Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Saturday 11 February 2012

Building a Soapbox Banjo, Part III

(If you haven't read Parts I and II of this series yet, check 'em out here and here)

The soapbox banjo is done - it's sitting on my living room table, waiting for me to find it a permanent home. In this installment I'll describe the finishing touches it needed to get there.

As I said in Part II, the last significant bit of woodworking I did was cut a moon and star motif into the soundboard. Unsatisfied with its elegance and simplicity, I elicited a number of ideas from my family on how I might make the soundboard busy and overwrought. In hindsight, at least, that's what I was doing - at the time, I was only dreaming of ways to make the banjo visually striking, and to prolong a process I'd enjoyed.

Aborted decoupage fish-man
One of the techniques my mom suggested was decoupage, which she assured me was a time-honoured tradition dating back to the eighteenth century. My dad rushed to the bookshelf and brought back his copy of Curious and Fantastic Creatures, which he had been saving for just such an occasion. The book compiles a number of drawings based on the work of Fran├žois Rabelais, sixteen century master of filthy comedy. Every page of the book was filled with the kind of grotesque, deviant imagery that turns my crank. The book fell open to page eleven, showing a fish-man with a long mustache holding a dirk. In my eagerness to free associate with my great-grandfather's shipping adventures, I immediately took this as a sign that the decoration should have a nautical theme. I borrowed the book and brought it home to start decoupaging.

I photocopied my fish-man, painstakingly cut him out and lovingly painted him. The end result was a garish mess. Time-honoured techniques or not, the bright colours looked too modern and worse yet, the fine lines would resolve into one blotch when seen from across the room. I realized it would be all too easy to spoil the mysterious power of a handmade instrument with an obvious admission of dorkiness.

Aborted cornball iconography
I relegated the fish-man to the garbage and struck out anew. I decided instead I would hand paint some symbols, and made a handful of stencils. I decided I could put a small symbol in each corner, connected by vines across two sides of the box. Wary about committing to an idea after seeing how the fish-man might've turned out, I decided to practice on the underside of the board until I was sure I liked what I saw. I spent a very pleasant afternoon painting and listening to records, but the final product turned out corny again. I had chosen a leaf, a crow, and an anchor as my motifs, and although I painted them reasonably well, I felt I would ultimately regret the hodgepodge of imagery like a teenage tattoo.

I flipped the soundboard over to its blank side and stained it, and found that the grain of the wood spoke for itself. I gave it two or three coats of shellac, and finally I was satisfied. I sealed my artistic missteps facedown into the box with wood glue, and attached the neck to the dowel with glue and screws. I clamped it all together as evenly as I could with a half a dozen clamps and left it overnight to dry. With all that gear attached my contraption looked like a monstrous mechanical spider.

Clamped overnight

In the morning I pulled it delicately apart and the glue held. The banjo was ready to be strung and played. Unfortunately, the special strings I had ordered must've been held up at the border, because they hadn't arrived yet. Most players these days use metal strings for their volume and tone, but my soapbox banjo demanded nylgut, a synthetic alternative to catgut, not just for historical authenticity but because it could not support the added tension of metal strings. Impatient, I decided to see if a light gauge of metal string would hold. The main issue was getting the tension pegs to stay in one place. Unlike geared tuners, tension pegs rely on their own friction to keep them in tune, and they wouldn't stay fast. At least this gave me a practical lesson in some things I had only understood academically. "Minstrel C" tuning was standard in the early days of the banjo, although open G is now much more popular. My guess is that banjo players developed minstrel C because it allows them to keep the fourth string, which is the fattest and therefore the hardest to keep in tune, at a slightly lower tension. I have also heard that some players would slack their strings before putting their banjo away, and it's easier to see why after wrestling a bit with my own fickle instrument.

