Making musical instruments?

I was starting on this story last night —

When I was in graduate school I got the notion that I’d like to learn to play “Turkey in the Straw” on the fiddle. Being a starving graduate student, I couldn’t afford to buy a fiddle. Maybe I could make one? While I was thinking about that, I happened to be in the Brookline public library with my roommate (who was from Brookline), and found a book about making violins. As I skimmed it, I saw the caution, “There is no such thing as ‘that’s close enough’ in making a violin! It has to be perfect.” I knew I wasn’t that good a woodworker, and put the book back on the shelf. But right next to it was a book about Appalachian dulcimers. It had a chapter about making dulcimers that said, “Sure! You can build yourself a dulcimer!” So I set about doing that.

I think I made five or six dulcimers while I was on that kick. Besides Jean Ritchie’s The Dulcimer Book I got a Folk-Legacy ┬árecord (vinyl — this was 15 years before CDs were invented) The Mountain Dulcimer – How to make and play it (after a fashion) by Howie Mitchell (I’m amazed that both of those seem still to be available, and that I remembered the names.) Two of those dulcimers looked like the picture on the cover of Ritchie’s book. I sold one in a consignment store in Harvard Square. The other of those, along with a double (courting) dulcimer that’s built as a duet instrument, to be played by two people sitting very close together on opposite sides of the instrument, and a mini dulcimer, sort of along the lines of a backpacking guitar, have been hanging up on our living room wall in Newton for decades. Two others are more primitive, made out of hollow-core doors as Mitchell’s book suggests.

I think the instrument I like the best of the ones I’ve made is a balalaika. The neck is made from a piece of wood that was originally bent to be part of the seat of a chair. Either my grad school roommate or I once leaned too far back in the chair and broke it — but the bend of that piece of wood looked perfect for the neck of an instrument. The front is wood from an orange crate. The top of a tin can keeps the strings from cutting into the wood. The frets were once paper clips. Overall, it looks like something a Russian peasant made out of wood left over after his barn burned down. It looks like a proper folk instrument.

While I was still in graduate school I used to demonstrate dulcimer, balalaika, guitar, and banjo in elementary schools and do a workshop on making a one-stringed instrument with a piece of wood, plastic milk jug, cotter pin (for the tuning peg – a really really big cotter pin, maybe 3/16 inch diameter) and length of piano wire. You could actually play a tune on those things, with a little work.

After a long long hiatus, I started making a cigar-box guitar a few years ago. It’s not finished yet. Besides being designed with a normal set of guitar strings, it has a music box built into the soundboard so that even people who can’t play the guitar will be able to play “Happy Birthday to You” on it by cranking the music box.

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