Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Happiest Sound on Earth …

A BANJO of course. How anyone can turn a frown on a banjo is beyond me. I don’t recall why I had initially thought to pick one up when I was a kid, but I suspect it had something to do with me being a teenager and needing to show I was different (as if Junior High School was not hard enough).

I took up some lessons after acquiring a 6 string banjo at the young age of about 13 or 14. Sadly the lessons nor the banjo lasted long. As you can imagine I did not have much influence around me to play this instrument and never really was encouraged to keep it up. When learning anything it seems to always be the first several lessons over the course of a couple of months which are the hardest. Though I have learned that as long that you can get past that “introductory” phase of anything your chances of being successful are significantly greater.

Without influence or good motivation I found it especially hard to stick with the lessons. In part because I sat in tiny cubicle sized room in the upstairs of a chain type music store with a chain smoking guitar only player trying to teach me some cords. Even though I knew Bluegrass is what I wanted to learn he only taught me everything in guitar style and had no knowledge of actually playing a banjo of any type; in fact he never even took my instrument to show me a proper way to play my variety of instrument. Oh well, with age comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes the knowledge to stop wasting money or money in unknown returns.

It was much less than a year after after acquiring the banjo that it became obsolete in my teenage life and went the way of the DoDo bird. Fast forward almost 30 years and I’m pretty sad that of all the instruments I tried and played I never stuck with playing one even off and on, imagine had someone helped me stick with it I might actually know something about music or at least enough to keep a party going. All things I played were from 4th grade when I played the Violin and Cello (Violin being my favorite even still). Shortly after that came Piano and Organ, after all my mom was the best Church organist I’ve ever heard. I do miss the times when I was young being able to sit next to her at the organ and she taught us to play and use the foot pedals…. Ahh memory lane but ‘tis a story for another day. From the stringed and keyed instruments I still managed to find my way into a a banjo, and now as an adult find myself longing for that sound again. I’m certain that part of my renewed interest lately is because life is challenging and we need things that make us smile as often as possible. For me it’s that good old fashioned frailing and picking of a five string banjo. Go ahead try to be mad when you are listening to one. I find it impossible.

Over the last couple of months I have been researching and listening to as much bluegrass music that I can find. Utilizing modern day resources of the Internet, satellite and that old brick and mortar place, a Music store. It also helps that one of my co-workers is a very talented stringed musician and singer, and though he does not know it yet I’m about to embark on a musical journey and will surely have an endless string of questions and discussions with him.

Well here I am in modern day world of January 2011. I find myself challenged by time and money (don’t we all?) and have a thirst to to learn an instrument (it’s on my bucket-list, isn’t it on yours?). Given the constraints above where do I start? Well the Internet of course! This has just fueled my resources beyond what I could have imagined. I find myself day dreaming and having fairly consistent thoughts of playing some bluegrass again. I swear that even when the quiet has settled all around me I can still hear the backwards roll of Earl Scruggs, and I smile. Life is good. Though since I can’t stop thinking about wanting to learn I’ve force fed myself some proverbial sugar (or medicine depending on your point of view) and realized nothing stops you from doing what makes you happen. I still believe that if you want something enough and for the right reasons, a little logic, patience, and thoughtfulness can go a very long way to procuring something and resolving ideas to something tangible.

Sooooo, by now you are asking why all the rambling, and more importantly what are you going to do about it! Rather than sit and wish on something which I think I want to try (because wishing is often times a wasted exercise since you are still at the same place where you started). This time I am going off the fact that I’m done worried about what people think about the adventure and getting off my ass to BUILD A BANJO! Yep, that’s right, me build something that requires a little craftsmanship and patience. My only hope is that the process goes well enough that I’m left with something I can put some strings on and learn to play an instrument again.

Here’s how the process is going down. I’ve probably read through a hundred web pages and listened to a few more than that of songs. It’s time I told myself and to make this even more fun… or frustrating, I am going to do this on an incredibly low budget. If this works out I am already envisioning a much more honed project where proper materials and tools are used; though it will still be homemade.

What I learned in all my perusing of materials is that even a beginner banjo will run you an easy $500 and a playable used one will still cost you upward of $300. Yikes that’s a lot of cash for something that may not last more than a couple of months, remember how my story started? A small digression was that the banjo I had as a child was received as a gift by my uncle who was in a band. Although I’m sure he got a great deal on it, no doubt so money was spent and unfortunately lost since I don’t even know where the instrument ended up. Anyway, back to my project. Since I don’t want to buy a $100 replica from the far East, I decided to spend much much less than that in building my own. If all goes well I’m certain to end up with a nice professionally built and tuned instrument, but let’s first see what the next couple of months hold. Also just to speak my opinion I have nothing negative about products coming from other countries. I also think that some of the first Banjos were introduced and made in China, but to me personally I can’t ever think of anything else but good ole USA when I hear a banjo. Thus any banjo I purchase WILL be American made and I’m proud of that.

The Internet has brought forth many incredible resources in way of pictures, videos, sounds and forums. I’ve ‘picked’ (haha) out what might be useful in my workshop adventure. Step one was to go out in the garage, grab a micro-brew (of course, sheesh I’m not an animal and I do have priorities) and survey the contents as they might possibly relate to instrument building. A Luthier, I am not but at least I can try.

Most of the garage contents are your basic set of hand tools and hand power tools, along with an assortment of plywood cuts. Luckily I had a 4x4 sheet of ¾” ply and thought to myself… “self, why not?” and here the “Planjo” begins it’s journey on a sunny SoCal day in my garage. I took some measurements and generic templates I could find on the Internet (thank you technology!!) and printed those out. Proceed to grab another excellent micro-brew and starting cutting with my old jigsaw. I did make a great little jig to measure out and cut the circles which will become the RIM of my new banjo. For the peg head and neck I’m hoping to make that as a single cut. Since I don’t have any old wood or furniture suitable I took a bunch of left over ¼” and ½” plywood plank strips and glued those together to make a 26”x3”x3” piece which will become the one-piece peg head and neck.

As I drew out my patterns and started cutting into the wood I also patted myself on the back as I’m not a Craftsman but I was handling things well. I also realized that the way I was marking the wood and the sizes I had on hand (must be the Engineer in me) that it would require minimal extra time and no additional wood to cut two of everything. Thinking that if one piece breaks I’ll have another to make sure the project keeps moving forward. Worst case scenario I have a bunch of cut wood that will be easier to recycle and best case scenario is I will have two playable banjos… Dueling Banjos anyone? Really though I would be thrilled to even have just one semi playable instrument. It may not be tuned or look pretty but will have similar traits to a standard banjo and perhaps I can at least pick up some tab playing, “Do I hear Foggy Mountain Breakdown resonating in the distance?”.

As I ramble through this build I also can’t stop thinking about one of the songs that I can’t get enough of, “Over the Rainbow”played on a Ukulele. Understandably you probably should not play that tune on a Banjo, but if all goes well with this build I begin to wonder how difficult to build a Ukulele. That even has a bonus of only needing four strings. Hmmm can I possibly learn a few Uke tabs after gaining some ground with some 3 finger pickin’ or clawhammer…

Ok, back to the project…