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Manowakv: The Fretless Hardanger Box Banjo

Posted by stigandr5 on Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In spring of 2010, I was studying in Rouen, France. Though I had brought my Deering Goodtime along for company, I began to notice its limitations and to dream of something more.

About that time, a friend sent me a CD set for my birthday. It was a most welcome gift, full of banjo, singer-songwriter, and Norwegian folk music. Then I began researching the hardingfele (or Hardanger fiddle). This instrument resembles the modern violin in rough shape only. It has four playing strings and four sympathetic strings which run beneath the fingerboard and provide a beautiful richness to the instrument's overall sound. For those unfamiliar with the hardingfele, I strongly recommend the music of Annbjørg Lien.

Hardanger fiddles are far from the only stringed instrument in the world to have sympathetic strings. I researched the Afghan rubab, the Indian sarod, and the Nepali sarangi. All of these instruments had two things I wanted but could not have with my Goodtime: sympathetic strings and a fretless neck.

So I started shopping, but I was woefully ill-funded to purchase the kind of instruments I had in mind. Then I began to think, 'If there's any instrument worth making yourself, it has to be a banjo.' The tradition dates back centuries; and I couldn't wait to become a part of it!

I drew up a plan using native woods (walnut, pine, maple, cedar) and easily accessible materials. I accommodated for my ignorance of rim construction and the lack of a lathe by using a wooden box that a wine gift set had come in one Christmas. I adjusted for the thinness of the top by adding a soundpost (a most arduous task!). By the time I left France in May, I had my Stew-Mac order placed, the dimensions ready for the wood I planned to buy, and all relevant measurements for my bridge, tailpiece, fingerboard, neck, scale length, etc. I was extremely well prepared.

2 days after setting foot on American sod, I had the instrument in hand. I named it Manowakv, a Cherokee/Kreyòl amalgam of a Hebrew name meaning "rest."

And I've been a happy fretless player ever since = ). I even went on to build another fretless banjo, this one out of an empty gallon can of wax & grease remover! It's a bug I'm glad to have caught. Though I'll admit, I'm now leaning toward exploring the mix of semi-fretless and deeply scalloped frets as found in SE Asia.

I hope this proves inspirational to others; enjoy!


Nathan Wendte




As of 6/3/11, my manowakv is no longer with me. It is now in the possession of Max's Place in Bloomington, IN. May it grace the wall for many a season to come!

3 comments on “Manowakv: The Fretless Hardanger Box Banjo”

BRUNO25 Says:
Sunday, February 27, 2011 @1:18:45 PM

Cool, Nathan! I had been wondering about this after having watched your youtubes. Nice work!


pammiec Says:
Saturday, April 9, 2011 @3:55:39 AM

You're the coolest guy around, I'm so glad you're here. Thoughtful stuff!


blindsniper Says:
Wednesday, April 13, 2011 @11:13:23 AM

Great stuff. I have been watching your videos and all I can say is Wow! You are an inspiration. Keep it up

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