Friday, 19 August 2011

Wood Top Mountain Banjo

This is a short scale banjo, often refered to as a C scale, with a scale length of 19 and three quarter inches from nut to bridge. Standard tuning(with open G tuning as the reference) would be CGCEG, or the equivalent to a normal banjo capoed at the fifth fret.

The design has elements of the famous Proffit mountain banjo but with a few differences. The body is  8 inches wide and made up of three rings top, middle and bottom, but with the addition of a through dowel made of thick reclaimed ash. The top and middle rings are beech, and the bottom ring, or back plate is fashioned out of an old solid chessboard, with strips of oak and black walnut steam bent around the rim. The middle ring is bound in patterned leather, for no reason other than I liked the way it looked! (doesn't affect the sound) 

The neck is made of reclaimed mahogany with a single ogee at the nominal fifth and seventh fret position. The fingerboard overlay is black walnut with a brass plate where the neck meets the pot. The heel is ash with patterned metal decoration and the peghead is beech, carved in a contemporary fiddle scroll style. Pegs are handcarved from oak for a rustic look.

The head is 6 inches wide and is made from AAA quality spruce, rather than skin, which gives a warm and mellow sound, still banjoey but with a hint of tenor guitar thrown in. With the spruce head a tone ring isn't neccessary. Bridge and nut are both maple. The bridge is 4/8th of an inch high, with the thickness of the spruce head adding an extra 1/8th inch to the bridge height. The strings are Aquila nylguts which are, bang for the buck, about the best strings available for fretless banjos.

The banjo has a lovely warm ringing sound - not too loud - won't crack the window frames, after all it's not a bluegrass cannon, but the higher tuning helps it cut through nicely. It copes with old time and country tunes well and also works great for celtic music. It's also light and easy to handle.

This instrument is now sold, feel feel to enquire if you want to commission something similar

Friday, 12 August 2011

Five String Medieval Fydell

Here's a quick excerpt from a traditional tune entitled "Shepherds Rise" played on a five string medieval fydell or vielle built by myself back in the spring of this year. This instrument has a flat spruce top and flat three piece back of mahogany and black walnut. The ribs are steam bent from different strips of walnut and spruce which are layered to create the pattern on the bass side.

The neck and peg disc are beech and the fingerboard and tuning pegs are hand-carved from oak. The sound hole is cut into a tree design.

This fydell has a spruce sound post and bass bar with internal spruce bracing to ren-inforce the back. It's tuned CGDAE and has a very full and rich sound, ideal for droning dance melodies! In the video clip I play it with a simple willow bow made by myself.

This instrument is sold, but you can commission something similar, just email me at

Hardanger Viola Pochette

This particular instrument combines elements of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, or it's counterpart the swedish latfiol, within a unique body design, which resembles the old pochette or Dancing Master travel fiddle in shape. However I've deepened the body considerably to make the tone much bigger and without the nasal tone of the usual travel violin.

The scale length is the same as in a medium sized viola, 15 inches from nut to bridge. There are four playing strings, tuned as in a viola(CGDA), with the lowest C string tuned up one step to D giving a tuning across the board as DGDA. There are three sympathetic strings tuned AGD running in a hollow beneath the fingerboard and exiting at a specially adapted nut. Numerous tuning combinations are possible!  The instrument has a long narrow body,  which becomes gradually deeper nearer the endpin.

The shoulders are carved from solid beech, with a cutaway on the treble side, and contoured for an organic look, as is the pegbox which incorporates a very slight curve in the design. The neck and pegbox are beech, the back, sides and top of the instrument are all solid mahogany and the end piece is ash. The mahogany top is a slight departure from my usual spruce top, but works very nicely for this particular instrument, lending a dark tone with a lot of sustain, plus the grain and colour is beautiful. The top and back are also flat, as in a medieval vielle, rather than arched shape of a modern violin.  The fingerboard is oak, and considerably flatter than a normal fiddle, around about a 60mm radius, as is the bridge. The two nuts are rosewood and oak, the end pins are mahogany and imitation bone. The bridge is handcarved from beech and the soundpost and bass bar are AAA grade spruce. The tailpiece has four fine tuners for the melody strings, the sympathetic strings are tuned at the pegs.

I  used two tailpieces for this fiddle initially, the first a plain maple one I made myself and also a modern alloy one with integral fine tuners. The maple one was far superior in tone but the ease of tuning with the alloy won through when it came to selling. Next time I will make a hardwood one with fine tuners for melody and sympathetic strings. The tuning pegs are handcarved by myself from mahogany and oak. The C, G and D strings are all Thomastik Precision steel core strings and the A string is a Thomastik Superflexible. The sympathetic strings are plain steel 0.10 and 0.13 guage guitar strings. 

The decoration is ink applied by dip pen, and the whole instrument has a simple but very attractive hand rubbed finish. I have added a little patina here and there to give the instrument a look of age, with some fading and tiny dips and nicks in particular to the back.

This instrument is sold, but you can commission a similar one by emailing me at Various design elements, wood choices, tunings are available. I also make this instrument in normal fiddle tuning GDAE.

Hawkwood Fydell - Medieval Hardanger Fiddle Hybrid

I built this instrument in 2010 as the prototype for a range of drone fiddles I'd been planning for some time.  It's design was a variant of the traditional medieval vielle with elements of the norwegian hardanger incorporated. It has a solid slightly arched spruce top, american walnut sides, a flat back made of oak and walnut and a beech neck and pegbox. The internal braces were spruce. The fingerboard and tailpiece were mahoghany and the tuning pegs hand carved from mahogany and oak. A number of the original medieval vielles came highly decorated with egg tempera paintings, so in keeping with this I added a small amount of hand painted illumination  to this instrument in ink and oil paints. The whole instrument was finished with beeswax rubbed down for a traditional aged and worn appearance, with occasional nicks and marks in the wood added for character.

It has a 13inch scale length and  three melody strings, usually tuned DAE as on the top three strings of a normal violin, or also DAD. These strings are all gut core for a traditional early sound, the D and A being Pirastro Hardanger strings, and the E being a plain gut Pirastro Chorda. Vielles often had extra bourdon or drone strings, usually running alongside the fingerboard, but on this instrument I made a slight departure and added two Hardanger fiddle style sympathetic strings which run under the fingerboard and over a specially adapted nut at the pegbox. These strings are plain steel, and usually tuned to AE or DA. They add an attractive ringing effect to the fiddle's sound, especially good for bagpipe tunes. To further aid drone playing the fingerboard and maple bridge have a flatter radius of 60 degrees instead of the usual 48 degrees on a normal violin. The fingerboard is also shorter as the instrument is mainly played in the first or second positions.

The instrument has a spruce sound post(not found in many original vielles but for volume and tone I chose to add one here)  and a spruce bass bar. The bass bar is shorter than in a modern violin, which gives this instrument a raspier, more hollow low end.

The sound is a little different than a normal fiddle, but then it isn't a normal fiddle. It's primarily designed for droning trance like tunes, but you can play a range of irish, scottish and old time tunes on it and it handles them nicely. It can be played with a normal bow but because of the wider, flatter middle works very well with a baroque bow. I make my own simple bent stick bows from willow which works surprisingly well also.

This particular instrument is sold, but if you are interested you can a comission a similar one. Decoration is optional, just email me for details at