, India. While there, I encountered a toy vendor who was selling paper dragons, one of which dangled from a string fastened to the end of a makeshift fiddle. The peddler was playing "Chim Chim Cheree" (yep, the Mary Poppins song. You're probably no more surprised than I was!), and I found his music so delightful that I was moved to examine the instrument more closely.

Its soundbox was an empty tuna can stretched with what I could only guess was dried rat skin (well, at least that of some small, thin-hided animal), and the neck was a stick broken from an orange crate. Looking closer, I noted that the violin had only one friction tuning peg and a single string that cleared the neck by a good half-inch on its way over the bridge to a wire hook on the can's edge.

The musician's bow consisted of a few strands of horsehair strung loosely between the ends of a bent bamboo twig. He used his left thumbnail as a movable fret, and added tension to the horsehair with the fingers of the hand that held the bow. In short, I was surprised (and elated!) to discover that the music he produced was beautiful despite—or perhaps because of—the crude nature of his instrument.

A Lesson Learned

Once I arrived home in California, I set to work—buoyed by my overseas experience—to build a crude but serviceable musicmaker of my own. First I located a small used whiskey keg, cut a banjo-head-sized hoop from it, scoured out the char, and sanded the short cylinder smooth.

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