Homemade Musical Instruments: Gourd Banjos

The gourd banjo first came to America via slave ships, most likely during the colonial period. Slaves and those in the lower economic classes commonly played the instrument throughout the 19th Century. Several modern day craftsmen have rediscovered the technique of building the gourd banjo, spawning a renewed interest. The following provides details on the creation of this classic, historical instrument.

Raw Materials

To make a gourd banjo, there are several materials needed. These items include a gourd (smaller for a punchier sound, larger for a deeper tone), violin tuning pegs, a banjo nut and bridge, upholstery tacks, a wood blank (16/4”; cherry, walnut or maple are good choices), hardwood (3 ½” x ¼” x 20”; bubinga, maple, rosewood or ebony), a banjo skin, and a piece of wood or leather for the tail-piece. Optional materials include any stain or finish you would wish to apply for aesthetics.

Neck and Fingerboard

Draw the neck’s shape on the wood blank. The neck and dowel stick can both be cut continuously from this piece of wood. Cut out the shapes using a band saw. Plane the neck so the spots for the fingerboard and headstock (peg-head) are completely flat. Sketch the fingerboard onto the hardwood and cut. Sand the neck and fingerboard smooth. Draw a line to the mark spot for the nut. Rout the nut slot to an equal width as your nut. Glue the fingerboard to the neck.

Dowel Stick

Sand the dowel stick to desired smoothness using a belt sander. If you have chosen to cut the neck and dowel stick from two separate pieces of wood, glue the dowel stick to the neck using wood glue. Clamp the dowel stick to secure the glue and let dry. Either method (combined dowel stick with neck or separate dowel stick and neck) is acceptable for the gourd banjo.

Pot, headstock and tail-piece

Clean the exterior of the gourd. This can be accomplished simply by using water and soap. Next, cut off the top of the gourd, somewhere in the top third of the shell to ensure a strong pot. Remove the debris inside the gourd and scrape away any excess sticking to the interior. Sand the top of the cut smooth along the rim of the gourd. Fit the neck and dowel stick to the gourd and draw outlines for sawing. A one-degree angle is recommended for the neck to pass through the gourd, resulting in cutting the rear hole approximately 3/16” above the neck hole. Cut these holes into the gourd, making certain the openings are not too big. Small adjustments can be made to enlarge the holes to fit the neck in the final process of assembly. Staining and/or lacquering the outer surface of the gourd are optional steps.

Apply glue to the rim of the gourd to hold the top head skin. Soak the skin for about 10 to 15 minutes until pliable. Place the skin on top of the gourd and tack it to the shell. Use discretion when tightening the skin, as it will contract as it dries, possibly damaging the gourd. Remove excess skin with a knife.

Draft the tuning peg holes onto the headstock and sketch a peg-head design. Drill and shape the headstock. Use a peg reamer to finalize peg hole openings. Place the tuning pegs into the holes. Decide a shape for the tail-piece. Cut to the desired contours.

Final Piece

Do any final sanding to the neck and fingerboard if desired. Slide the neck through the gourd and, if necessary, continue to enlarge the holes in the gourd to achieve a proper tight fit. Drill tail-piece holes and attach. Prep the nut slot by wiping away any material inside. Trim the nut to the correct length and glue the nut into its slot. Place the banjo bridge on the skin. String up your banjo with gut or nylon strings. Tune the instrument and enjoy.

A gourd banjo provides a satisfying hobby for the maker and player, while supplying entertainment to listeners of all ages. A gateway to history, the instrument offers a tangible connection to America’s past.

Other Banjo Resources:

Cultural History of Gourd Banjos

Steps to Building a Gourd Banjo

Information about Gourd Banjos

Famous Banjo Players

Adam Hurt: Gourd Banjo Player

Mike Seeger on Gourd Banjo (video)

NPR: Picturing the Banjo Through American History

The Banjo During the Civil War

Parts of the Banjo