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Bleach Bottle Banjo

NOTE: Parental assistance is suggested for younger children

The basic idea for the banjo probably developed in Africa hundreds of years ago and transferred to the Americas during the slave trade era when simply fashioned stringed instruments were made by rural folk using whatever was at hand. This bleach bottle banjo belongs to the lute family of instruments that includes the guitar, bluegrass banjo, mandolin, and all other stringed instruments with a neck. I call this do-it-yourself project a banjo, but its design and construction are based on the traditional practice of spiking a length of wood through a sound box resonator made from materials such as a calabash, coconut shell, cigar box, or a plastic container. 

2 to 4 qt size plastic container 
30 in x I in x 2 in wood strip for the neck 
3 yards nylon fishing line (40 to 60 lb test) 
3/4 in x 2 in x 1/4 in piece of wood for bridge 
2 screw eyes or other tuner options 
2-1 in finishing nails for hitch pins 

Safety scissors 

{Two Banjo Players}









1. Cut off bottom half of plastic container. On opposite sides of container, cut trap door flaps close to the resonator playing surface so that the fingerboard fits snugly when the flaps of the container are folded out and the wood strip is inserted (see Photo 1 above). {Photo 2 - Tail end of banjo View}






2. At the tail of the instrument, hammer in hitch pins side by side so that only a small portion of the nail protrudes. (see Photo 2)  At the head of the instrument, place screw eyes so when turned they do not bump into each other. Do not screw them in too far until after strings are attached.

3. Secure fishing line strings between nails and screws. Tie knots so they will not slip when tensioning strings.

4. Insert small chunk of wood under strings for bridge. Cut shallow slots into bridge to keep strings from sliding off. {Photo 3 - Head of 3 string banjo View}





5. Add a small piece of wood next to the screw eyes (tuning pegs) for nut (see Photo 3). Also see Making Frets.

6. Tension strings by turning screw eyes into wood. Make adjustments where necessary. Strings should be fairly tight for maximum resonance.

7. Paint or decorate resonator, if desired.

Making Frets {Photo 4 - Detailed Fret View}




Add a small piece of wood (a nut) next to the tuning pegs to delineate a more precise string length between nut and bridge. Notes of a major scale can be marked on the fingerboard or make simple frets using 3/4 inch dowels flattened on one side and glued along the fingerboard at the appropriate places. The nut should be notched and should raise the strings just enough above the fingerboard to pass slightly above the first fret. If the strings bump into frets farther along the fingerboard while fingering the first three or four frets, raise the height of the bridge slightly to correct this.

To Play

Tune the strings to create whatever pitch relationship you wish. I suggest unison tuning: one string acts as a drone, the other as a melody string. After tuning, hold and strum the instrument in guitar-like fashion. By stopping the melody string along the board neck with your fingers, you can pick out scales and melodies. Making fret marks with a felt-tip pen at appropriate places along the fingerboard will help you find the scale notes. I prefer a regular do-re-mi diatonic (rather than chromatic) scale for playing simple melodies.

Used with permission of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. from GREAT FOLK INSTRUMENTS TO MAKE & PLAY by Dennis Waring, 1999 by Dennis Waring, a Sterling/Tamos Books

If you have any questions for Dr. Waring, you can contact him through ConneCT Kids at or visit the Waring Music Website at 

This material is reproduced with the permission of the author/creator and is covered by United States copyright laws. Any copies of this material should contain the author/creator's name and/or original source.


Content Last Modified on 12/28/2006 2:53:47 PM