MAKE A SIMPLE NEW NECK TO REPLACE A LEATHER-RING TUNING TYPE KORA NECK WITHOUT HARMING EITHER THE INSTRUMENT OR THE OLD NECK IN ANY WAY, by making a simple wooden neck that utilizes either guitar-type tuning gears or fiddle-type friction pegs (this article addresses both). Only a few basic tools are needed. The problem with the leather ring (konso) tuning system used on traditional west African Koras is that a lot of people find it difficult to get the pitch right and at the same time keep the rings from slipping and running into each other. Traditional Kora necks are easily removed. Once strings, bridge & tailpiece bolt/nut are taken off, the neck simply "unplugs" from the calabash. You can easily restore the instrument to it's original form by reversing this conversion --- replacing the new neck with the old one -- zero harm done.
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Making this new neck is simple & straightforward, requiring only a bit of careful measuring &
some repetitive drilling, glueing/clamping, tuner installing & finally rounding off the last
foot and a half (or thereabouts) of one end of the squarish neck until it fits nicely through
the two round neck-holes in the calabash (can't fit a square neck-end into a round hole).
This rounding-off can quickly be done with a plane, coarse sandpaper, carving knife, belt-sander,
sure-form tool etc etc & is not very difficult or fussy. It's best to drill the tailpiece bolt hole
through the end of the new neck before doing the rounding.
The new neck & dimensions described here will work virtually unchanged for either friction pegs or
guitar-type geared tuners - I have used both. On my most recently built Kora, I had intended to
use Grover type guitar tuning gears that I got at a closeout sale but opted instead for regular
ebony fiddle pegs as the Grover types would make for a lot heavier neck. On one of the first Koras
I built, much lighter & cheaper open-gear type guitar tuning machines were very satisfactorily used.
Fiddle pegs are lighter than guitar-type tuners & (except for the thickest string, which is
half-again the diameter of the next thickest string) hold and tune wonderfully. A cello peg could
be used for this thickest string, but I chose to use a bass-guitar geared tuner (a guitar tuner works
here as well), with the turning key pointing upwards (it'd catch on all sorts of things if pointed
down). Anyhow - the obvious disadvantage of using fiddle pegs is the need to make tapered holes for
them. I've always been able to borrow friend's pricey reamers, which makes the job duck-soup simple.
Decades ago my dad ground the required taper into the business end of a small 3/32 inch thick steel
file (a dremel tool could be used for this grinding) - works fine to make the peghole tapers -- just
takes a bit more time & care. Another tuner option is to use very inexpensive "Zither pins".
It'd be a bit less convenient, what with having to use a tuning wrench but hammered dulcimer &
autoharp players do this all the time with little complaint. If you go the Zither pin route tho,
I highly suggest using Rock Maple for the neck as it's been my experience that just about any other
hardwood is prone to have these pins slip.
This neck is made like a sandwich. Two pieces of bread & a similarily shaped middle piece cut away
only in the areas where for strings wind on the pegs (the assembled neck in the peg area resembles
an upside-down "U"). The sandwich is glued, clamped and left to set overnight. The "U" faces
downward & the strings go thru a hole drilled in the topside if the "U", above each peg (& a quarter
inch closer to the calabash). Into these holes are inserted guitar tuning machine bushings which
are available unexpensively from elderly.com & elsewhere. The bushings keep the strings from
eventually cutting into the wood where they exit the topside of the neck. File the inside edges
of each bushing smooth where the strings ride over, as these edges tend to be a bit sharp.
Even tho I could have used hard hardwood for this new neck, I chose Tulip (Yellow) Poplar -
beautiful hardwood that will easily hold fiddle-pegs securely. Having said that, really any
hardwood will work fine for this neck and if you're using guitar type tuners, even softwood like
pine will work great.
Be sure to align the neck so the top surface squares with the general plane of the calabash's skin
(ie: is not twisted/rotated one way or the other).
Some notes -
Although the focus of this article is how to replace a neck that uses the rawhide tuning rings,
aesthetically at least, I am more attracted to the rawhide ring system. But.....
When I first brought my traditional Kora back with me from Africa, I had a devil of a time keeping
the braided rawhide "konso" tuning-rings from slipping! I was told to first chew sugar-cane & then
spit on the neck & rings! Not having any sugar-cane here in northern Michigan, I tried regular sugar
-- didn't work very well. Another suggestion was to hold just the neck part under a shower head!
Couldn't bring myself to do that. Anyhow, I thought a bit -- realized that, for years, when one of
my fiddle pegs slip, rosin fixes it - sure enough, rubbing regular fiddle rosin on the Kora neck
where the rawhide konso rings slide completely solves any slipping problem! 100% cure.
Also want to say that after only having wrestled with leather tuning rings for a few weeks now,
I am getting used to them & find that they tune quite smoothly & with little bother - for the most
part! You've got to get used to anything new.
LATER NOTE - Fall 2014:
In defense of the leather-ring "Konso" tuning system:
- It's not THAT hard to keep strings in tune! My opinion is that just the
lowest-pitched five strings are a bit difficult & take a bit of muscle
to keep in tune, generally necessitating leaving the playing position --
even so, they're not that stubborn to coax into tune. The upper
majority of strings are fairly easy to tweak from the playing position.
- In my mind, there there is even an advantage to the konso system --
if any of the strings show themselves to be too high pitched, generally
all that is necessary to lower them to pitch is to tension the offending
string with your fingers & thus lower it's pitch - this finger stretching
is a lot easier and quicker than farting with a guitar-type gear.
- I dearly love the ever-so-simple, ancient, time-proven traditional
konso ring system. It has a decided charm vs guitar tuners.
Having said all this, I know a dear lady who did not play her kora
on account of the relative difficulty of having to use konso tuning,
thus this article...
A hint for anyone ever working with Koras: my dog's round, foot-diameter stuffed cloth-covered
chewing toy - shaped like a big, flatish donut (shown in illustration) works wonderfully as a
rest/positioner for the Kora's calabash when working on the instrument. It keeps things from
A few words for anyone wanting to play the Kora but not having an instrument.....
A Kora may well look like a super-complicated collections of strings, tuning devices and whatnot
but because there are no frets, no curves or wood bending involved and even the string length
isn't very critical, building a workable Kora is an easy, straightforward project.
I 've gotta put in a "plug" for my "cake-tin" Kora,it being so light, staying in tune forever etc.,
it's the one I play most of the time when working on a tune. Just grab it and play it.
Sounds really nice too. It's not overly loud but enough to fill up a livingroom.
It's a very simple, day or two type project to build and I can't recommend it highly
enough for anyone wanting to learn go play the Kora.
Over the years I've amassed a big Rubbermade tote full of rolls of just about every gauge
monofilament fishing (& weed-whip) line available. I use this stuff for all sorts of instrument
projects. Having mentioned this, it's by no means necessary to buy lots of rolls of this stuff if
you know a few fishermen.
I sure hope I don't come off as a "know-it-all" as concerns Koras (or any other instrument for that
matter) because I certainly am not. What I have done is attempt (with varying degrees of success)
over the past few decades to understand this most fascinating instrument and then take a few stabs at
building some. I have learned a lot, but nowhere near enough.
Let me know if you have any questions or try to build a Kora.
Dennis Havlena - W8MI
Straits of Mackinac,
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