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Gourd Banjos, and other odds and ends.

Posted by John Herrington on Saturday, March 26, 2011

Well things are getting back to normal in the Herrington household, after over a year and a half of health problems, and I ought to do a new blog entry.

My interests have focused lately on building a couple of gourd banjos. I have the materials on hand and am about halfway on the first one. It will end up with an 8 inch calf skin head. The gourd is about 10 inches maximum width and measures 5 inches in height after the top is cut out of it. It is one of several I purchased from the Welburn Gourd Farm in CA. (Incidentally, I highly recommend any potential banjo builders to contact them, look over their very interesting internet catalog and buy your gourds soon. You may just Google Welburn Gourd Farm and go from there.)

 I use the canteen gourd they produce, though they have many more shapes and sizes. My personal banjo(see my pictures) is a 12 inch gourd and produces a very deep mellow sound which I like. The others in the pictures are around the size of the one I am building. I have learned that this size produces a sharper sound while still maintaining much of the larger gourd's depth.

I use various woods for the neck, preferring curly maple. I build them with various shapes of peg head and heel. The one I am building at the present is made of cherry and has a Dobson style heel. Its peg head is one of a modified Sweeney style.

I only build fret free banjos, some with fingerboards of iron wood, which is very beautiful and hard. My own has no fret board and works fine. A gourd banjo ought always to be strung with genuine gut strings. I use Purr'll Gut brand provided for me by Bob Thornburg, owner of Sierra View Acoustic Music, in Bishop, CA. You can find him under this listing on Google.

Let's see, now, I use fiddle ebony tuners for my banjos. One can make his own, however of Rosewood or Iron wood, or whatever suits your taste.

When I install the head, I soak the skin about 30 minutes in water, drape it over the gourd's open top and use a Dremel tool to drill a hole through the wet skin and gourd at 12 o'clock  just a little smaller than the uphostlery tacks I will use. Then I push the tack through the skin and gourd. I proceed to do the same at 6 o'clock followed by tacks at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock. Be careful not to stretch the skin between the tacks! Only remove the more.

I then half the distance between each tack and follow the same procedure, drilling and installing the tack nearest you and then the one fartherest from you until they are no more than one inch apart on a line around the top of the banjo about 3/4 of an inch below the top edge of the banjo. I repeat, do not stretch the skin as you install it. It is wet rawhide and when it dries it might crack your gourd! It will be extremely tight within 12 hours. Another thing to remember is, resist the urge to test the tightness by pressing down on the head, that depression may be permanent if you do it until it has set over night.

My, but this has been a long blog. My apologies but let me conclude with a couple of three remarks. Fit the neck to the banjo before you install the head. It is formed either with an extension that shall go through the banjo and stick out about 3 inches. It ought to be installed with a drop of between 2 and 3 degrees from the horizontal line of the top of the head to the nut .  If the wood of your banjo neck is not long enough to do this, you will have to carefully drill a hole in the heel and install a dowel stick with glue in this hole and then proceed as above.

Remember there are many ways to skin a cat...and to build a gourd banjo. Hope this helps some of your who have asked for help. Write me about that which your don't understand. Paul Roberts on the Hang out did an interview on Banjo Crazy .com. If you are interested Google that in and move down to Interviews and scroll down to my name.

Old John on the Big Horn

6 comments on “Gourd Banjos, and other odds and ends.”

C Nyal de Kaye Says:
Wednesday, September 21, 2011 @4:59:15 AM

Thank you for this information John. It is helpful. I am in the process of making my second gourd banjo. I grew the gourd from the seeds of my first one.

Thanks for the info about installing the head. I did not do what you suggested and did stretch the skin, but it is OK having been on for several years now with no problems. However I like your idea better.

I am using nyalgut strings. I did not know where to get the gut ones. I'll give them a go. How long do they last?

John Herrington Says:
Wednesday, September 21, 2011 @9:02:17 PM

C Nyal de Kaye,

Thank you, hope the blog is a help to you. I really enjoy building these gourd banjos...and playing them too. I did one head on one of my early gourd instruments, stretched the head considrerably and when all was said and done, the gourd was ruined...cracked it badly. I have used both goat skin and calf skin for heads and find they will stretch adequately as they dry.

Contact BobThornburg as I indicated. The gut strings are not cheap but they last very well for me. I usually tune them to the key of "e" and use the open "g" chord shape.

Keep in touch.

John Herrington

C Nyal de Kaye Says:
Thursday, September 22, 2011 @2:54:05 PM

Thanks for your help John. I note that you are a Minister of the Gospel. I have been in the Baptist Church here in Oz since I was a baby really, but these days I am in the Presbyterian Church as there were no Baptists in my town when I moved here. They have a slightly different view to mine, but are strong on the Gospel and the facts that really count, so Robyn and I are quite happy there.

I did look up Bob Thorburg's web site - it seems pretty complicated to buy strings from him. I am not sure how to answer all the questions he asks. Anyway I will talk to him via email and see how we go.
Every blessing in Him,

John Herrington Says:
Friday, September 23, 2011 @3:31:04 PM

Norm, it's nice to meet someone "of like faith and order," as they used to say it. :) I've always wanted to go to Australia. I suppose Baptist work is pretty scattered in your land. Sounds like you have found a home in our sister denomination. God bless you, my new friend.

Hope you and Bob T. get together on the strings. Tell him hello from Old John on the Big Horn, here in Wyoming. Are you using Ebony fiddle tuners on your banjo? They work well for me.

Take care, and God bless.


C Nyal de Kaye Says:
Friday, September 23, 2011 @4:13:24 PM

Thanks for your kindly note John. The baptist work here is quite strong really, it is one of the major denominations, but numerically at the lower end of the major denominational groups. It just happened that when we moved to our town the Baptist work was not established here. It is now, but we were so entrenched in the Presy's by then that we stayed with them, and are very happy there too. We have held joint services with the Baptists on several occasions in recent years, as well as one combined prayer meeting.

I am not using ebony tuners on my existing gourd banjo, but will do on the "under construction" model. I see that Stew Mac sell them so I'll get them there.

If you ever get the chance to come to Oz there's a bed waiting John. I'll turn back the sheets.

Every blessing in the Lord,


stringbeaner Says:
Thursday, March 1, 2012 @10:26:29 AM

I just got around to reading your comment on my blog about that little guy on the left over there. I understand about puttin' food on the table but some critters are just too cute to do in.

Thanks for the information on installing head on a gourd banjo; I am just into making my first one this week (3/1/12) and think I'm gonna have fun with it.

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