Sunday, March 6, 2011

Gourd Banjos

 The banjo is the original American instrument. It was brought to this country by African-American slaves. Although the instrument we know has African origins the concept of strings stretched over a drum with their vibrations transmitted via a bridge is pretty wide spread through out the world. China, Japan, India, Europe, Arabia - they all have an instrument that is basically a strung-up drum.
 The first American banjos were gourd banjos. A hide of some sort (house cat was considered the best) was stretched over a hollowed out gourd, a stick for a neck was inserted into the gourd and strings were run from the gourd up the neck and attached to tuning pegs at the head of the neck. The number of strings on the banjo varied from maker to maker, from one to five, with four stringers being the most common. The feature that made the banjo different from virtually all other stringed instruments was the inclusion of a short string running only about 1/2-way up the neck. On modern banjos this string is called the '5th string' but originally it was called 'the chanter'. The chanter is tuned higher than the other strings and is generally not stopped with the left hand while playing. It is struck with the right (picking) hand and produces a drone note along with the other strings that are stopped with the left hand (called the 'fretting hand') and adds much of the ringing chime so familiar in banjo music. We have no idea who first came up with the idea of the chanter string but he or she was a friggin' genius, I can tell you that.
 Gourd banjos have a distinctly different tone from that of modern day banjos.  The use of gut strings instead of the more modern metal strings and the body being a gourd instead of wood makes for a much subtler, mellow tone. Almost guitar-like. It wasn't until the wide-spread use of steel or bronze strings around the 1870s that banjos took on the twangy, nasal tone they are now famous (or notorious) for.

