Making a Gourd Banjo – Colin Blair

Making a Gourd Banjo by Colin Blair

The gourd banjo was one of those things that could have been forgotten. It teetered on the edge of awareness for the last century. Outshined by its finely carved, pearly-hewn offspring, which was so readily accepted by the upper class. Most people just forgot where the banjo originated… at the bottom of the barrel. But as always, there are a few who know the truth. And it is their job to bring it to light. With the help of great performers and skilled craftsmen, the gourd banjo has been re-born into the twenty-first century.
I had played banjo for seven or eight years before I ever heard of a gourd banjo. I had even built a few traditional banjos prior to my knowledge of the old gourd style. The first time I heard one on a record I imagined this gigantic banjo letting out these low grumbles and I had to know what it was. It was shocking to see the humble gourd as the creator of these tones. I was amazed at their simplicity and ruggedness, and to think of the people who first made these instruments out of whatever was lyin’ in the yard, made me re-think my building process. So I set out to make one.
I had plenty of gourds, wood, skin, and tacks. The whole idea of simplicity and necessity drove me through the process. No pearl. No frets. Just banjo.So the first step was to shape a neck. Not having to worry about fret placement gave me the freedom to be really artsy with my profile, so I loosely copied an old 1850’s style neck by Joel Sweeney. The whole neck shaping process was finished in about three hours, significantly less than a fretted neck. I used 7 or 8 coats of tung oil for the finish, and buffed it to a shine with a rag.

Once the neck was complete I drew a 10 inch circle onto my gourd and lopped the top off. The gourd was full of seeds and fibers so that needed to be cleaned out (which took the most time of all). The skin was soaked in hot water and stretched over the gourd, then hammered into place with old furniture tacks. I was able to save enough scrap from cutting out the neck to make the stick that runs through the gourd. The last step was to cut a soundhole. I slid the neck into the gourd and strung it up. I used fiddle pegs for the tuners, and fat nylon strings. These banjos are best suited for low tunings. I’d have been satisfied with something that just looked like a banjo, but this was a fully functional monster.

What really was born from that first experience was a deeper respect for the old craftsmen, and a madder passion to build more banjos. So when number two began I was really excited to try some new ideas. So excited in fact, that I cut myself on the ol’ band-saw.

I thought about safety for a while, and then a good friend from Japan (who happens to be an amazing banjo player) came to visit. He fell in love with #1 so I decided #2 would be for him. I had one week before he left, and I wanted him to take it home. So I went down to the shop and got to work.

Here are some pics of #2 upon completion (with one day left). I wanted to give it some japanese style so I used a sumi-e bamboo design for the soundhole. The neck is walnut and the fingerboard is cocobolo.

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