Gourd Mbira

I’m not exactly sure how this started but of all recent projects it has been in many ways the most satisfying.  Previously on this channel a three string gourd banjo was made, and others stringed gourd instruments are contemplated, so this means there are various gourds sitting around taunting the muse.  One of the taunts, if you will, was the long cut, top to bottom, instead of across, evoking lute and dulcimer or violin shapes depending on the gourd.  I’m already down the path of commitment on the next stringed gourd though, so I did not want to have two such in the fire at once, so a detour to a gourd backed mbira seemed a good move, needing as I did a little space to reflect on the previous stringed gourd before chugging into the next.

Begin with the long cut


Gourds are legendary for their mold, so some sort of treatment of the inside is warranted.  When I was a lad the virtues of Rustoleum were extolled to a point not far from the glory of God, so both because of these purported virtues and because for me Rustoleum evokes those ancestors, and one wants ancestors in one’s mbira, red Rustoleum it is.  I know gourds don’t rust.


Kind of looks like a heart, eh?  Now a facing board of some sort will be needed.  I think this might even be called a sound board.  For some reason it seemed virtuous to me that the place where the wood was removed for the sound hole not be arbitrary relative to the wood, but rather supported by the grain all around.  A knot therefore seemed an ideal thing to remove to gain this support.


The wood ‘expects’ energy to flow through it there, or at least my imagination emphasizes that aspect.  Now a small detour is required, conceptually, to get to the next steps.  First, in reading a book recently on gourd instruments I had seen a picture of a gourd mbira that I liked.  The spirit of it, if you will, from which it’s voice arises.


Now the second element of the detour is that earlier in the year at the end of winter an old lilac branch had blown down.  I made a spoon of it, previously described here, but also I carved out a little spirit that seemed to be be in the wood, a whimsy, surely, such as these things are, and that spirit sat in the kitchen through the spring and summer watching us with its funny eyes till for some reason this autumn I took it to the workshop.  Oh the secret workings.  Worth noting is that both in the spoon and in this spirit neck/head are ant tunnels.  The ants came out as the wood thawed as I worked it.  It was their home.


A local spirit to meld with board and gourd.  I believe this be appropriate as far as what I am told of these instruments.  Also in the workroom had nestled a rake head long deprived of a pole.  Metal tines have rakes, they do, but appropriate and sufficient for music?  A test device therefore, and also to see what would and would not work mbira sound-wise


The sound seemed ok to me, at least in the realm of plausible, and the design with a few modifications would be very tunable.  The sound follows

This is a far cry from the the Stella Chiswese that has been in my playlist for twenty years.

Therefore, a bit of cutting some tines, a few brass bolts.  Wing nuts, because a they are easy to use without tools and a project like this just attracts them.  The join though, of gourd to board – that looks challenging.


I ended up going with a solution that produced tremendous adhesion and strength but it was a little short on aesthetics.  I used Goop to glue the gourd edge face to the board edge back, but that has a bit too flexible of an aspect, so then I used an epoxy putty to line all of the joined edges, as well as to do some cosmetic surgery for the lilac spirit.  I’m very happy with the result but I count the use of these compounds as a fail.  I’ve already come up with a plan for a very strong but much more authentically primitive approach to this join for the next one.



Of note, I used the putty to cap the ant tunnel at the top of the head of the spirit.  The tunnel runs the length of the wood.  I drilled out the mouth so that it connects to this tunnel, so that, if only euphemistically, the music may be sung by the spirit.

As I tune and play I will provide further reports.

Harvest of Music

Well, kinda a little maybe.  It’s a first instrument now, making sound, it being the fretless three string gourd banjo with a head vaguely evocative of an Asian three toed-sloth appendage.  There are only six million things not right about it, but perhaps several things are close enough to right that it stands at the edge of a recognized genre.

This evening I worked to get the gourd more unwaveringly affixed to the neck, re-did the bridge to make it lower and lighter, worked the grooves by the tuning pegs to try to lower the angle of attack of the strings to the nut, sanded to 220, applied tung oil, tuned it, such as I can (which is barely at all) and made some sounds.

It should be readily clear that those sounds are evidence of little – I may adopt them as a unique ring tone, like the people who have baby going ‘goo goo goo’ as a ring tone, but that’s crazy too.  This is a first attempt too at putting sound out on the web though, so getting that whole pathway painted is good thing too, hardly optimized though it is.

New Bridge

Madness of Gourds

Perhaps ‘madness’ is a bit overmuch, but I cannot be the judge.  You will recall the recent post highlighting the strange gourds I’ve grown this summer just ending.  Swan gourds.  Of course growing them leads to research about what they are.  They are of the genus Lagenaria and end up having hard shells, shells that humans have used across time for drinking and storing liquids and for making musical instruments.  As I looked at the instruments that have been made the thing that jumped out at me was the tremendous variety and number of them – that somehow these gourds spoke very powerfully to a very broad spectrum of humans, that they had something musical to offer.  Anyway, long story short, I took the bait, bought me some gourds, a few skins too – because why not go for ancient approaches to resonance – and off into the madness of gourds I went.

First, a practice gourd – because I got a really big one and a kangaroo skin for it but I don’t want to screw it up, so I decided to make a fretless three string gourd banjo just as a proof of concept.  Pictured are the first practice gourd cut in half and another as yet unopened.  Cut very easily with a ryoba.  Had to sand the insides.


Detail of sanded half gourd.


Now one thing apparently is that gourds are close friends of mold so to keep the mold away I decided to paint the inside, to seal it too – the magic of Rustoleum cannot be underestimated – like so


I selected what looked like a nice neck, of mulberry.



Did the initial shaping



Made tuning pegs and a nut of some found/re-purposed wenge, and called it a day, the first.  On the second day carefully I cut rectangles into the gourd on opposite sides about 5/8 of an inch from the top.  It’s one to sneak up on (approach incrementally).




That done, I soaked a circular piece of goat skin in water and had let it almost dry.  32 copper tacks, half on the rim, half over the side



oh, a bridge of wenge too – a little ahead of myself here.  This is where, on day two, when getting to that first string, things broke down a little.




The nut split – it was too tall anyway, and one of the pegs broke, but moreover it was the design that just could not work.  The friction of the pegs was weak and how high the strings were above the plane of the head/neck was just dooming.  End of day 2 with one string that could make some stringy noises but nothing special.

Day 3 brought reconsideration of the head – what about an irregular thing with side pegs?

New Head


This design would/could/should work, so that’s what I did.



To get the friction right I used 1/4 inch dowels sanded down a tiny bit in 7/32 peg holes.  Sanding less on the outside creates tightness as they are pushed in.  From there it’s just adding strings and tuning – the latter of which is completely non-trivial to me.




This project has not seemed like a fail, although I think it does not earn me the title ‘Luthier’ – in fact, my estimation of what that title properly entails has gone way way up.  I’m sticking with ‘Butcher’ for the time being.  A few reports should follow this, one on tuning and associated positive results, the second on the full giant gourd fretless kangaroo four string that lurks waiting in the shadows of imagination.