My wife has expressed interest in learning banjo, and I thought I would make her  one.  I am planning to use a 10" tambourine and 4 strings (thought about cookie tins for lower cost, but those that I've heard online sound more guitarey, less banjoey).

 

I'm thinking that with the light thin surface and less strength than a solid top (like a guitar), bridge pressure should be less and I should use a shorter bridge.  Am I on the right track and does anyone have a rule of thumb or somesuch on bridge height?

 

Is a tunable head on the tambourine needed, or will a fixed head be adequate?

 

Thanks in advance!

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Replies to This Discussion

Hi Matt,

A tunable head (on the drum) is preferable, but not as necessary if you are using a synthetic head. With sheep (or other animal skin) heads the material will become loose or tighten up with changes in weather (heat vs. cold, humid vs. dry). But, in the old days before tunable heads, players used to have several bridges of different heights to compensate for weather changes and the associated changes in (drum) head tension.You could go either way. Maybe for your first build you should go with a cheaper drum, as you need to learn how to attach the neck to the drum in such a way that the neck does not bend upwards when you tune the strings, and have a slight downward angle on the neck so that the string height is right for good string action.Your neck should have a heel, and where the heel will fit the drum, you need to shave off a bit of wood (at an angle) so that the head and neck will bend down a few degrees so that the strings will sit closer to the fretboard. It might be worth building a test instrument so you can experiment with the neck's downward bend and string height before committing to it on an instrument you are building for someone.

To connect the neck to the drum, I'd use a couple of stout (1/2" or better) dowels. Drill 2 holes for the dowels in the side of the drum (usually there will already be one hole in the side of the drum, but it is usually the wrong size) and then 2 matching holes the heel of the neck. The two dowels can then be glued to heal of your neck, and then pass through the 2 holes in the side in the drum to be finally secured to the far side of the drum. On the far side, you can drill a couple of small pilot holes in both the side of the drum and the center of each dowels of a couple of fair sized wood screws.

I built one such instrument, but it was a skinless rim. I tried to tack on a U.S. Express Mail envelop as a head, but could never get it tight enough. So, next time I'll use a drum with a good skin already on it. On my first drum build, I continued to add a neck and strings to see if the instrument was at least a little bit playable. At best it plays "plunky", so I'm not convinced that the material used in Express Mail envelops is very good for drum heads. But, if you do try it, it has to be really tight. Trying to compensate with a taller bridge isn't going to hack it. It was this unsuccessful build that I discovered the instrument really needs to have the neck tilted downwards a few degrees to avoid a very high "action" which makes fretting really hard on your fingers. If you bend the neck down a few degrees, the string action comes down and the instrument becomes easier to play. I'll try another build in the next few weeks after I wrap up my current project. I hope to build a 3-string dulcijo with a hand drum as the resonator "box".

-Rand

 

 

Hi Again,

I happened to think about why the heel on the drum banjo was so hard to make. As I mentioned, you need to make the neck slant slightly downward by a few degrees so you strings will be lowered closer to the fretboard giving you what's know as "low action" which makes fretting a lot easier, and which tends to make the intonation of the instrument better (at least by my experience). The problem is that not only do you need to cut a "slice" out of the base of the neck (heel), but when using this with a rounded sound box like a drum, this slanted base of the neck (heel) must also be rounded so that it will fit the side of the drum. I suspect the best way to do it is to first cut the few degree slant, and then trace the curvature of the drum onto the base of the neck on both the fret board side and the opposite side as guide lines, and then use a good wood rasp (one with a curved surface) to work away the wood you don't need until that angled curve is achieved. Will likely require a lot of patience and dry fitting to accomplish.

-Rand.

Here's a diagram I drew to illustrate the complexities of the neck to drum attachment.

 

 

Anyone have a better (less complicated) way?

 

-Rand.

