A few years ago I was
camping with a friend of mine and he brought his
minstrel banjo. After getting to play it I knew I
had to have one, but funds were short.
So being the practical one, I
decided to make one. My friend said I was nuts for trying
since I could buy one for $200, but I decided to forge ahead
1858 Banjo Instruction Book
What is a minstrel
banjo you ask? It might be more appropriate to label
it as an early banjo. Early banjos were descended
directly from African instruments and by the time of
the Civil War they were one of the most popular
instruments in America.
They were relatively
easy to make, and some manufacturers such as William
Boucher and James Ashborn even began making them.
The banjos themselves consisted
of a wooden hoop with a hide stretched over it, a long
fretless neck, and had gut strings. For simplicities sake I
decided to make mine what is know as a “tack-head.” We will
get back to that in a bit.
William Sidney Mount, The Banjo Player, 1856.
I also decided to pattern my
neck after the banjos made by William Boucher in the 1850’s.
I started with a big slab of maple and a smaller piece of
Next I ripped out the maple
into a chunk large enough to get the neck and headstock out
of. Then I cut some pieces close to 1/8” thick that would be
used to form the hoop. Finally I made a form to bend the
hoop parts around out of scrap wood.
I made the hoop by bending one
piece at a time around the form. Before bending the strips I
tapered one end so that it would make a nice scarf joint on
the inside of the hoop. Then I just used a regular household
iron to bend the pieces, and glued up where they overlapped.