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!

 

 

The Arrow Book of Funny Poems

Our house is filled with books. There isn’t a room that doesn’t contain an overflowing bookshelf or several boxes or stacks of books, and in the crawlspaces there are still more boxes that we never unpacked.  Not only are Galahad and I voracious readers, our parents were also devoted to reading, so we inherited many books from our fathers.  Our children added plenty more to the collections, and even after two sons moved out and brought their favorites (and some of mine…) with them, I can still browse through the titles here and remember which book was the favorite of which son.

I own two copies of one thin paperback, stored in a place of honor on the top shelf of our beautiful oak bookcase.  My first copy was purchased in 1966 — second or third grade for me: The Arrow Book of Funny Poems.  It is well-used, well-loved, and well-worn, and has a cover price of $.35.

Eleanor Clymer collected this wonderful assortment of whimsical poetry and song lyrics back in 1961, and the copyright dates on the poems themselves go back much farther: the oldest copyright is 1901 by Miss Louise Anderson, for the poems I Wish That My Room Had a Floor and The Invisible Bridge, both by Gelett Burgess.  The former poem is a limerick I memorized decades ago and still recite when it seems appropriate:

I wish that my room had a floor;
I don’t so much care for a door,
But this walking around
Without touching the ground
Is getting to be quite a bore!

I acquired my newer copy just a few years ago, when I was still working at a public library.  We kept a truck of donated books in each department as an ongoing book sale to support the purchase of new library materials. I was browsing the cart one day when I spied a nearly pristine copy of this beloved book! A 1969 reprint, the cover price had risen to $.50.

There is no describing the joy this discovery brought me.  My original copy of The Arrow Book of Funny Poems is not long for this world if I continue to flip through it.  The pages are yellowed and chipped, and the cover is torn and broken.  This damage is not from careless mishandling but from the constant usage the book has seen over the course of forty years.

The minute I have this book in mind, I can envision the illustrations — the ones published in the book, and the ones my childhood self drew next to some of my favorite verses.  I can remember my brother R reading aloud Song of the Pop-Bottlers by Morris Bishop.  That poem is filled with opportunities to twist the tongue, and well into our teens, R and I would take turns reading it aloud as fast as we could.  R was always a clown anyway; he would have me in tears of mirth, gasping for air (I’m laughing now, just remembering those readings.)  As an adult, I took time to share many of these same poems with my sons, right along with the folktales and other stories we read together.

There are 128 poems in this collection, of which I have memorized 34.  There are limericks, odes, lyrics, and other forms of rhyme for which I do not know the proper names.  There are authors given, whose names meant nothing to me in 1966, but now mean a great deal: Laura E. Richards (whose mother wrote the lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic), Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll, Stephen C. Foster, W.S. Gilbert, Carl Sandburg, and Edward Lear.

The poignant discovery of adulthood involved my favorite author, and what “his” identity may mean in the Cosmic Scheme of Things.  As a child, I assumed this was someone like Aesop — another favorite author — and so did not question the unusual nature of the name.  I often asserted that “he” was my favorite poet, and my parents’ funny expressions never really registered back then.  As an adult in my own right now, I realized who my favorite author was, and along with that realization came the bitter truth of history and memory…

“Anon.”

Fiddling with Books at Walton’s Library

100_5686.jpgHope and I drove out to the William B. Ogden Library in Walton, NY, to present our Fiddling with Books program. I remember how this room looked just after the 2006 floods ravaged the community, with a loss of 12,000 books in this very room. What a change! Not a hint of the flood damage remains, save for the absence of books on this level. Instead, this is a bright, cheery community room for meetings or programs like this one.
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We always start our program with When Uncle Took the Fiddle by Libba Moore Grey.  I pretend to be a tired, sleepy farmhand while Hope plays a bit of Brahms’ Lullabye. Once Uncle takes the fiddle off the shelf, though, we kick off Miss MacLeod’s Reel, also known as Uncle Joe (with lyrics including “Did you ever go to meetin’ Uncle Joe? Uncle Joe?”)
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After that, we discuss the dangers of claiming someone can out-fiddle the Devil himself, as happens in Phyllis Root’s Rosie’s Fiddle. We play the soundtrack of the fiddle contest with Growling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman with a quick switch to Devil’s Dream for the grand finale. Listening to those fiddle tunes, you don’t need to read the book to figure out who wins.

