Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Piano Dulcimer (IW#070)

This is by far the hardest thing I have built in a while.  The new owner said that he wanted a "walking stick dulcimer."  I had never heard of such a thing, so I did what any self-respecting researcher does int eh 21st centruy:  I googled it. Turns out it is a cane that is also a mountain lap dulcimer, which is a slightly weird combo.  So there are a series of problems that presented themselves:  structure is important, sound quality is important, and size is important.

It took a lot of monkeying around, and in the end it does not sound as good as I would like.  I was so worried about the structural thing that I sacrificed quality of sound.  It still makes a sound, but it is not as bright as I had hoped it would be.  Live and learn, I suppose.  There was some maple in the piano, so the bulk of the cane is made of that, with some mahogany running down the middle to add visual interest.  The maple had some flame to it, which is quite attractive.

Again, I do not play dulcimer, so forgive the clumsiness with the instrument.  I am pretty proud of this one, actually.

Piano Slide (IW#069)

This is a little three string slide based on the size of my very first instrument.  It is tuned D A D, and has a tenor guitar-ish scale.  Not a lot to say about it, it is a very playable little slide guitar.  I kept the action lower than I usually do for a slide so you can also finger the strings like a fretless banjo, which gives it a little more versatility.  Here it is:

Piano Uke (IW#67)

The second instrument from this group is a soprano ukulele.  I was only able to use one of the legs from the piano in this grouping, and here it is.  I used the leg as the neck for the instrument, and although it is a little funky it is totally playable and actually sounds pretty sweet.  I don't tend to do a central round sound hole because I tend to make "stick through" design instruments.  So there are two sound holes on either side of that stick.  I kept them lower and closer to the bridge because of the way that you strum a uke, you tend to do it up close to the neck and I did not want the player to get their finger caught in the sound holes.

Like the baritone that is also part of this group, the tail piece is a hinge from the ReStore and the bridge is from a sink drop from a solid surface counter top.  Here is how this one sounds:

Piano Baritone Ukulele (IW#066)

The first instrument in the Piano Family is a baritone uke.  Having built several of these, it was nice to start with something that is relatively familiar.  The future owner of this one asked for the angel wing design as the sound hole, which came out much more delicate than I was hoping for.  Is a bit fragile, owing to the grain pattern on the spruce.  The offset sound hole meant that there could be minimal bracing, which really helps the sound.

It is a pretty bright-sounding little box, though, and the action is pretty good.  I think that all of these will mature into a slightly fuller sound than they have right now.  The tailpiece is a hinge from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore and the bridge is solid surface countertop material.  The fingerboard is a piece of the veneer from the outside of the piano, so that it matches the outside of the box.

Here is what it sounds like:

Piano Octave Mandolin (IW#068)

One member of the family that I made these for is a mandolin player (a mandolinist?  A mandoliner?), so I made him an octave mandolin.  Damn, that's a lot of strings!  It came out sounding pretty good, though, like the baritone uke it is a pretty bright instrument.  That spruce from the sound board sure is loud and responsive.

I did what I call a "shooting star" sound hole design, a series of holes that to me look like a meteor shooting through the sky.  It is all on the bass side so the sound from the instrument is a little bassy, but that is okay by me.  Again, the finger board is a piece of the outside of the piano, which means that the fingerboard is mahogany.  Apologies in the video, I am manifestly NOT a mando player.  The new owner is, though, and he can tear this thing up:

Piano Family (IW#'s 66-70)

The third piano came into my life this summer.  The first two ended up like this and this. It is a lot of fun to play around with old pianos, they are marvelous machines for making music, every bit as complicated and exactingly made as an mp3 player.  The piano I got this summer had a cracked sound board.  This is pretty much a death knell for a piano, it requires a LOT of work to replace the sound board in a piano.  Much more, in this case, than the piano was worth.

So the family who owned it asked me to make it into instruments for them.  I am going to do a separate post about each instrument, but I wanted to start by writing about them as a group.  Building five instruments together at one time was complex.  I know that production builders do this on a regular basis, but for a small shop like mine, it took a lot of marking and making sure that the back for each one actually ended up on the right body.

