Monday, March 16, 2020

Crafting Music | Building and Playing the Canjo

The Canjo is a one stringed instrument that uses a can as a resonator. It has a reputation for being easy to build and easy to play.

A few weeks ago, when 10 year old J was visiting us, we put these claims to the test.

Before J arrived, I'd purchased a couple of Canjo kits and a song book. Surprisingly, I was able to find all the tools we'd need for assembly around the house.

When we had a couple of hours free, we dove into the project.

On the surface, assembly looks trivial. You're doing little more than attaching a can and string to a stick. In practice, we found the build process more on the challenging side. Most of the holes are not pre-drilled, so you need to take your time and assemble with care. This complexity is far more feature than bug. We felt like we were really creating something, not just snapping together a toy. In about 30 minutes, we had the our first of two Canjo's complete. It was awesome.

Playing the thing, like assembly, looks simple. As suggested, we numbered the frets on the Canjo's neck to correspond to the song-book's instructions. In theory, to play a song all one has to do is hold down the string at the number that's listed under the word you're singing, and strum. In practice, it's tricky! Even playing slowly, it takes time to position your fingers and even then, you've got to hold down the string just right to get the best sound. Still, with practice, we were definitely able to make music!

Here's me busting out the Canjo and taking a few attempts at one of the songs in the book:

I know that's screechingly bad, but still, you can hear the tune in there right? That's music. I made music!

As my Brother David noted, the Canjo is effectively an offline version of Rock Band. And he's right; as addictive as it is to try to hit the notes when they are scrolling by on screen, it's even more so when you're the one making the music.

10 year old J really enjoyed the Canjo project, from the measuring and drilling to just noodling around on the finished instrument. If I'd had my act truly together, we'd have hit the local hardware store and would have picked up a set of tools just for him. I would have also picked up some blocks of wood we could have tested the drill and awl on. Not too long ago, it would have been normal for a 10 year old to mess around with hand tools, now it's a novel experience. Want to get your kids to put down that phone? My suggestion: buy them some power tools and other sharp implements, and have them make stuff.

Another suggestion for having a successful Canjo experience: pick up some extra strings at the time you place your order. They are cheap and we quickly broke two of four that were provided. Finally, I'd suggest picking up a digital tuner. This sounds like an extravagance, but $12 for a device which ensures your Canjo sounds as good as it can is a bargain.

So, is the Canjo easy to build and easy to play? Not for me and J it wasn't. But this lack of ease only served to make the project more rewarding. Canjos rock!

1 comment:

  1. Ben, what a fantastic project! I bet all the kiddos would love it! I absolutely recognized the song you were playing and I didn't think it sounded screechingly bad - your words, not mine - at all!