Doctor Oakroot



Why Homemade Instruments?

I've been building my own instruments since I was a kid. The one to the left there was inspired by a chinese instrument I saw in a museum on one of our summer family trips when I was a young teenager.

All the wood parts were carved from a limb we pruned from a mullberry tree that grew next to our garage. Originally strung with three nylon guitar strings, it currently has two bass guitar strings (from an experiment a couple of years ago).

So, I was inspired by actual instruments - usually exotic stuff that I couldn't buy.

I was also inspired by the imagined primitive man who first bit on the end of his hunting bow in order to use his own skull as a resonator when he plucked the string. And not just that early man, but I think it has been the practice through most of history (and pre-history) that musicians made their own instruments. The professional luthier is a modern invention ("modern" in the large scheme of things extending back to the late medieval period). Or where there have been luthiers in earlier periods, the practice lasted only a while...

Then there was Harry Parch - a friend and composition student turned me on to him in high school. Parch built his own instruments - supposedly because he used a unique 43 note scale and couldn't hit all the notes on conventional instruments... but Parch's scale was really a smoke screen. The real reason for Parch's homemade instruments is that he saw music as grand theatre and the players as priests and priestesses to the muse. He needed special grand instruments to pull it off. (One reason I say his scale was a smoke screen is that his instruments took hours to tune and rarely stayed in tune till the end of the performance, so he wasn't playing in that scale anyway.)

So, I have this gut feeling that a musician should build his own tools as much as possible. And doing so allows me to incorporate Parch's ideal of music as theatre and prayer. And, inevitably, I have given up my production manufactured guitars in favor of harder to play, but more satisfying homemade guitars.

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Diddley Bow

The diddley bow is the one-string instrument on which the blues were born. That's a Mississippi Delta name. Here in North Carolina it was called "one-string".

One afternoon, I decided to throw together an instrument using available materials. The sound box is the cardboard box my Alesis Nanocompressor (a piece of studio equipment) came in. The neck is a dowel I happened to have on hand. Originally, the string was a piece of nylon twine and the bridge was an empty plastic pill bottle.

The string was tensioned by the old fashioned diddley bow method: the string was tied on as tight as possible and then the bridge was slid into place, further tightening it.

With that string and setup, I used it primarily as a bass.

Later, I wanted to try some traditional diddley bow blues. I modified the instrument, adding an electric guitar "D" string, a different bridge - a piece of mystery wood, and a new tuning system.

Inspired by the traditional African Gimbri, I tied the guitar string to a piece of twine wrapped tightly around the dowel. The instrument is tuned by pushing the twine wrap away from the bridge to tighten the string. BTW, while this system works great on the gimbri with its gut string, it's really hard to manage with a steel guitar string.

Recordings: Tree 'fo' a Hurricane on the Love & Death CD.

Live: This one's too unwieldy to use live.

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Diddley JO

Diddley JO? What the heck is that?

Well the short answer is a cross between a diddley bow and a banjo. It's an instrument I created on a whim, but found it to be a really cool addition to my show.

It started out with Trailer Tapes Triology by Shane Speal, King of the Cigar Box Guitar. The Trailer Tapes is actually a 3 CD set shipped in a wooden cigar box along with some press clippings and a guitar tuner - to encourage the listener to make his own guitar. Shane has made hundreds of cigarbox guitars himself - used to sell them. Now he wants to play them and encourage other folks to make their own.

Well the supplied box was smaller than I like for a 6 string and there was only 1 tuner anyway, so I decided on an experiment. I built a 2 string using only 1 tuner. The idea was to wrap the string around a pulley at one end and carefully control the lengths of the two string sections to keep them in tune. Well it didn't work, lol. Too much friction in the pulley. I think it could work and I may try again at some point.

But, meanwhile, I added another tuner and made it a 1 1/2 string. It plays best when I use the short string as a high thumb drone - just like the short string on a banjo. And so the diddley jo was born.

Recording: It plays the solo on Love & Death (reprise) on the Love & Death CD

Live: This is a very stable instrument and sounds good through its pickup (a disassembled Radio Shack piezo buzzer). But recently I haven't been using it much live.

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The Cyclops

For my first cigarbox guitar, I built this nylon six string fretless. I had intended this guitar for fingered fretless play, but made the bridge a little too high. With nylon strings it is playable with fingers - which is good because I finger a lot of notes even when I'm playing slide, but, now I tune it in open D and use it primarily for slide tunes.

One downside to fretless is certain fingered chords are almost impossible. As a result, I've had to re-arrange one of my most popular songs, Slippin' in Your Back Door to be played in standard tuning (it was in open E on the Mythical Creature CD) so I can play it on a more fingerable guitar. Of course, as easy as it is to make CBGs, I may soon have another fingerable guitar in open E, lol.

Recording: Love & Death, including the reprise, Diddie Wah Diddie, Corina Corina, and Ninth Street Blues from the Love & Death CD. Also, Here With You was first arranged and recorded on this guitar, but when I raised the key to match my voice for the final recording, other instruments worked better.

Live: This is another live work horse. I use it for the songs it recorded, plus lots of other slide stuff, including Robert Johnson's Come on in My Kitchen and Willie Dixon's Don't Trust Nobody

Update: Well, eventually, I rebuilt this one... twice... it has frets now, lower action, and a new face (The Cyclops pyrography). I can play Slippin' in Your Back Door on it now - in fact, it was used on Huntsville 2006 for that song, as well as the rest of the first half of that CD.

It's still a live show workhorse but now even more capable :o)

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The Goblin

I attended and performed at the The First Annual Cigar Box Guitar Fest in 2004... and it seems like everyone had a cigarbox guitar with a stock electric guitar neck on it. So I came home and made one too :o)

Recording: Here With You from the Love & Death CD. Love & Death itself was written on this guitar, but I liked the sound better on the Six String Slider so that was used in the recording.

Live: I'm still fighting with the pickup (a Radio Shack mini-speaker) - at the moment it sounds pretty good, except that it's distant and quiet. But when I get this fixed I expect this to be my main live standard tuning axe - meaning it will play about half the show.

Update: This one has been rebuilt a couple of times too. It's got a new box - with the Goblin pyrography... and a new bridge with a whole new pickup system. The pickup is two doorbell buzzer piezo benders in series. CBG builder Jim Farris came up with the series wiring idea and it turned out to be a great way to do it - completely fixes the tone problems piezo benders usually have.

As expected...This has become my workhorse standard tuning axe.

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The Weeping Goddess - A cigarbox banjo inspired by the Diddley Jo. Used live for Snake in the Grass which was written on it. Click here for construction notes.

Gourbanjitar - A skin headed 6 string gourd banjo. Currently strung as a renaissance lute. (I enjoy renaissance lute music but do not play it professionally).

17ET Dragon - An experimental guitar fretted for 17 notes per octave (instead of the usual 12). It turns out that 17 per octave is a good system for playing blues... who knew? It's got a pickup and is occasionally used live.

Morning Star Ukulele - This ukulele was built from a kit by Papa's Boxes. BTW, this kit is highly recommended if you'd like to get into building your own instruments. Check it out.

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