Recently returning from three weeks in Senegal, 
Africa (where I taught a workshop about building 
a variety of musical instruments using a lot of 
parts scrounged from discarded items) has greatly 
stimulated my latent high interest in the west 
African Kora. If I'd have only stuck with the Kora 
when I first became interested in it decades ago, 
perhaps I'd now be a good player instead of the 
beginner that I am!  Moral: if you're interested 
in playing an instrument,  JUST DO IT ! 
Life's only so long.

In Dakar, I was given a beautiful traditional 
Kora, which survived the 4,500 mile jet flight 
back to northern Michigan perfectly. With this 
Gambian-built Kora in hand,I was able to determine 
exact dimensions and layouts that I previously had 
only guessed at or carefully interpolated from 
photos (lots of ratio & proportion) , so I 
proceeded to build another Kora (which will 
be detailed on my webpage - hopefully shortly*). 
Being on a roll, and armed with much new 
information (measurements etc), I also set about 
to build still another one Described here), this 
one using a snare-drum in place of a calabash 
(gourd) which works just fine.
I have made a number of instruments based around 
snare-drums. Seems I can always find a "not 
expensive"such drum at Goodwill or Salvation Army. 
Or try My favorite clawhammer 
banjo I madefrom a cut-down 10 inch "First Act" 
(ie cheapie) Salvation Army snare drum. 
Wouldn't trade it for my most expensive banjo!

A  Kora may well look like a super-complicated 
collections of strings, tuning devices and 
what-not but because to make one, no frets, 
no curves or wood bending is involved and even 
the string length isn't very critical, building 
a nice, workable Kora is an easy, straightforward,
few days of spare time type project. No fancy 
tools are needed.

The illustrations in this article should cover 
most points & dimensions of building.

The neck is a single piece of any type of hardwood 
fitted with 21 inexpensive guitar type tuning gears. 
Cheap ones are actually better than pricey ones 
because they're far lighter in weight -- I must 
have used at least 500 inexpensive such tuners over 
the years and have never had a single failure. 
The strings leaving the tuning gears are routed 
through tiny screw-eyes and on their way to the 

Most cabinet-making shop can supply you with the 
neck you need. Also try High School shop Teachers
who often have tons of scrap pieces from kid's 
projects that usually end up as firewood. They're 
boundto be most curious & helpful about you 
building such an oddball instrument.

Monofilament fishline & weed-whip line is used 
for all strings. 

To mount the neck to the drum body, lay masking 
tape over the area on both sides of the outside 
of the drum in the area where the neck will pass 
through. Draw a rectangle the same dimensions 
as the cross-section of the neck, beneath the top 
of the drumhead tensioning ring (the top surface 
of the neck should be just a quarter inch OR SO 
beneath the top of the drum's tensioning ring when 
tightened --- because of several "variables" here, 
it's nearly impossible to indicate this exact 
measurement, so approach the cutting of these two 
rectangular holes in the side of the drum very 
carefully,taking into account everything mentioned 
in the information below. Strive for a fairly 
tight fit. Keep things square. The neck does not 
have to be fastened to the drum -- the string 
pressure keeps it in place.

Drumhead modification:
Four holes must be melted into the 16 inch mylar 
drum head to accept the handle and brace sticks, 
the elongated holes in the mylar drumhead are made 
by first plotting their position and then carefully 
melting each hole using a small soldering iron 
(don't breathe the nasty fumes!). This worked very
nicely on other Koras and the resultant holes never 
show any sign at all of tearing once the two handles 
and the brace are inserted. Nonetheless, it's cheap 
insurance to put small patches of heavy-duty 
duct-tape (better yet, Gorilla tape) on the 
underside of the skin where the wood bears on it. 

Because the commercially made drum-heads are not 
as pliable as wet cowhide, I purposely looked for 
BOWED (not straight) 5/8" dowels. Our local Home 
Depot store had quite a selection of bowed dowel 
rods to choose from. With this bowed dowel rod 
inserted through the holes in the head and 
underneath of the two handles, it is not hard to 
draw down the head/handle/brace assembly fairly 
tightly and evenly. If you can't find a 
sufficiently bowed 5/8 inch diameter dowel, 
it's easy to make one. Soak the piece for a few 
hours and then (wearing heavy leather gloves) 
evenly heat it over a kitchen stove - on high 
- until you can bend it to what you want. It's 
best to over-bend a bit as things usually 
spring-back a little. Once you have the bend 
you're after, quickly immerse it in cold 
running water for a few seconds to cool it off
and set the bow.

