Category Archives: banjo/canjo

Banjo Practice: Bill Cheatham

I don’t know who Bill Cheatham was, but the tune named after him has endured and has become a standard in both the old-time and bluegrass genres.

I videotaped some banjo practice tonight. Here’s me, attempting the old-time Bill Cheatham on clawhammer banjo.

By the way….I’m still pretty new at the banjo but I’d love to find a fiddle player in the Toronto area to make some jam with. Contact me through this blog if you’re interested.


What would you use it for?

I was in a hardware store the other day, one of the old school small ones, not one of the giant warehouse stores that dominate the retail landscape today. We were standing at the cash when I noticed a bin full of these oddball metal items. They were selling them for a couple bucks a piece, calling them back scratchers.

I knew immediately that this was wrong. They were clearly not back scratchers at all, but actually tailpieces for oil can banjos. They’re even better than kitchen forks because they have 5 rather than 4 tines. Perfecto. I bought a few with Tuffy P looking on, clearly thinking I’d lost my marbles.

This served as a reminder to me to get off my butt and get back to some serious banjo building. The problem I have is too many things to do and not enough time to get them all done. C’est la vie, eh?

Boatin’ up Sandy

Sometimes I like playing those strange old “mountain modal” Old Time tunes on the banjo. They typically have a simple structure and a hypnotic quality that seems like it comes from someplace very distant in place and time. Here’s me playing one called Boatin’ up Sandy. For those who care about these things, my banjo is in Sawmill tuning with a capo on the second fret.

Mountain banjo – work continues

DSC04567The core components of the mountain banjo I’m making are now assembled. Fitting and stretching the goatskin was a bit of a challenge. I wanted a snug fit and my hole was a smidge tight, causing me some grief. Also, I used a piece of stove-pipe that snaps together for stretching the goatskin, and I realize this isn’t quite ideal because it means the rim isn’t consistent all around. Still, I think it will work out OK. I’ve left it to dry and hopefully, the skin will tighten up nicely. There is still plenty of work to do before I can string and play this instrument, but it’s coming along.

Mountain banjo progress

I got a good start making a mountain banjo back in spring, but I mostly stayed out of the workshop through the summer and and fall. Time to finish it off.

DSC04540All the major components are now ready to go. The neck is carved and the three pieces that form the pot are cut, filed and sanded. I’ve cut a piece from a stove-pipe, which will be used to stretch the goat skin in the centre of the pot. There is still some work to do. I have to cut and soak the goatskin and sew it around a wire loop, and then stretch the skin and assemble the various parts, turning the banjo into a single unit. That’s not all. A banjo needs to have two nuts – one at the top of the neck, that cradles the strings before they wrap onto the violin pegs on the peghead. The other nut is for the 5th string. I’ll be using bone for both these parts. I have a couple banjo bridges in the workshop. I may use on of those or fashion a new one. The holes for the pegs need to be drilled and reamed, and the ebony violin pegs I use have to be shaped. That’s fairly straight-forward. Finally, I’ll need to fashion a tail-piece. I haven’t decided yet how I’m going to make that. Some people use wood and others use bone. Another option is to use a kitchen fork. I’m leaning toward the fork, which I’ve used on oil can banjos. It’s simple and elegant and fun.

Mountain banjos are typically fretless instruments, and this one will be as well. For strings, I’ll either use Nylgut, or fishing line or light gauge steel banjo strings.

Sourwood Mountain

Chickens a-crowin on Sourwood Mountain -
Oh diddle di di diddle di do
(or Hi ho diddle I day…take your pick)

So many pretty girls I can’t count-em -
Oh di diddle dee Diddle di do

Climbing up old Sourwood Mountain -
Oh diddle di di diddle di do

Find me a pretty gal and I’ll go courtin -
Oh diddle di di diddle di do

As with so many “Old Time” tunes, there are countless versions and verses. I’m learning a clawhammer version now, so I’ve been studying up different approaches to the tune. Here are some I really like…

Here are Carolina Chocolate Drops. We saw this group a few years ago at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. They’re great fun to watch and listen to. This is from a show down in Florida.

This next video is a fellow named Andy Sayers playing the tune on a fretless banjo. Once upon a time all banjos were fretless and then everything went to hell.

Now check out American honey with an excellent buckdancer! A lot of groups play this tune at lightning speed. I like the lazy pace of this version.