A few thoughts,

First, I repeatedly hear questions on getting the banjo sound right from beginners. Trust me on this idea, if you build a mellower and quieter instrument to start out on you will save the sanity of someone around you. I practice on an open back banjo with rags stuffed between the head and braces and its still so loud I need to find a place to hide. Imagine an electric guitar you couldnt turn down. Fiddles have the same problem by the way.

I would suggest focusing on playability. Something easy to play and mellower sounding will make the learning experience much more fun. Then once playing skills are developing and you develop a style and further banjo world experience you can decide what kind of sound you want. See the truth is that even in the reality of "real" banjos (for the lack of a better term) there is a great range of sounds, and many people discover that the one they thought they liked or wanted changes after playing a while. You can get some great old time banjo sounds from alternative instruments. I will add that if you really end up playing and likeing "modern bluegrass" sounds, (That is to say the loud fingerpicked Earl Scruggs style) you will likely end up wanting a  "real" banjo. If you like Americana, old time, alternative and/or jug band, almost anything will do, for in the end its the playing that is as interesting as the tone. Experiment, and you will find your taste is likely to change or expand.

Rand's build description hits the basics for a rudementary old time style build. But I dont find that to be an overly "difficult" set of design "problems". Success will require some attention to detail and a high level of accuracy however. 

Some more general things to keep in mind. Your dowels need to be designed and installed in such a way to support the neck as Rand pointed out, but also support the ring or drum housing in such a way as to keep the string tension from pulling the drum out of round. The design Rand shows would do that if well fitted and if the dowels butt up to the inside of the drum at the tail end. One advantage to using modern threaded rods is that you also can have nuts snugged up inside the neck end and on both sides of the tail end for more support and load distribution.

Also keep in mind you will need a stepped "relief" at the fingerboard are where it meets the drum head as necessary to allow for a ring or any hardware. Its best to leave a small gap there in fact to minimize buzzing. If it has a removeable head you will want to allow for that to come off with the neck in place too.

The heal itself however really does need to be a pretty precise snug fit. A design with about 2 to 3 degrees of neck back set should get you into the 5/8" bridge range and sufficient break over the bridge to a tail piece if designed properly. The neck also needs to be very square and perpendicular to the body as always so the string height and spacing isnt wonky. (technical term!)

You could carve, rasp and sand, carefully hand fitting the neck joint, its going to be time consuming. But the real challenge is going to be getting the dowel holes drilled squarely and precisely at the right angle. I tend toward being a machinist when it comes to these projects so I make and use jigs and do these operations on a drill press (Or milling machine) with micrometer precision. Fudging those things just isnt going to work for me and so I have a hard time making comprimised suggestions for that. Similarly I would use a jig and router table operation to cut a precision radii for the neck set angle, that concave neck fittment and stepped relief.

Once you get into these things to this level you see why premade necks, pots etc, and of course premade banjos are as costly as they are. As simple as they look a custom made banjo is a BUNCH of work, even without all the ornate inlay and such!

Mark

Hi Mark & Matt:

Mark, you are right about modern factory-built metal-rimmed banjos - they do tend to be very loud instruments, which is why I only "play" mine during daylight hours. And you are also right about focusing on playability instead of getting the classic (modern blue-grass?) banjo sound. Simple wood-rimmed drum based banjos will never have the classic banjo sound of modern metal-rimmed banjos with tone rings and wood resonators to boost their sound. And, I am happy with that. The quieter and more mellow tones that come out of a drum based banjo is more in keeping with the traditional sounds of (very) old-time style banjos which were also built with wood rims and skin drum heads. The other reason I'm interested in building a drum based banjo is to have a lighter and more portable instrument. My Savannah banjo is quite heavy even when the resonator is removed. And, of course, focusing on playability should aways be a primary build goal unless you just build "wall hangers".

