There is an sound sample (MP3 format) at the bottom of this page.
NOTE: 13 additional photos of this instrument are available. Click here for information.
Before you laugh too heartily, let me say that although this thing 
looks like a toy it is a very real instrument that is tremendously 
satisfying to play. It has a mellow and quite pleasing banjo sound.

Having only three strings does create some obvious limitations 
(not all tunes play easily on it), but a big part of the charm of 
this instrument is discovering just which tunes will work nicely 
and then working them out.

I have built several of these three-string fretless 
frailing/clawhammer banjos, the last one taking about an hour to 
construct, start to finish.
Click here to hear a short MP3 of me playing The Cuckoo on this 3-stringer.

HERE to see a short YouTube video of me playing a few instruments, including this one

Click here for an illustration showing how the thing goes together.

******************************************************************* Materials used in construction include: - A 7 1/4" diameter (or so) cookie-tin. These cookies are particularily prevalent during the Christmas season at K-mart and Wal-Mart, costing two or three dollars. - A bit less than 7 1/4" diameter piece of 1/8" plywood. My favorite source of this material is from old discarded doors. Hobby shops invariably sell or can order small pieces of this plywood for a few dollars. - One strip of 3/4" thick, by 1 1/4" wide, by 26 1/2" long knot-free soft or hard wood. I find that pine works nicely. - One half of a set of guitar machine tuning heads, which can cost as little as $4. A half of a mandolin set with one gear sawn off works fine too. - After much experimentation, I find the ideal strings to be.050 (yellow) (for the two outside strings) and.065 (blue) (for the middle string) "Shakespear" nylon mono-filiament weed-whip line sold at any K-mart store. Great stuff! ******************************************************************* NECK ETC.


,----------------------,--------------------------------------- | brads-> o| | () | <-"nut-wire" * these two brads are \ () o| a 3rd string "nut" // \ () | (see info below) // // \ o| o ( ) // // \ ______|___________________________________o____ ( ) // ( ) cut off * this is made from a short length mount tuning neck-end of fret-wire or simply use a gears on an at an |~~~~~~~~~~| shaped piece of angle like angle a paper-clip inserted into two this mounting holes. The three flat-headed brads nearest the tuning gears serve to determine the string spacing (there are no grooves in the "nut-wire") and to keep the strings pushed-down so that they pass solidly over the "nut-wire" without buzzing. The two flat-headed brads up the neck serve as a "nut" for the higher-pitched "3rd string" (quite unlike how the 5th string on a conventional banjo is tuned). Position the right-hand brad where the 5th fret would be. This scheme works nicely but is hard to illustrate using ascii charachters! In reality, the two brads don't bend the string as much as shown here, nor should the right-hand brad be as close to the neck-edge as shown here. Sand/shave the back-side of the neck to round it off some. I find that, given there are only 3 strings, the neck bottom need not be rounded much. Whittle a bit off the right hand end of the neck so that it follows the contour of the cookie-tin diameter. Other dimensions include: Place the "nut-wire" 4 1/8" from the left end of the neck; place the bridge so the edge closest to the tuning head is 2 5/8" from the right hand end of the instrument. The string length is approximately 19 3/4", nut to bridge. Being fretless, not much is critical in the overall construction of the instrument. ******************************************************************* COOKIE-TIN HEAD Although the tin-bottom will itself act as a fair resonator, a thin plywood sound-board greatly improves the tone and volume. Using a utility knife, cut a disk out of the bottom of the cookie-tin. Leave only about a 3/16" "shelf" remaining around the entire perimeter of the bottom. This is the ledge upon which the plywood sound-board rests. Cut a 1/8" plywood disk and sand/fit it's edges until it nicely "plugs into" the "shelf" described above. Drill several 3/4" diameter sound-holes in the plywood (stay away from the center-line where the neck will run) and then glue the plywood disk into the shelf area. Using the utility knife, carefully cut a rectangular hole in the side of the cookie tin just big enough to pass the neck through. Locate this hole JUST inside the reinforcing rim that runs around the outside of the tin's bottom - so that only the thin metal need be cut. Insert the neck through this rectangular cut until it hits the opposite side of the tin. Where the neck attaches here determines the string-heigth and fingering "action", so it deserves some careful attention. The best way to determine this is to "mock-up" a string (or carefully use a straight-edge) and fasten the neck-end to the cookie-tin so that there is just a bit over 3/8" clearance between the string and the fingerboard surface at the point where the neck disappears into the tin (at the high end of the fingerboard). Once this is determined, simply drill a pilot hole and insert a 1 1/2" long (or so) woodscrew through the tin and into the end of the neck. Leave about 1/4" to attach the strings to. I keep the lid on for better rigidity. This seems to project the sound out the sound-holes better as well. A scrap of wood, notched deep enough to keep the strings from popping out, makes the bridge. Space these notches so that the strings run parallel down the length of the neck. Glue the bridge down lightly to keep it from wandering. ******************************************************************* TUNING My favorite tuning is G-D-d (small d being the 3rd or shortened string). The instrument can be tuned considerably higher, but I'm particularily fond of this pitch due to it's mellow sound and ease of fingering and sliding (slides like butter!). It takes a few days before the new weed-whip strings settle-in properly, but once they do, retuning is seldom needed. ******************************************************************* TUNES THAT WORK PARTICULARILY NICELY ON THIS BANJO - The Cuckoo (start with a nice slow slide on the G string) - Don't Get Weary Children (a la Uncle Dave Macon) - Mary's Wedding - The Schoolhouse on the Hill (a la Carter Family) - 8th of January - Fly Around my Pretty Little Pink - Waterbound Having only two playing strings forces one to go up the neck a bit (generally no further than where the 7th fret would be). While awkward at first, within a week's diddling this becomes second nature. ******************************************************************* Dennis Havlena - W8MI (formerly W8UR) Mackinac Straits, northern Michigan 5/9/97

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