Another possibility: I haven't yet had to, but 
if the cross-brace fits too tightly, there's no 
reason you couldn't shave down the spots a small 
bit where the handle braces touch the cross brace 
a bit.

The tensioned drum head, with the dowels inserted, 
can not be expected to lay perfectly flat & 
unwrinkled when properly tensioned. Wrinkly is OK 
-- take a look at the many photos of African Koras 
on the internet to confirm this.

The bottom of the snare drum is removed and 
replaced with a disk of about 5mm (3/16 inch 
thick) (or thereabouts) solid or ply wood. 
This is an easily done procedure.

The two hand grips provide a very practical & 
satisfying way to hold the instrument & position 
the thumbs and index fingers properly for playing.  

The bridge is simple and is made as shown. 
Strings can either pass through a slot or go 
through a hole. I somewhat prefer holes, as 
they're less troublesome in the long run. 
Note that the bridge is made taller than 
necessary - due to a number of variables, 
it is unwise for me to specify bridge height 
dimensions. It's best if you fit your bridge to 
suit your particular situation. Having said that, 
here's what to aim for: the shortest string goes 
thru the lowest slot on the right side of the 
bridge. When all strings are at playing pitch, 
it's imperative that this string does not hit 
or buzz against the corner-edge of the drum rim. 
This is the only string where this is an issue. 
Adjust the bridge height (carefully) so that the 
space between this string and the closest part of 
the drum edge will be about 5mm (3/16 inch) (with 
full string tension). If this space is too much, 
it can make the lower-pitched strings hard to reach 
while playing. If you goof up and cut too much off 
a bridge's bottom,  a wood spacer glued to bottom 
fixes things nicely. Remember that the bridge will 
sink further once all the strings are on & tuned, 
so take this into account when cutting.  I 
recommend making the "final" bridge height cut a 
bit taller - then, once all string tension is on,
carefully  away the bottom as needed. This isn't 
easy with all the strings on  (loosen them first) 
butcan be done - slowly & carefully. 
The bridge rests on a "bridge-pad" -- a small 
cloth-lined chunk of wood with very rounded corners 
on the bottom (so it won't harm the drum-head). 
I glue the cloth to the wood with wood glue.
Because of the "bulge" in the drumhead (as compared 
to the flat head of the original snare drum) 
some thought is needed as to how the bridge sits 
on the bridge pad. With this type of modified 
snare-drum head setup, the bridge-pad will tend 
to angle towards the tuning gear end of the 
instrument, meaning that the foot of the bridge 
itself should be cut at a corresponding angle 
so that it rests on the pad squarely. I put a 
couple of small dabs of wood glue on the bridge 
bottom to hold it in place.

This illustration shows string tie-offs etc:

In Africa, little, if any, attention is paid to 
"absolute" or concert" pitch. in addition, I 
find that one instrument might be based in the 
key of F (the lowest string on each side being 
tuned to "F"), while another Kora might be based 
in the key of C (lowest strings tuned to "C"). 
I am by NO means an expert here, but I prefer 
the D-based approach, and have used D on the 
last few Kora's (& Kora-like instruments) 
I have built.

                                                  HIGH-PITCHED END

    30 LB (.022 inch) fishing line    C#-| |
    30 LB (.022 inch) fishing line    A--| |--F#   20 LB (.018 inch) fishing line
    50 LB (.029 inch) fishing line    F#-| |--E    25 LB (.020 inch) fishing line
    50 LB (.029 inch) fishing line    D--| |--D    25 LB (.020 inch) fishing line
    60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line    B--| |--B    40 LB (.024 inch) fishing line
    60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line    G--| |--G    50 LB (.029 inch) fishing line
    60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line    E--| |--E    50 LB (.029 inch) fishing line
   .050 inch weed-whip line           C#-| |--C#   60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line
   .050 inch weed-whip line           B--| |--A    60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line
   .065 inch weed-whip line           A--| |--F#   60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line
   .095 inch weed-whip line           D--| |--D   .040 inch weed-whip line (or
                                                   100 LB fishing line)

                                                  LOW-PITCHED END

Regular monofilament fishing line is used for the higher-pitched strings.
Weed-whip (aka weed-whacker) line is used for the lower pitched strings.
Use ROUND, un-serrated weed-whip line. Lately ridged or square line
is being sold - avoid it.



