Home-Made Banjo Number 2

August 2009

I decided to mark the Japanese festival of the dead by making a fretless banjo out of deceased or dying musical instruments.

How I made it

I looked for an old guitar. I needed one which was really really bad. Eventually I saw a white acoustic hanging on a guitar shop wall. "METALLICA" was stencilled in tiny writing on the body (if you look closely at the last picture, you can see it to the lower left of the bridge).

The guitar shop guy didn't want to sell it to me as it was so bad, as I verified by trying to play it - the frets were loose, the machine heads were old and worn, it was battered and dented and dusty. I said "it's OK" in Japanese and did my best to mime sawing motions with sound effects. He looked a little bit shocked. I managed to get it for 1000 yen (just over a fiver).

I ripped all the frets out of the neck, as I'm anti-frets at the moment. Then I filled the grooves with epoxy putty. After a day or two I sanded it off. I found that underneath the black fingerboard (which I had naively assumed to be ebony) there was a rather cheaper looking light-brown wood which didn't seem to sand as smooth as the black paint, so I left it half-done.

I tried it briefly as a fretless guitar and then sawed the neck off.

Next, after experimenting with tensioning mechanisms for a banjo head (and failing) I found another, larger tambourine in a "recycle shop". It's got a calfskin head, but it's been coated with something white. I guessed that it might be to protect against humidity. 700 yen (you do the math). I took all the little clangy bits out.

The neck, when sanded down, has a whole lot of lines on it where the lighter epoxy fills the fret grooves. So these would make sense as guides, I calculated where the bridge should be. I had a six-inch gap between the end of the neck and the side of the tambourine hoop. Hmm.

I didn't really want to use soft wood for the join, so I hunted around for something a bit harder. The language school which my wife and I operate used to be an aerobics studio, and there is a very long balance bar. I cut a foot or two off the end and hammered, chiselled and whittled it into shape. It serves both as a neck extension and a dowel stick which goes through the tambourine.

Meanwhile, I took a hacksaw to the old machine heads (which were in groups of 3 on metal plates), drilled and carved a hole for one of them at the fifth fret, and lopped the top of the headstock off.

I screwed the whole thing together, and used the "tailpiece" from banjo #1, and a strap-holder from the acoustic. I strung it up with classical guitar strings (using DGBE and another high E for the shorter 5th string). My careful calculating of the proper angle of neck to banjo head was way off, and the strings were knocking against the fingerboard. Luckily my clever neck positioning system allows for some adjustment, so that's what I did.

It's a really ugly bastard, but it actually plays quite well I think. Tunes coming soon...