The piano had a stamp that identified it as having been built in 1951, which makes it the most modern piano I have so far dismantled, and there were marked differences:  The body was made of poplar instead of chestnut, for one thing, so the projects were full of the delight that I always get when I cut into poplar, which oxidises to a brown.  But freshly cut it can be (and in this case it was) a bright green.  The veneer on the outside was mahagony, so there was a nice contrast of green and deep red which I find very pleasing.  Seasonally appropriate as well.

In the end, I made an octave mandolin, a 3 string slide with a tenor scale, a baritone ukulele, a soprano ukulele, and maybe the hardest thing I have ever made:  a walking-stick dulcimer.  More on that in a later post.

Still left is the harp, which is still strung.  I am looking forward to hanging that in the yard this summer and playing it with a couple of hammers.  Should be a real hoot.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Rust O Phone Video

Back in April I worked with a lot of people to build the Rust O Phone, and it was a smashing success.  I thought so at least.  I am fortunate to be friends with some fantastic videographers, sound people, and editors, and here is the video they put together for me about it:

I am so lucky, so lucky to live in this amazing town and to be surrounded by such good people.  I had to have help moving the materials, standing them up, playing the thing, and of course we had to have someone there to listen and to applaud on a sunny Spring day in Syracuse.  Thanks to you all.  Thanks to the RustOPhoneers, to Lipe Art Park, to my DES 561 class, and to all of friends and family that helped celebrate.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Canjo Chorus (IW#'s 62-65)

I have lately fallen in with a group of very talented musicians who are open to some pretty weird stuff.  The leader of this bunch emailed me with a request:  "I was thinking of a cello solo with three or four canjos if you have them."

The answer was obvious:  I built four canjos.  Last night we tried them out and it is fantastic.  Shown in the video are Leo Crandall on cello and Rich Curry, me and Curtis Waterman on canjo.  You can hear but not see Tom Fay and Ted Curtis.

What a weird night.  Good stuff.  Probably the strangest thing ever done on a canjo.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Uke Bass (IW# 061)

A couple of years ago several of us started hanging out in an informal jam session called SyraUke.  If you live in the Syracuse area check it out, it is a heck of a lot of fun. 

Here is the thing about a room full of ukes, though:  It gets a little plinky.  So I have started to occasionally play a wash tub bass just to put some bottom end into the mix.  It works out pretty well.

Then at our last meeting, a friend gifted me the body of what was a pretty nice little parlor guitar in its day.  Spruce top and redwood sides, I bet it sounded pretty good when it had a neck and strings.  Neither of which it has any more, so it clearly needed a little love.

I don't remember how I ended up with the old shovel handle, but it was just about right for the neck, and I have long been a fan of using weed whacker cord for bass strings.  So here it is, the Uke Bass:

Monday, October 14, 2013


I have really been snowed under here, and so have not had a chance to write about all of the cool things that have been happening.  I am going to try to catch up a bit here, starting with a couple of weeks ago. 

Imagining America is a confederation of socially-engaged artist, community groups, and scholars that do really good work all over the country.  This year the annual conference was in Syracuse, and I was able to do a workshop in the shop here at school.  Four of us (two professors, a post-doc PhD, and the director of a not-for-profit in Chicago) spent some time in the shop, and everyone came out of it with a playable instrument!  We made versions of what I am calling the "Ten Mile Banjo," the one that was the very first instrument that I made and that I played at the Kennedy Center with Dance Exchange.  They are three-string instruments and are pretty easy to make.  A little funky to play unti you get used to it, but a lot of fun once you do.

There are several ideas behind this for me:  One is that we all need to spend more time making things.  Another is that it is even better if we are making things out of stuff we find around us every day.  A third is that when we do this kind of work together, it strengthens our own sense of being a part of a creative community.

I have done a couple of other workshops, which I will post here as time permits.  Precious little time in the shop lately, a lot of time on the road.  But it is all good stuff, in my book.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Three Sisters (IW#58, #59, and #60)

Someone in our neighborhood threw out a piano a couple of months ago.  This is a pretty common occurrence, actually.  Now that it is possible to get an electronic keyboard that sounds really good and has weighted keys for a couple of grand, buying or repairing a piano that takes up a lot of space, has to be tuned, and that costs way more than the electronic version is less attractive than ever.  The New York Times Magazine even wrote an article about this recently.  Here is what I found in our neighborhood:

The owners (or inheritors, I have no idea what the story of this piano was) obviously cut the harp out with a sawzall, probably to sell it for scrap.  The rest of it they left out for trash pickup.  I don't fault them for this, I am sure they had their reasons.  But if you know me you know I couldn't just let it sit there.