In my many years of diddling with the Kora,I have 
found the following gauges/types of string to work 
nicely on this Kora. I use a combination of various 
gauges of both regular monofilament fish-line as 
well as off-the-shelf monofilament weed-whip line. 
See chart immediately above.

"Strengths" (in pounds) of fish-line needed are; 
20 LB, 25 LB, 30 LB, 40 LB, 50 LB, 60 LB (& 80 LB. 
if you can't find .040 inch diameter weedwhip line). 
This line is available in a wide variety of 
strengths (rated in pounds). Wall-Mart & K-mart 
carry many gauges. Cabela's big Sporting Goods 
catalog carries all of the required gauges, but 
I have found that their huge retail stores do not 
always carry all the gauges that their catalog does. 
Dunhams and other such sporting goods stores often 
have what K/Wal Mart doesn't. It just takes a bit 
of looking around. You can always go the Cabelas 
mailorder route. 

Weed-whip line:
Diameters of the weed-whip line needed are:.040",
.050",.065" and.095" K-mart and Wal-mart do (at 
least sesonally) carry most of the gauges of 
weed-whip line needed. Also, Tru-Value & Ace carry 
a wide selection of this line. Try lawn-mower 
specialty shops. One caution however is to avoid 
buying grooved or square line. While these MAY work, 
go for the regular round monofilament line. In the 
winter, I have been able to have the people at our 
local Tru-Value hardware store go into the basement 
to get rolls of this stuff for me. If you simply 
cannot find a particular gauge weed-whip or fish-line, 
just use the next smaller size & get used to the 
slight "looseness" & very slightly lower volume.

Over the years I've amassed a big Rubbermade tote tub 
full of rolls of just about every gauge monofilament 
fishing (& weed-whip) line available. I use this stuff 
for all sorts of instrument (& craft) projects. 
Having mentioned this, it's by no means necessary to 
buy lots of rolls of this stuff if you know a 
few fishermen.

This chart shows the diameter in inches of various 
strengths of monofilament fishing line (note that 
different manufacturers make slightly different 
diameter line for a claimed strength):
20 LB = .018"
25 LB = .019"
30 LB = .020"
40 LB = .024"
50 LB = .028"
60 LB = .030"
80 LB = .037"(will work in lieu of .040" weed-whip line)


Monofilament nylon line stretches prodigiously at 
first - Not just on a Kora, but on any instrument. 
This is an unavoidable but fortunately short-lived 
situation. It takes about two or three weeks or so 
before the things completely settle down. Once thus 
settled, the instrument can go for months without 
requiring retuning (or in the case of one Kora I 
made ages ago, played for a while & then hung on 
the wall - over TEN years - if you can believe 
that! Stayed tuned for over 10 years. I'm NOT kidding)

It's not only the strings that stretch & settle -- 
the drum head does so as well. Also, the bridge 
settles down into the head & various other wrinkles 
will likely appear. This is all normal and this all 
settles down in about the same amount of time that 
it takes for the strings to settle. 

My procedure is to tune up the instrument right after 
it's made. Then keep retuning it a couple of times daily 
(it will drop in pitch regularly). After a day or two 
it's playable, so long as you realize that strings will 
have to be retouched quite often, until it's completely 
settled (in a few weeks).

During this settling-in process, remember to not just 
tune the instrument to itself, but tune it up to pitch. 
Day by day the thing holds it's tune better. In a
week's time, you scarcely notice that it's going 
out of tune & after a couple more weeks, it's 
all settled.

There's an up-side to this 2 to 3 weeks of string 
stretching/numerous retunings -- during the process, 
you'll invariably become quite familiar with the string 
layout, pitch, tuning, intervals etc.  


Dennis Havlena - 1/22/2012  
Webpage at

updated 3/28/2012

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Key words: build make diy kora west africa gambia 
senegal construct homemade home made