Sunday, January 27, 2008

Featuring Sara!!!

One of our beliefs here at The Bluegrass Shack is that Music is for Everyone! Too many times people say they are too old, not talented enough, have a tin ear, and on and on... In an effort to dispel this myth, we feature different students from time to time. This time, we are proud to feature Sara singing one of her favorite songs, Kookaburra.

How to Install a Skin Banjo Head

On my latest project (the banjolin), I had to install a skin head. I decided to take pictures of the steps involved so that I could post them here with instructions about how to do this.

The first question you might be asking is whether or not you should install a real skin head or a plastic head. Skin heads are certainly more authentic, but they are not necessarily a good thing for every banjo. The tension changes constantly with the temperature and the humidity, so be prepared for an ever-changing sound coming from your banjo. If you play old time style, like frailing or clawhammer, and you have an older banjo with an odd size rim, then you might HAVE to use a real skin head. If you are able to find a plastic head the right size, then you will save yourself a lot of headaches by using that instead. The larger the head, the more the tension will change and the harder the time you'll have trying to keep it in tune. I have a small banjo uke that has a real skin head, and I don't have any trouble at all keeping it in tune. The head is 5-1/4" in diameter, so it just doesn't stretch much

Okay, here we go. You have opted for a real skin head. The first thing you need to do is determine how large the piece of skin has to be. It needs to be larger than the rim by at least four inches in diameter so that you'll have enough skin to pull over the rim and back up through the tension hoop. A good place to purchase skins is Mid-East Manufacturing. They have good information about the different types of skin, thicknesses, and sounds that you can expect to get with the different types of skins.

The first step is soaking the skin in water. I soak the skin for 5-10 minutes, depending upon how thick it is. You don't want to waterlog it, but it needs to be supple. Next, you'll drape the skin over the rim of the banjo. Make sure you let the excess skin hang over evenly. Then take the round ring and put it on top of the skin and over the rim. Pull the skin gently to remove any wrinkles.

Next, you are going to put the tension hoop on. This is a little bit tricky, but not too hard. Take the edges of the skin and fold them up on top of the banjo head. The ring should remain about 1/4" on the rim. If you are not sure of the difference between the ring and the tension hoop, take a look at the very next post and you can see two circular pieces of metal. The round ring looks like a thick piece of wire that has been made into a circle. The tension hoop has flattened sides shaped into a circle.

Then take the tension hoop and put it on top of the skin-covered ring. The excess skin will be sticking straight up on the inside of the tension hoop. (This picture shows the brackets already on, but they actually won't be on yet.)

Make sure that you pull the skin between the ring and the tension hoop to remove any wrinkles or creases. The skin should also remain smooth on top.

Next, you will put all the brackets on and tighten them a little bit. You don't want to get the brackets too tight because as the skin dries, it will shrink. If you have the head too tight, then it will break when it dries. Once again, make sure that there are no wrinkles or creases in the top of the head or on the side where the ring and tension hoop meet.

When the skin is almost dry, you can cut off the excess skin. I use a razor knife and cut upwards and towards the tension hoop. This keeps me from accidentally cutting the top of the skin banjo head. It also keeps me from cutting myself! (I've been told I can cut myself on a bowling ball, but we won't go there...)

When the skin is dry, you can tighten the brackets to achieve the desired sound or tension. It should look like this.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Here is an instrument that you don't see too often in playable condition. I just finished working on this for a customer. It is a banjo/mandolin combination, often called a banjolin. It is tuned like a mandolin, but it has a skin head on it like a banjo. They have an odd sound to them. It is high pitched and a little bit on the hollow side. Here are some pictures and a sound clip for you to listen to.

This is the banjolin all in pieces:

Here it is after putting on the head:

Here it is after it is all back together again!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tuesday's Jam

We had another great jam last night! Between helping Jim (the furnace repairman), waiting on customers, and helping beginner jammers, I didn't get to take any pictures or videos again this month. I'll try to get a new video up at the next jam. It will be February 5, 2008.

Here are the folks that came: Denny, Gene, Del, Warren, Irene, both John B's!, Gary K., Annie, Chelsea, Jim, Terry, Verlan, Melanie and her daughter (I can't remember her name, sorry!), Elsie, Craig & his brother (another name I can't remember), Gary G. and his brother (yet another name I can't remember!). Sorry about all the forgotten names! We had a bunch of new people and when I'm that busy, I can't drill the new names into my head. I hope I haven't forgotten anyone! It was a really great jam. For the short amount of time that I joined in, I really enjoyed myself.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Five Dollar 4-String

Terry and his wife were travelling over the Christmas holiday and stopped by a pawn shop somewhere??? Terry saw a 4-string banjo hanging on the wall and asked the owner about it. It was only a shell -- no head, brackets, tuning pegs, bridge, strings, etc. The owner said he didn't know much about it, but that he knew he would sell it for $5.00. Terry bought the banjo and then spent the next couple of weeks fixing it up. I only wish I had some before pictures for you. He totally stripped off any of the remaining finish and glue, and then refinished it and put it all back together again. He added a real skin head and then set the neck angle and tuned 'er up! Here is the finished banjo.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Lots, and I mean LOTS of Rosin!!!

