Homemade Instruments: Teaching the Teachers

Bean-sorting is part of a larger project which includes cookie tins, nails, metal bottle caps, cardboard tubes, cut steel tubing, large tin cans, paper plates, terracotta pots, keys, sticks of wood, cigar boxes, hammers, wax paper, empty water bottles, string, garden hoses, and crowbars.  And rubber bands.  And drinking straws.  This is all in preparation for a class on homemade instruments.
There won’t be the time to allow hands-on construction of anything, really.  In a 50-minute class, we will barely begin to explore homemade instruments.  Beyond asking what can be made, the question has to be broken down into smaller topics:  How long does it take?  How many steps are required, and what materials and tools are needed?

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If the people who come to attend this class are like the ones I see every year, they will be tired and hoping my class is no challenge whatsoever.  They will slump into desks built for teenagers, sigh deeply, and wonder if they will even attempt to teach small restless boys how to build a noisemaker.
And, that’s what I will ask them:  Are you ready for this sort of project?  If you want to make homemade instruments, you’d better be willing to hear kids playing those “instruments” for an hour and a half.  You have to go into that den meeting or that metalworking merit badge class ready, willing, and able to endure plenty of noise.
After that, it’s all about minimizing dangers.  When making a paper plate tambourine, be ready for fingers caught on staples.   When creating a cookie tin tambourine, be ready for someone to need stitches.  When crafting PVC pan pipes or a galvanized steel xylophone, be ready for cylinders rolling off tables and clanking against each other for the duration of the workshop.
I’ll have a supply of show-and-tell items, a stack of how-to-books, handouts with websites, and some serious advice on worst case scenarios.  The way I see it, there’s a little bit of adventurous boy inside every bored adult man: he needs to hear there’s some risk, some challenge, and some way to do the job better than that old lady who taught the class.
Especially after she embarrassed everyone by making them sing Shake My Sillies Out.  Why did I do that?  Because if you’re having a class on making a musical instrument of some sort, you really need to have a song ready for the completed project.

Home-Made Guitars: Lessons Learned

The original directions I found for building a milk carton guitar come from Karen Latchana Kenney’s book Cool Rock Music, but she deserves none of the blame for my results.

Kenney’s directions were to use wooden yardsticks for the neck/fretboard of the homemade guitar, but these photos show where we used a plank of wood from the hardware store.  We made this design switch because the only wooden yardsticks found were at the local WalMart, and they were all spliced lengths of soft wood.  Every time we used one, the tension on the strings caused the yardstick to snap dangerously and suddenly.  Sturdier wood was necessary.

Our first attempt to build one of these guitars came out like this:

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We used a lemonade carton, a plank of pine instead of a yardstick, and added multiple strings, as opposed to the single strand of fishing line —

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30lb and 50lb fishing line and one genuine guitar string.  We found that the wood bent pretty easily under the tension of the strings,

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the screw eyes also did not hold well to the wood with that much tension,

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and the carton itself ripped if not handled gently.

We also tried a few variations on the design, using different items for sound boxes, including  a cigar box:

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and a coffee can:

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The advantage of the milk or juice carton was that the top was slanted away from the strings by design, and the ridge at the top was an excellent bridge.  For the cigar box variation we crafted a bridge from a bamboo chopstick:

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But the coffee container needed an even higher bridge, which we created from some scrap wood:

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In both cases, the bridges had to be glued in place or else they slipped free.  Anyone attempting these variations will have to factor in the drying time for the glue.

We tried using a cheap yardstick, as directed in Kenney’s book, but the wood split easily, and in one case broke completely in half where the stick had a seam.  Additionally, wooden yardsticks are harder to find than they used to be (no local hardware stores offered them!) and the cheap ones were worth what we paid — not much.

At the time this article was originally written, the only wooden yardsticks found were dangerously unsafe.   More recently, we found these at Lowe’s:

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The wood is sturdy in thickness, and the rulers are made from a single piece of wood.  The price is low enough that enough to supply a class or a Scout den will not be prohibitively expensive.

We built approximately 40 milk carton guitars at Art Camp.  The older students (ages 9-12) enjoyed discussing the parts of the guitar and ideas for improving on them, and were quite pleased with their results!