Homemade Instruments: Cigar Box Banjo

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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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