Wood-O-Phone Banjo

Chuck Waldman, Artist, MD, Banjo Maker

My idea to build a different tone chambered banjo rim started in 2003.  I hadn’t built banjos in 30 years but had continued to play Old Time and at a local dance. 

My banjo at the time was a Whyte Laydie style and I was looking for something with a deeper more resonant lower end, sweet trebles but keep the power of the Whyte Laydie.  After a few attempts, I arrived at some early versions of the Wood-o-Phone.

The heart of the Wood-o-Phone is an internal wooden tube encircling the inside of the rim just under the head.  This tube is divided by wooden partitions into a number different length chambers; each with 1 or 2 holes.  The earlier models had 2 sets of these going circling in opposite directions and meeting in the middle across the rim.  Each chamber decreased in size by 20% as they progressed around.  I used tone woods as in a guitar:  mahogany or spruce for the bottom and back and side woods (bubinga, mahogany, walnut, bloodwood, padauk, purple heart or black acacia) for the top.  The top was coved to create a tone ring. 

Last fall, I started to find some dissonant notes here and there and re-designed the chamber system.  I size them banjo backrelative to each other using the ‘rule of eighteenths’; same as the chromatic fret scale.  This is based on the scale length for that instrument. I also decreased the width and depth of the chambers a bit to get a little clearer tone.

The result is a very rich and resonant tone with a little more sustain and complexity than my other model, the ‘chromatic’ rim.  With gut strings and a real calf skin head, it is definitely a reminder that the banjo is a member of the lute family