I watched a really neat Time/Life DVD last night about bluegrass music. It is called Bluegrass Country Soul, A Film by Albert Ihde. This is the first feature film ever made about bluegrass music, shot on Labor Day weekend in 1971 at Camp Springs, NC. There were numerous now-famous faces, along with some others that I've never heard of. It was truly enjoyable from the beginning to the end! Thanks to Nick for loaning it to me.

One of the things that really piqued my interest was the amount of rosin the fiddle players had on their fiddles. Now I'm not one to wipe off the excess rosin every time I play, but nonetheless, I do take care of it at least weekly or so. As the camera panned around the stage during a group of fiddlers playing together, I was amazed at how much rosin was left on the fiddles. (Now I actually know why so many of the old fiddles that come in for evaluation or repair have so much old, dirty, dried up rosin ALL over the tops.) The rosin was not just centered around the bridge, it covered almost the entire tops of the fiddles, all the way to the bouts and within inches of the top and bottom. I was just wondering if anyone knew WHY? Please TELL ME!!!

My thoughts were that it could be like banjo players who don't clean off their banjo heads. It is considered a banjo player's "pride" for the banjo head to show some wear and dirt. (I'm a member of this "club"!) Or perhaps it is the type of strings they used then. Did they need more rosin than what we currently need?

Anyway, I'm waiting for YOUR responses!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Learn Bluegrass Banjo CD

Many of you know that I have my own series of CDs for banjo and fiddle. I received an e-mail from Steve today. He lives in Rhode Island. He ordered the Beginning Bluegrass Banjo CD 1 a while back, and now he just received his order for Disk 2 and wanted to let me know how he was doing. Here is the e-mail Steve sent me:

Hi Chris,

I just wanted to take a minute here and thank you for the great CD's you've made for beginning bluegrass. I purchased your first CD a couple of months ago and just now recieved the second one.

I first started playing back in the 70's and played for a year or so, but because there were no teachers available locally I didn't progress too far with just my Pete Seger book and eventually lost interest.

I recently dusted off my "Hoyer" banjo and put some new strings on it after realizing how much information is now on the web for learning. I picked up a lot of information off different sites and also Youtube videos, but after using your first CD for beginners, I have to say that I've learned more from that CD in a couple of months than I did for over a year back in the 70's.

I just ordered a new Recording King R-20 and I'm pretty excited about jumping into your second CD with the new Banjo! I'm loving this hobby again and your CD has given me the knowledge and confidence that was lacking all those years ago.

An American Viola

I got to see a one-of-a-kind American viola earlier this week. Carroll came to visit us at The Shack and brought several violins and this viola with him. (It sure is fun looking at vintage instruments!!!) This particular viola is larger than the standard viola. The body is 17 3/8". It has the most wonderful, deep smooth tone I've ever heard. I asked Carroll to play it for me so that I could make a video of it for everyone. I moved the camera around so that you could get a view of the entire viola. If you are familiar with viola and cello design, take a look at the peghead design. It is like a cello.

Here is a picture of Carroll holding the viola and a full size fiddle.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Thanks, Rich!

Rich came into The Shack today and sharpened knives for us. Hallelujah! Now I will be able to work on instruments so much easier! Thank you Rich.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A Christmas Fiddle

In November, I spoke with a family at Terry Lease's bluegrass festival in Springfield, Illinois. They had a 2-year old daughter named Ellie, and Ellie got to try out her first fiddle. Well, Santa Claus brought her the fiddle for Christmas, and Ellie's parents were kind enough to send me some photos of Ellie on Christmas day with her fiddle. She was also "caught in the act" of practicing at the dinner table with her fork and spoon!

American Fiddle Done!

I finally finished the work on the American fiddle. You can view the details and more of the "before" pictures in an earlier post. Isn't this the most beautiful one piece back you've ever seen???

There were originally four corners with ebony inlays, but none of them were intact, and only three of the ebony corner pieces were in the case. I had to make the fourth one to match the other three, and then glue them back into place.

In addition to the ebony corners, there were also ebony pieces that were inlayed around the heel and button area. These were all completely missing and had to be made and inlayed. I have included a few "before" pictures along with the "after" picture.

If you view my earlier post, you'll see more before photos and this instrument completely apart. There was an entire piece of rib missing along with the end block. Here is what the final repair looks like.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Eureka Festival

We attended a great bluegrass festival put on by MABC this weekend in Eureka, Missouri. We were set up in the vendor room, and I had the chance to talk to so many people that I usually wouldn't get to. It's always fun because I get to answer questions, jam, listen to lots of other musicians, and help others. Jim and Ruby from Lake St. Louis were two such people that I talked to over the weekend. Jim had some questions about his guitar strumming, and we spent some time talking about it. He was kind enough to send me this e-mail today:
This past week-end I talked with you about my rhythm on guitar and how a teacher had taught me the boom-chic-chic-chic for the 4/4 time and I just didn't get it and didn't like the sound. As I explained to you I have no problem with my 3/4 timing boom-chic-chic which I use a lot.
You took the time and effort to show me and my wife how it should be boom-chic-boom-chic for my timing for bluegrass music. When I got home that night I tried this as I was shown slow and easy. During the day Sunday I continued to work on this and then it clicked. I didn't only hear the beat but felt it. I learned more in my 15 minutes with you then I did with 6-mo's of lessons. I wanted to take the time to share this with you and say thanks as I was almost to the point of giving up on my 4/4 timing for bluegrass. Jim & Ruby