Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A new instrument

What is it?

The surface of a gourd, just arrived from my sister and brother-in-law. Tom grew it when they lived in North Hollywood. From this remarkable vessel I am about to build a musical instrument.

Essentially I am updating the design of my original gourd banjo, built in 1992. That design was directly inspired by the surviving instruments and documents of mid-19th-century African-American gourd banjos, though the ebony fingerboard and peghead veneers were added because I had carried that lovely figured piece of ebony around for about five years and decided I had to use it. The neck is actually pretty modern; I put a gentle arch into the fingerboard and the cross-section is what I am used to playing modern banjos and guitars. I originally had a smaller head on it with a peculiar system of wood screws into a maple rim, but a few years ago I enlarged the opening, removing all the maple but a tiny edge, added a "brace" to the neck under the head (there will be more on this feature in the future). I reattached the head using the traditional Mande method of little nails (I managed to crack the gourd in this process but it glued back together OK).

I realize I need a term for the continuation of the neck as it passes through the body to the tailpiece; this traditional African lute design has the neck all one piece going through the body. I think the Mandinka call this the penis of the instrument. I will go with "spine".

Anyway, as I have worked with this instrument on a variety of projects, I have wanted to address several design flaws I ran into with this first instrument I made. I would like it to be louder, for one thing, which with this one would be as simple as making a bigger sound hole, but I can't bring myself to mess with the lovely sound hole I carved. And I think the head should be larger, more like it is on the akonting (a West African plucked lute). One issue I had is what led me to a radical redesign of the instrument, that with friction tuning pegs and a animal skin head, keeping the instrument precisely in tune can be challenging. Now that I have started to bring this sound into my opera, not as a "banjo" but as a soulful vaguely-ethno-Mediterranean-sounding plucked lute, I have to be able to tune the thing quickly and accurately. That means mechanical tuners, but the instrument is so light that any more weight on the peghead would make it very awkward to hold. So, I'm moving the tuners to the tailpiece, a bit like the Steinberger guitar design.
Hmm, I don't know, maybe you can just make out the basic top and side views of the plan in that image (if you click on it, it gets twice as large). Anyway, making the plan was first. My next step is to locate the piece of wood to make the spine.