Homemade Instruments: Cigar Box Banjo

Posted by 5 on

Sure, if your kid is already listening to the Cheetah Girls, the pageantry and magic of the American jug band tradition has probably already been lost on them. But if you catch them young enough, your little ones may be able to develop a love for the jaunty, clever music of the Kentucky hillbilly. And the best thing about jug band music is that you can make your own instruments. Building instruments is a great way to teach your kids about how the physical principles of sound work - how stringed instruments make higher and lower sounds depending on the weight and tension of the strings, how the size of a resonator makes a drum deeper, et cetera. One of my favorite childhood jamboxes was my cigar box banjo, which my Grandfather made for me one mild April afternoon. What You Need:
  1. One cigar box. You can get these from any tobacconist for free or cheap. If your kid asks why it smells funny, tell them that that's the smell of evil magic.
  2. One yardstick
  3. 20 inches of molding. This you probably don't have lying around, so head to Home Depot.
  4. 4 leather shoelaces. These will be the "strings" of the banjo.
  5. A hacksaw and some glue. Probably not a good idea to let the kids use these.
  1. Glue the lid of the cigar box closed and cut a slit in the center front a quarter inch wide and six inches long in the front of the box.
  2. Glue the yardstick to the back of the box in the center, so it runs along the longest side. Cut the molding into five inch-long pieces and three pieces that are five inches long.
  3. Glue the short pieces lengthwise on the yardstick to be the "frets." Glue one of the large pieces on the front of the box above the slit at the top front edge, and another about two inches from the bottom. They should all line up with each other.
  4. Carve four evenly-spaced grooves in each of the two long strips. Tie the shoelaces around the top of the yardstick, above the first "fret," and stretch them down over the body and through the grooves. Take the last five-inch wood piece and use it to glue down the shoelaces at the bottom of the cigar box. To tighten the strings, soak them in cold water.
  5. You may have to remove the strings and trim them down to make them sound right. Remember that the shorter they are, the higher their pitch will be. Don't try to actually tune this thing, you'll just drive yourself nuts. Once it's making good noises, hand it to your kid and let him go all Earl Scruggs.

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  • this is the coolest idea ever! i love this site. _

    Danielle on
  • Hi,
    www.rockabyebabymusic.com – da best. Keep it going!
    Thank you

    Nadine on
  • Little known fact — Rockabye Baby! is a huge bluegrass fan. Some of our other favorite banjo players (besides the great Earl Scruggs) are Sonny Osborne and Don Reno. I wonder if the greats got their start on a homemade banjer when they were little bitty?

    Rockabye Baby! on
  • While I can’t fault the enthusiasm, and dedication involved in this site, this project has me baffled.

    I live in London, one of the world’s biggest cities, and I can think of only one cigar selling shop, and that is miles away; I can’t even imagine where I’d go to but leather shoe laces (I could have bought these forty years ago in my childhood in Scotland, but I’ve not seen any in decades).

    So, any suggestions about what could be substituted to make an instrument that is contemporary to the 20th C., please?

    I’m also lost by what you are calling “molding” – to me that sounds like the stuff you make picture frames out of, but that isn’t what’s shown in the photo for the frets, and strikes me as being quite hefty for such a purpose, so what is it please?

    Simon on
  • […] jug band musicians out of each and every kid exposed to this blog, I’m going to follow up my previous post on making a cigar box banjo with something to fill out the low end – a washtub bass. This classic hillbilly instrument is […]

    Homemade Instruments: Washtub Bass | Rockabye Baby! on

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