Home-Made Banjo

I made a banjo out of an old tambourine, some cheap soft wood, some metal I found on the road, a few nuts, bolts and screws, and some used classical guitar strings.

As you can see from the photos, I'm not a carpenter or a luthier. I've made lots of instruments and they are of varying quality. With this banjo I wanted to make something as cheaply and quickly as possible, cutting all corners I could, without really caring too much about the result. It took me three or four fairly relaxed afternoons.

Actually I've got a very nice mastertone-style banjo, but old clawhammer music never sounded quite right on it. I've always wanted a fretless, but those for sale are really expensive and it seems that all the old players made their own out of whatever was available.

The recordings have only been trimmed and normalised, so it's a fairly good impression of what the banjo sounds like. It is very very quiet in real life, though.

Here are some tunes. I'm playing in the clawhammer style.

Old Jack Gillie

Cripple Creek

Cluck Old Hen


Old Joe Clarke



June 2009

Well, the summer is coming in Hiroshima and the weather is getting hotter and more humid. I started playing the banjo a few days ago and realised that the head had gone totally flaccid. Without any tensioning mechanism in place, it was looking like the banjo would be a strictly seasonal thing.

Not to worry, though, as there are plenty of examples of "cookie tin banjos" on the internet, and very amusing and lo-fi they are too. I generally don't need much of an excuse to buy biscuits, so I went to "Yamaya - World Liquor System" (an import ahop) and, after assessing both tin resonance and chocolate content, selected some nice Danish cookies.

Forty-five minutes work with a chisel and a stanley knife later and I'd given the banjo a full body transplant (it seemed a shame to discard the exquisite carving on the neck and headstock). Here are the results:

It sounds a bit odd. It's a little bit like a banjo in the lower register. Higher up it sounds like a steel drum. Chords sound very distorted and perculiar. It sounds a bit better and louder with the lid on the back, but it tends to ping off with a loud clang, so I fixed it with some sticky tape.

Here are some recordings. The first is "Cripple Creek", which I also recorded using the tambourine head (see above). It might be interesting to some listeners as an example of how the biscuit tin compares with a tambourine as a banjo body, all other things being equal (strings, neck etc.).

Cripple Creek

In my opinion, the more metallic sound lends itself quite well to blues, so here is a blues thing. It's supposed to sound a bit like Ry Cooder on Safe As Milk.


Here is a short sound clip demonstrating how the banjo sounds like a steel drum when played higher up the neck.

Steel Drum