I played a few sludgy, slack-tuned numbers with the metal strings, until the leather thong I had used to secure the tailpiece snapped with a horrible noise that sent the bridge sailing across the room. Luckily the bridge survived unharmed, but when the nylgut strings arrived I replaced it anyway with a lower one. When I had taken my regular banjo to Luke Mercier (a real luthier - read about him here), he suggested that it would prefer a taller bridge, especially if I intended to play clawhammer style. I had a few on hand, so at first I had installed the second tallest on my soapbox banjo, mainly because a taller bridge is supposed to make a banjo louder. Unfortunately, my creation already had wickedly high action (the space between the strings and the neck), so I downgraded it to my stumpiest bridge. I reattached the tailpiece with an old guitar string, which I padded a little so it wouldn't gnaw through the soundboard over time.

Finished product


Hanging out with Stamping Stick

The most important question is "How does it play?" and the most accurate answer is, "It plays." With the action so high it will never be the silkiest of instruments. I'd need to play a fretless banjo made by a pro to gauge whether the tuning is idiosyncratic or whether I'm just unused to the style. But it has enough volume to be called a real instrument, it's holding its tuning, and simple tunes are easy to knock out. Most importantly, it looks like a million bucks, or maybe I should say priceless. I'm surprised how well it matches with what I had imagined, especially since I resisted the urge to overdo the decoration. In that respect I'd say it earns perfect marks. I'm guessing that I'll play one or two tunes on it in live shows as a novelty, or use it to get interesting colours on a recording. It might also find use as a rhythm instrument, strumming it slightly muted. In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed making it. In my self-conception I'm not particularly handy, but I survived with all my fingers intact and came out with a functioning, handsome banjo. I also think it gave me a direct understand of some banjo lore I've only read about.

Mysterious package
Speaking of banjo lore. A day or two before I completed the banjo, a mysterious package arrived in the mail. It was long and narrow; had my invitation to a samurai sleeper cell finally arrived? But it was even better - my friend Tey in Pennsylvania had come into a Back Porch Pick n' Grin One-String Cigar Box Guitar, and knew that I would appreciate it. Although I don't have the maker's name, all credit to him for his tasteful, minimal decoration. And for the quality of the instrument. The one string makes it easy to play fast and rhythmic, and the pick produces a clicking sound on the edge of the soundhole that is surprisingly catchy. The coincidence that this should arrive just as I am building my own banjo is too much - I'm convinced I am meant to care for strange and orphaned instruments. In fact, in one of the photos I've attached you can see an earlier homemade instrument attempt of mine, a morbidly heavy stamping stick.

Amazing gift
And while I'm being superstitious, there is one thing I'm missing before I can truly say my banjo is complete. There is a legend in old-time banjo and fiddle circles that sticking a rattlesnake rattle inside your instrument will enhance its tone in some dark, mystical way. I would never doubt it, even while I admit I've never heard the rattlesnake difference - or if I have I haven't known it consciously. If you're looking for independent proof, try Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark, or Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. But as Frazier writes, "The musical improvement he was seeking would come as likely from the mystic discipline of getting the rattles as from their actual function within the fiddle." That means I can't in good conscience order a rattlesnake rattle off of eBay and expect an exponential improvement in tone and playing ability. All the same, I must have that rattle. I'd consider the discipline mystic enough if I had to drive to somebody's house to get it, so by all means if you've been sitting on a rattlesnake rattle you no longer have a use for, call me anytime day or night.

And so a soapbox banjo is born, may it survive many years of hard use. It would be rude to make you read all this without giving you a chance to hear it, so here are a couple of early samples I recorded. "Rocky Island" has vocals, "Pigtown Fling" is a straight-up fiddle tune. The tuning gets a little sour in places, but I hope you can hear the sweetness of the soapbox shining through. Thanks for reading; now have a listen:

Rocky Island

Pigtown Fling


  1. Hi Matt,
    The maker's name for the cigar box guitar is Don Hauger from Somerset, PA. You will see his signature if you look inside the soundhole. There might also be a date there. Don's a retired machinist who does a lot of tinkering in his garage.

    I'm happy to see the git box arrived safe and sound!
    p.s. off to Valladolid next week

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. p.s. your soapbox banjo is a beaut!

  4. Congratulations! Looks real purty. I'd date it for sure!

    Shame about the fish man though...

  5. It's March and your turn to pick a movie for the Oprah Movie rules except it's supposed to be a movie that isn't already on my blog. Looking forward to seeing what you pick!