The building difficulties that I have touched upon are due in part to the limited set of tools I have available (basically hand tools), my rather limited wood working skills, and the fact that I am rather impatient to get my instruments built so I can play with them and see how they sound. What's nice about working with square boxes is that you only have to worry about one slanted cut on the base of the neck (heel) where the neck joins the box. The circular shape of hand drums adds a curve on top of this slant, and while it's technically feasible to do with hand saws and wood rasps, (as you say) it will really require a lot of accuracy and attention to detail. Since I sometimes lack the necessary patience, I was hoping someone else had a better (easier) way of doing it, and hopefully one that does not requrie a big investment in tools and learning curves.

Also, from my discussions, you can tell that I have no luthier background other than what I've learned here on CBN and a few similar websites. My ignorance is further evident by what I've been describing as a "neck slant slightly downward by a few degrees" (and similar phrases). With a little research this morning, I found that the proper term is "neck back set angle". This angle seems to be almost always a 3° downward tilt of the neck as measured from the soundboard (drum head). Here are a few links which may further clarify any questions readers may have on this aspect of the head-to-neck connection we've been talking about in this thread. They also have some good photos and diagrams on this topic.

1.) "Building A Banjo" By Jon Tirone,  which has a section on neck attachment.

 

2.) M. Hickler's banjo website


3.) Banjo Hangout's discussion thread called "3° neck angle"

Then, if you get a fancy hand drum with head tensioning hardware, there will likely be a rim which will require the base of the neck to be modified to allow for a close fit between the neck and the drum frame. This would likely mean filing down the base of the neck so there will be a notched-out area for where the rim will fit. With a curved neck base, I can see how this filing out of the notch could be very complicated as this notch will have to follow the same curve as the drum. Maybe a router with some kind of jig would make this an easier cut.

So, now I count about 4 build considerations (problem areas) in the banjo neck that need to be addressed:

1.) The neck back set angle (3° neck angle)
2.) The curvature at the base of the neck must match the curvature of the drum rim.
3.) Any notch cut into the base of the neck to allow for rims (and the like) must follow this same drum curve.
4.) The holes drilled for the dowels (or threaded rods) must be drilled at right angles to the 3° neck angle

 

Here are a couple photos from these links...

The diagram above shows the 3° neck back set angle.

 

This diagram shows some of these notches that may have to be cut in the base of the neck to accept the rims and other hardware that may be on the drum of a more modern banjo. Remember that these "notches" must be cut on the same curve as the drum's frame. So joining a neck to a circular box is not such a simple task as you might first think it would be.


So, my suggestion of having a first go at building this kind of instrument using a simple hand drum without the head tuning hardware as an experiment to figure out how to mount the neck to the head is probably a bit of good advice. Using more advanced tools like drill presses, routers and jigs also might be helpful. But that means additional learning curves to learn how to use these tools in general and how to use these tools to achieve the outcome we want. Building a few such instruments probably doesn't justify this kind of expenditure (money and learning effort); but maybe, if you are a builder planning on building and selling many instruments it could justify them.

 

-Rand.


Thanks, Rand & Mark! 

Lots of info and things to think about, some of which veered into more complicated than I was thinking of.  That's not a criticism, I wasn't very specific about my plans and it good information to keep in the back of my mind for the future! 

To be a little more specific, I did want something smaller, lighter, simpler and quieter than a real banjo.  I was thinking of doing a thru neck (ala the many CBGs on this site) to make it easier than matching curves, angled, and with a fretboard to get the strings back up over the rim.  10" tambourine for the body, 23" scale length.  And one of these days I'll figure out how to post pictures, so in the meantime I hope my explanation made sense!

Yeah, hmmm....

Sorry I often find myself getting absorbed in how I would do something and get off on a tangent. Appologies.

A neck-thru could be done, I suppose you could eliminate the curvature problem by glueing the neck in and using glued in blocks to brace inside the drum similar to many typical box bodied instruments. Still some challenges remain, I think the first would be how to make the cutouts in the drum. For example you could start with drilled holes and fit them with the use of a small "keyhole" type saw, rasp and file for a final shape and fit.

The next challenge how to design a little set back angle and the bridge height to come out in a useful and functional manner. This creates a little more head scratching and work, but can be done if you think it through and be patient!