The piano parts really filled up the shop at first.
So I brought a bunch of the wood home, and by being careful about layout I was able to make three little tenor guitars.  I have been wondering about sound hole shape for a while now, and I decided to make the three instruments absolutely identical and just vary the sound hole shape to see what that did to their sonic identities.  Quite a lot, actually.

I based the body size and shape on a cigar box guitar I had already made, and basically made three new cigar boxes.  The piano was made of chestnut, a wood that I love to work with on top of which was a cheap veneer that had been stained a deep red.  I peeled all of that off and planed down the material and was left with three beautiful little boxes.  The tone wood is spruce from the sound board of the piano, which was all beautiful, straight-grained stuff.  I made the bracing from some maple that was part of another part of the piano.  The only things for these that did not come from the piano is the strings and tuners.

There is a local graphic designer here named Jason Evans.  He has ridden his bike to all corners of Syracuse and taken photos of some iconic building in that neighborhood, which he then makes into these beguiling prints.  We love the Westcott print, which is our neighborhood, and bought the print from him at a street festival some years ago.  Because these guitars are from scrap sourced in this neighborhood I contacted and asked him if he would be interested in trading work, boy am I glad he said yes.  He will get one of the sisters, I will keep one, and the third will go to a friend and fellow Wescott neighborhood denizen named Colin Aberdeen, who is my favorite guitar player around.

These little boxes sound just great, really clear and loud.  And yes, the sound hole shape really does make a difference.  The F-holes have the richest sound, but it is noticeably muted.  The off-set round holes are by far the loudest and brightest, almost crisp.  The central sound hole is, as you would imagine, right in the middle, with a decent presence.  Pretty interesting.  I had two good friends over to play them with me, and they all sounded great on "This Land."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Seafaring Uke (IW#057)

A friend had a birthday last month, and she has been wanting a uke.  She is one of a group of people that I know that have at some point all been sailors on historic tall ships, and now works at Rockport Marine making beautiful (and sometimes less-than-beautiful) boats more beautifuller.

I had this little square box for a while, trying to figure out what the best application for it would be, and this seemed to be it.  I have also been interest
eted in what happens when the shape of the sound hole is changed.  All of those came together in a "chirpy" (to use her description) little uke with an anchor-shaped sound hole.  Here it is:

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Banjo for Bobby (IW#056)

A banjo player here locally by the name of Bobby is turning either 76 or 77.  It seems there is some confusion about which one, which I can understand, I suppose.  Either way, he is turning one of them soon and a family member of his approached me about making him on of my cake-tin tenor banjos, which you see above.

Not sure what that back pan is for, I found it at the flea market.  Looks good though, and holy jeebers is this thing loud.  Loud with lots of sustain, and I have the action set really low on it.  It sounds great.  Not sure if it is the Corian bridge (a trick I learned from Steve Wishnevsky) or the particular resonance of the aluminum cake tin that is the banjo head, but it really rings.  It is a lot of fun to play, and i hope Bobby (however old he is) has a hoot playing it for years to come.

Here is what it sounds like.  I painted on the lettering by hand, something I used to do a lot, though not so much any more.  It was fun to hold a liner again and do a little lettering.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Rust O Phone

Here in Syracuse there is a brown field that for years was a railroad yard.  It has been made into a sculpture park called the Lipe Art Park, named after the man who owned the early 20th century gear factory across the street.  A few months ago the Stewards of Lipe sent out a call for proposals that said, in part, that they should address "the evolution of Syracuse as a cultural hub, emerging from the post-industrial climate that defined the city for so long."  This was my entry:

One of the things I loved about my residency at 601 Tully a while back was that it was impossible to play the piece alone, or sitting still.  Either one person has to move past all of the parts, or (even better) five people need to come together to play it in unison.  I wanted to do the same with this piece:  Make it so that a group of people would all have to come together to use it.  Using timbers from a warehouse down the street that was gutted, I built a timber framed structure, and then mounted instruments to it:  the Mega Bass, which has 1/4" and 3/8" steel rod as strings and a stainless steel sink as its sound board, the Xylophone, made of pipe from the scrap yard, and the Gongs, which are two empty fire extinguishers.
The beams laid out in preparation for marking the joints.