 I first became aware of gourd banjos in the late 1970s when I was in the middle of my get- back-to-the-land-lets-move-to-the-mountains-and-be-self-sufficient days. The Foxfire series of books were thought of as some sort of holy text to all rural hippies and one of them had a chapter on gourd banjos. I was living in a tipi in Moyie Springs, Idaho - not far from where I live now - at the time and playing music with a guy called Singing Turtle. Singing Turtle played guitar and mandolin and I was playing a cheap 5-string banjo I had picked up somewhere. We played lots of parties out in the woods and at a place called The Old Opera House that was a few miles away near the Montana line. The guy who ran the Opera House didn't pay us much but he gave us all the beer we could  drink and the audience gave us all the weed we could smoke. That was fine with us.
Anyway, one night a guy named Rosie came to one of the gigs and he had a gourd banjo he had built.  That was the first one I had seen, except in pictures, and when he handed it to me to play I discovered something: Gourd banjos don't have frets. They are a fretless instrument like a violin or cello. Frets are those little wires inlaid into the neck of stringed instruments that define where the notes are. On a fretless instrument you have to find where the notes are for yourself, without the aid of those little wires. I also discovered that I sucked at playing a fretless instrument. But, ineptitude aside, I loved the tone of the thing and decided I would have one one day.
 Fast-forward about twenty-five years. I wandered into the library in our little village one day and, lo and behold! - there in the shelf was the Foxfire book with the section on gourd banjos. I checked the book out, re-read the chapter on gourd banjos and decided I would build one.
First I had to find a gourd. A big gourd. North Idaho is not really gourd country. Gourds seem to like to grow in warm places. It ain't warm here. At least it ain't warm long enough to grow gourds. So I did what any real, back-to-the-land, self sufficient, lives-in-the-mountains-and-screw-the-real-world hippie type old guy would do: I got on my computer, fired up my slower than mollassas internet connection and Googled gourds for sale. Bingo! Lots and lots of gourds. Big gourds, small gourds, pretty gourds, ugly gourds. EBay had lots of them for sale so I sent off for my first gourd.
While waiting for the gourd to get here I had to come up with a piece of hardwood for the neck. North Idaho is not really hardwood country. There are a few birch trees, but mostly it's all softwoods - pine, fir, hemlock, spruce. The folks who had been living on the property next to ours had moved out recently (sometimes the homesteading thing just doiesn't work out) and left a whole lot of shit in the 'house' they had built out of lumber wraps. I went over there poking around and found the hardwood headboard from their bed. I had no idea what kind of wood it was but it was definitely hardwood. I found that out while sawing it into chunks of the right size for banjo necks. Notice I said 'necks', not 'neck'. Necks - plural. That's a thing about me. I decide to do something and I become overzealous about the idea. I wasn't going to make just one banjo. Oh hell no! I was gonna make a lot of them, sell them at flea markets, folk festivals and on EBay. Become a gourd banjo tycoon! Another way to make money without having to get a real job! More on that later...I also had to find a skin for the banjo head. As I stated earlier, house cat skins were considered the best banjo head material back in the old days. We didn't have a cat. Don't really care for cats. Raccoon skins make good banjo heads as well. North Idaho actually has raccoons. Not a lot of them, like North Carolina or Iowa, but a decent number. So, I take my self sufficient ass out hunting for a raccoon. Generally one doesn't hunt raccoons, one traps raccoons. I didn't have a trap but I had a gun. To make a long story short I couldn't find a raccoon so I ordered a goat-skin banjo head from a site on E Bay. 'This self sufficient thing is getting easier all the time', I was thinking, 'so long as you have E Bay.'
I set to work carving my first banjo neck using a draw knife, files, rasps, scrapers, sandpaper and all sorts of other tools that can cut you and generally make your hands hurt. I came to realize that people invented power tools for a reason. The reason being that they make carving banjo necks way easier. I didn't have any power carving tools and besides, I felt smugly organic carving my banjo neck with hand tools. I also ended up with smugly cut, aching hands. I've played stringed instruments most of my life and I know what a banjo neck looks like and my first neck came out looking pretty much like a banjo neck. Cool. I also made the tuning pegs - those thingies that the strings attach to at the head of the neck so you can tune the banjo - a bridge, tailpiece, nut; all the pieces I would need to assemble the banjo when my gourd and goat skin arrived.
One day I went to the post office and there was large box waiting for me there. It was from Texas. Good gourd country, Texas. There was also a little box from Illinois that contained my goat skin banjo head. Illinois is probably good goat country, but on opening the package I learned that my goat skin had originally come for Afghanistan. Great goat country, Afghanistan. They also grow great opium and terrorists. At least they grow two useful products.
At home I took the gourd out of the box. To those of you unfamiliar with gourds they are big ol' squash-looking things. They have a hard shell and, once you cut the top off, you find they are filled with lots and lots of seeds and some kind of membrane. The seeds and membrane must be scraped out to make the gourd useful as a banjo body. The seeds come out pretty easy but the membrane must be soaked with water to make it soft enough to scrape out. Filling the gourd with water softens the membrane. It also turns the membrane into a slimy, stinky, unspeakable goo that is really not too easy to scrape out of the gourd. After scraping out the filty slime you must let the gourd dry and then get out any left over membrane. The membrane, when dry, turns to dust when it is scraped out. Horrible, toxic dust that causes some pretty severe allergic reactions in some people. One of those people being my wife, Jeanne. She found this out while scraping the gourd, of course.
When the gourd was dry I cut holes to fit the neck into. It looked pretty cool, actually. Sort of like a musical instrument. Sort of. The next step was to stretch the goat hide over the hole resulting from cutting the top of the gourd off and gluing and tacking it in place. The skin must be soaked in cool water until it is pliable enough to stretch over the gourd. As it dries it becomes, well, tight as a drum. Or a banjo. I quickly surmised this was going to be a two-person operation. By this time Jeanne had pretty much stopped sneezing and the swelling had gone down considerably, so I figured she was up to the task.
I filled the kitchen sink with cool water and placed the goat skin into the water to soak. Soaking the skin also filled the kitchen with the smell of dead goat. Dead goats smell pretty bad, by the way. After about ten minutes of soaking I took the smelly goat skin out of the sink and we placed it over the gourd hole. We smeared glue around the the rim of the gourd and while Jeanne stretched the skin as tightly as she could I poked holes through the skin, the gourd (and Jeanne's hand once) with an awl and stuck tacks in the holes, fastening the head to the gourd. We put the gourd aside to dry overnight and the next day sure enough it was dry and very tightly stretched over the gourd.
I stuck the neck through the holes in the gourd, attached the tailpiece and ran a single nylon guitar string up to one of the tuning pegs and tightened it up. I plucked the string and a beautiful tone eminated from the banjo. I mounted the rest of the strings, tuned up and tried playing a few licks. Despite my lack of ability with fretless instruments it really did sound good. It took a while for the different parts of the banjo to 'settle in', as they call it - but after a couple of days it felt really solid and sounded great. I had done it. I spent the next few months learning how to play the thing. It really was easier than I thought it would be.
 Over the next couple of years I built more gourd banjos (and a couple of regular, wood bodied banjos) and decided the time had come to unleash my creations on an unsuspecting world. I took three of them to a local flea market and sold none. People really liked them, but the banjo players around here didn't really 'get it' and viewed them as some sort of pre-historic instrument that were a nice oddity but not a 'real' banjo.
I put some on E Bay and sold one to a rich guy in Maine. I also built one for blues legend Taj Mahal, but I have no idea if he plays it. I also traded a couple to friends for other instruments.
I ended up building ten gourd banjos and have ended up giving them to my friends. I still have one gourd left and a really nice piece of maple for a neck so I might make another one one of these days.

No comments:

Post a Comment