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

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.

With that done, I drilled evenly spaced 5/16"-diameter holes around the outside of the head, and glued identical lengths of dowel into each of the bores. My next step was to obtain a piece of cowhide (goatskin would have been better, but I was unable to find the thinner material), and soak it so it would shrink and tighten in position as it dried. (I planned to stretch it over the head by running soaked leather lacing through holes in the hide and around the pegs in the keg section, but wanted to wait to do so until after the instrument's neck was in place.)

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