Joints cut and sides bolted.

The barn raising.  There was a great group of folks for this.

The barn raised!

What it looks like in the sun.

Custom engraved mallets, of course.

The Gongs.

One end of the Mega Bass.

The business end of the Mega Bass.  The turnbuckles are the tuners.

All the way through this process this piece has been about community.  It took the labor of a lot of people lifting in unison to move the timbers and to stand them up.  It takes a lot of people to play the thing.  And on May 2nd at 5.30, it is my hope that a lot of people will get together to hear it and hear some other music as well.

Here is some rough video shot on a very windy day of me playing each piece individually.  I had to balance the iPhone wherever I could, and pin it in place with a pocket knife, so it is not great footage, but it gives the general idea.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Playing Piano (IW#054 and #055)

IW#054 Mountain Slide
IW #055 Mountain Tenor

I wrote here and here about a project that I have been working on with Washington, D.C.-based company Dance Exchange.  Part of this project entailed taking parts off of a piano made by the William Gaehle company, which was active in Baltimore in the early to mid 19th century.

For this show, the cast and the choreographer and I wrote several songs, which in rehearsal I had been accompanying on instruments that I had already made (the very first slide I had ever made and the Pete Seeger Tenor).  It was important to me that I make the instruments that I play in the show out of this old piano we had.  I also play the piano in the show, playing the strings themselves with mallets at one point, with a pick and a slide at another point, and then going nuts on them with shotgun shells on my fingers, which is a trick I learned from a washboard player Newman Baker, who is the hottest damn washboard player I have ever sat in front of.  He plays with the Ebony Hillbillies, and if you are within a hundred miles of New York City and you don't go see them, that's your own fault.  They are cookin'.

The box for this one is the same size as IW#001
So I made a three string slide and a tenor guitar out of the parts of the piano.  The tenor came out of one of the legs, which you can see in the video below, and for the slide I built a box like I did for the ukes.  I made the slide the exact same size and shape of the #001 slide as a reference for myself.

The tops are spruce that came from an abandoned building here in town that got gutted, so the tenor has a couple of oxidized nail holes that look pretty great I think.  The spruce is a great tone-wood, and I braced them with maple.  Not sure if it is the maple bracing or what but these puppies both have a LOT of sustain, which is quite lovely.  As you can see in the video, they are both "stick-through" style.

You can see the nail holes toward the top of the guitar body.

They both sound great.  While I was in D.C. we had a couple of song circles, and I got to finally take the chains off of the tenor, and it really stood up to some hard playing.  Sounds good loud or soft and it is a joy to play.  I think it is going to become a "go-to" instrument around here.

Here is a little process video.  The background music is made on the tenor, and it is one of the songs we wrote for the show.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Residency Video

Hot off the presses!  This video was shot by the incomparable John Craddock and edited all to hell by Holly Rodricks.  It is documentation of my residency at 601 Tully.  The residency went really well, I had a blast and the piece came out really well.  Hearing it played and seeing people's reaction was a highlight of the year last year.  The video really does it justice.  Here it is:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Octavo Mandolin, Sorta. (IW#53)

A friend who plays mandolin has been poking around looking for a four-string something to play as an alternate, so he dropped me a line to ask if I had any ideas about that.  The result is this little cross between a tenor banjo and an octave mandolin.  The scale is right for and octavo, but there are only four strings, instead of four courses of strings.  This particular box turned out to be one of the best-sounding ones I have found in a while.  It was gifted to me in a bag full of boxes from a neighbor, and is just really bright.

I took the f-holes from an old Gibson arch top, they seemed more appropriate for a mando, somehow, and I might use them again, I think they look pretty good.  Corian bridge, again, and of course the fork tailpiece that I like so much.

Here is a little video of me playing Memphis Minnie's "hoodoo Lady" on it.  I love that tune.  Also just got a new mic that hooks into my computer so the sound quality is a little better on this one.