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One of our favorite books in the program is Moose Music by Sue Porter — the cover illustration alone is hilarious. Moose comes across an old fiddle mired in muck — never a good sign — and decides to play some songs… a bit of a trick with hooves, and the results are what you might expect. The teeth-rattling, ear-splitting “moose music” drives off everyone within earshot, but when his equally-talented true love comes to sing along with his playing, it is enough to set off volcanoes. We like to accompany this book with a goofy version of Flop-Eared Mule, complete with out-of-tune banjo.

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We love to include the audience as much as possible, and among the sing-along opportunities is our presentation of Anne Isaacs’s original tall tale Swamp Angel — which actually includes a tiny image of a fiddler amongst the illustrations by Paul O. Zelinski! We pair this book up with the rowdy Old Joe Clark.

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We try to vary the fiddle tunes, so that we have presented musical forms — waltzes, reels, and jigs — as well as a good representation of various traditions. Here, we feature Budge Wilson’s A Fiddle for Angus as we present a French-Canadien selection: Saint Anne’s Reel — complete with clogging! Budge included the beautiful Song for the Mira in her book, a love song to a river, and we are working on an arrangement of the song to include in the program, per Ms Wilson’s request.
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We always end the program with Alys Burgard’s Flying Feet, the story of the time a tiny Irish village seeks a dance teacher. When two excellent dancers both arrive to apply for the job, the only solution is a dance competition, right? Right! We have learned that if we stand up for this tune, everyone does, and we all dance to Irish Washerwoman.

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After the program, we always take a few minutes to discuss the instruments with the kids.

Book Review: Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia Trilogy

Some of the best writers today can be found in the Young Adult (YA) section of the library or bookstore.  Be they horror, humor, or fantasy stories, the books these YA writers create tend to grab the reader’s interest before the end of the first page and maintain a pace that keeps them engaged.  The YA readers include  “tweens” with advanced reading skills and teens with hundreds of competing interests.  They are the hardest reading audience to target because reading competes with sports, hormones, and the endless social dramas of daily life.  It’s a tough audience, and it requires bold authors.

One of the finest examples of such an author is Megan Whalen Turner.

Whalen’s debut novel, The Thief, published 1996, promptly earned a well-deserved Newbery Honor award.  The Thief is a fantasy novel: the setting is similar-to but not our own, with new mythologies, new landscapes, and an interesting blend of ancient Greece and Medieval Europe technologies.  Told in first-person narrative, it is the story of a braggart thief sprung from prison to steal an item that has not been seen in 500 years.  He has limited options: travel with the Magus on this dubious mission or rot in prison.  No run-of-the-mill heroic quest, story is populated with characters of the finest portrayal, both honorable and despicable, and all capable of transformation over the course of events.  I read the book in a single sitting, savoring every word, and desperately hunting for more by this author.  Alas, there was nothing else back then but her short fiction collection.  I had to cultivate patience.

Four years elapsed — four years!  But those were four years of amazing maturation for Turner’s writing.  The Queen of Attolia hit the shelves in 2000, and proved to be no mere sequel.  No longer told in the first person, the story explores the world of The Thief, introducing new characters alongside those we remember from the first book, all older, wiser, and perhaps more tragic.  We learned the countries of Turner’s world in her first novel, but now we travel more widely, and interact more with the citizens.  Queen is significantly more intense and thought-provoking, and I deeply cared about the outcome of events.

Six years later — 2006 — Turner did it again:  The King of Attolia arrived, with stunning cover art and something fresh and new in store!  In King, Turner does not simply bring back familiar characters from the first two books, she fleshes them out and explores the interrelationships with dramatic results.  This is no stale trilogy; there is no “formula” to this storyline.  Turner allows her characters to undergo changes many authors would never consider — never dare — and in doing so she leaves them free to portray a kaleidoscope of human behaviors and the full spectrum of emotions.

All three books are excellent reading: I purchased all three of them, twice, in hardcover.  Paperbacks would wear out too easily, as these stories are glorious adventures, even on repeat readings, and they will never gather dust on my shelves.