Keep us posted on your ideas and progress!

By the way, my supply and access to tools wasnt originated from an interest in lutherie, it is just a side trip from other career needs, household work and hobbies, combined with the fact that I am a serious lifetime addicted tool freak. Although lately it seems a lot of them have been modified, or set up for dedicated luthier related operations...... And its getting worse. I guess what I am saying is you dont need a Bridgeport mill to build a drum head based home made banjo, but if you have one, why not use it?

However I will also point out the importance and usefulness of developing hand tool skills as well as collecting a selection of quality hand tools. The history of fine lutherie is based on the use of basic layout, measurement and marking tools, small saws and a range of chisels, planes, knives and scrapers. And clamps, never forget clamps...... That is a wonderful place to start and develop skills.

And One last tip, when you do buy cutting tools, buy decent quality, and learn to properly sharpen and maintain. It is amazing how much easier an intricate or seemingly difficult task is when a good sharp tool begins to remove material!

And thanks for the links Rand, one of those is new to me, I'll have to take a look!

 

Mark

 

Hi Mark & Matt.

I knew there must be an easier way. The neck-thru (or neck-almost-thru) method of attaching a neck to a sound box could easily be applied to a circular shaped drum and in so doing we can avoid most the problems associated with the "two dowels" approach to mounting a neck to a drum. By cutting a squarish hole in the side of the drum and pushing the neck thru that hole, there is no more curve to the drum that we have to worry about. Also, the part of the neck that will go under the drum head must drop down about 1/4" after passing through the top side of the drum, avoiding contact with the drum head. The tail end of the neck would have to either pass thru the tail end of the drum, or be tightly secured to the tail end side of the drum using glue and wood screws. The fit of the neck thru the hole(s) in the side of the drum must also be tight and secure. I just wonder why I couldn't see this simple solution. I guess that is how I will do it. Thanks for the idea.

 

Now I just need to worry about how to get the 3 degree neck setback angle. This might be achievable by raising the tail end of the neck up a little bit, causing the headstock end of the neck to tilt downward a few degrees. May need to shave a bit more wood off the top side of the neck under the drum. I'll have to give is some more thought, with the parts in hand.

 

Thanks for the idea,

 

-Rand.


Basically you could do it similarly to the build I did the blog on in the intermediate builders group. It has a built in 3 degree neck set and a neck thru design. There are several other designs to get this result scattered about this place.......

 

That probably includes the drawing I had in mind that I saw somewhere on CBN that showed the neck cut specifically to allow a 3 degree down slope. I'll go check it out to verify that it's the one (or at least whether it shows what I want to know). Beats having to sit down and draw it all from scratch.

-Rand.

Well, the drawing wasn't there. Guess I look around some more on CBN. It was a real good drawing.

Rand Moore said:

That probably includes the drawing I had in mind that I saw somewhere on CBN that showed the neck cut specifically to allow a 3 degree down slope. I'll go check it out to verify that it's the one (or at least whether it shows what I want to know). Beats having to sit down and draw it all from scratch.

-Rand.

The neck angle would be set by thru hole placement, which would have to be lower than the head attachement whatevers which causes the internal portion of the neck to be away from the head, necessitating a fret board of at least 1/4 inch to bring it back to rim level....

 

I've since found in this group, a video by econnofoot showing a banjo ukulele that's pretty similar to what I was thinking of, just a bit smaller.

Rand Moore said:  Note - edited to make shorter

 ....Also, the part of the neck that will go under the drum head must drop down about 1/4" after passing through the top side of the drum, avoiding contact with the drum head................

Now I just need to worry about how to get the 3 degree neck setback angle. This might be achievable by raising the tail end of the neck up a little bit, causing the headstock end of the neck to tilt downward a few degrees. May need to shave a bit more wood off the top side of the neck under the drum. I'll have to give is some more thought, with the parts in hand.

 

Thanks for the idea,

 

-Rand.

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