Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Friday 13 January 2012

Building a Soapbox Banjo, Part I

When I first laid eyes upon this box, I knew that one day I would turn it into a banjo. Maybe only dimly, because I have had it since it was a teenager, but over years the conviction has only grown stronger so that this month I was forced to act. The process has brought me great pride and pleasure and I will describe it to you in minute detail.

Kit from Bell & Son
My grand ambition at first was to chop down a tree and hew the parts from it where it fell, but to expedite matters I used a kit. My girlfriend Rebecca bought it for me for Christmas from Bell & Son Minstrel Banjos out of Caro, Michigan. Michigan must be a banjo mecca of sorts, because my "real" banjo was made by Bart Reiter out of East Lansing. In any case, Bell & Son claim all pegs and parts are made by hand, preserving the handmade mojo of the soapbox and probably saving me cutting off a few of my fingers in the bargain.

Out of curiosity and to differentiate it from my other banjo, I had decided I wanted to make my soapbox banjo fretless. The earliest banjos did not have frets, which apparently can make for dodgy tuning further up the neck but compensates with a loose, supple sound. As I have heard it, the contemporary banjo is evolved from a West African instrument called the akonting, with three strings and a gourd-and-hide body. West African slaves in the United States built akontings from scratch, where they met European immigrants playing the fiddle. Apparently, space was at a premium on most ships sailing out from Europe and the tuba couldn't make it on the voyage, making the fiddle the most practical and popular instrument. These two historical currents combined to produce what we now think of as traditional American fiddle music.

An akonting
The word "banjo" tends to get left out of the equation, but its rhythmic accompaniment is an essential ingredient to old-time music. Until the early twentieth century, in its various forms and incarnations the banjo was probably as ubiquitous in American music as the guitar is today. Although your straight-up five-string bluegrass or openback banjo is now the standard, the cigar box banjo lives on. Instructions on how to build an "Uncle Enos Banjo" were first published in the 1870's and are still available today, along with plans for cigar box fiddles and cigar box ukeleles. These tend to be technically less advanced but their romantic appeal is unmatched.

Your average cigar box is only a couple inches deep while my soapbox was a whooping five and half, even deeper than a guitar. I wanted a playable instrument, so I hoped this wouldn't make for an unnatural angle when it came time to strum it. Still, as I have said, the thing fairly radiates mojo, more than enough to override all technical concerns. The box was handed down from my grandfather, and it never occurred to me to ask what he was doing with six pounds of crystal white starch until I started this project. My dad said it more likely came from my great-grandfather, which meant the box could be over one hundred years old. My great-granddad worked in shipping, traveling from St. Andrews, New Brunswick to Boston, and from there down to the Bahamas or thereabouts. Sometime after 1910 he bought his own ship, followed by another larger one. The starch box was part of his booty. This info was plenty enough to impress me, but my dad went above and beyond the call of duty and turned up this anecdote: 

[St. Andrews] Beacon, Oct 10/1907

Young Lady in Peril

It was a rather a remarkable coincidence that upon the same day on which Miss Andrews, of Minister’s Island, had such a narrow escape from drowning, Miss Van Horne, daughter of Sir William Van Horne, the only other land owner on the island should also have had [a] somewhat alarming experience, in the water. With some friends she was returning from a short cruise in her yacht Covenhoven, and was about to be rowed ashore from [t]he yachts mooring off the island when her foot slipped and she fell overboard. A Scotch lad who was employed on the yacht was carried over at the same time. To make matter worse the dingy was half filled with water by the two people tipping it up. The youth succeeded in getting into the boat, but with the burden of water in it it was deemed unsafe for you young lady to attempt to get in. Though the situation [was] alarming she bore it good humouredly and assured her friends that there was no cause for anxiety. With one of the yacht’s crew, Herbert Snell, supporting her, and another one rowing he boat, she succeeded in getting shore.  The young lady suffered no ill effects from her dunking.

Herbert Snell, of course, is my great-grandfather, and I was chuffed to learn he was not only a captain in his later days but a dashing hero of the high seas in his youth. What's more, Sir William Van Horne was president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and oversaw the construction of the first Canadian transcontinental railway. When I found this out the soapbox practically began to glow in the dark.

I'm no great shakes as a carpenter, so this series will be more discursive than instructive. However, I've had myself a time sawing, sanding, and tinkering, so I'd like to share some of the details. The soapbox banjo is not yet finished, but it is coming along splendidly and I hope you'll enjoy watching it take shape. Did I sand the sharp angles off the nut? What kind of varnish did I use? Will it sound like anything when it's done? Find out in the next exciting installment!

American Civil War-era Cigar Box Fiddler

1 comment:

  1. Thought I'd let you know that I really enjoyed reading this.

    And I really wished that I played an instrument so that I had a reason to make one.